Remarks at a Press Availability
Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom
But over 80 countries; a number of commitments to hold different events; a number of them want to hold regional events on religious freedom in their area or in their country; several of them expressing support to join the fund put forward; a number of them talking about particular statements of concern regarding the Rohingya, what’s taking place there and the – what we’ve already categorized as ethnic cleansing and more reports to come out, ethnic cleansing of primarily a religious minority.
There is one final event this evening. We’ll be at the Holocaust Museum. That’s purposeful. We both started the week and are ending it at the Holocaust Museum, reminding people that if you don’t deal with these issues, this is what it can end up being. And we’ve had genocide victims here, the Yezidis and people – Christians in northern Iraq as well to be able to comment and to testify.
So we think it’s been a spectacular success, delighted we’re getting a number of other countries signing on board to help us and to move forward with this cause, and we’re very excited about it, how it moves forward. I really think we’re at a moment where the Iron Curtain prohibiting religious freedom is coming down, and that you’re going to see a burst of freedom – of religious freedom around the world taking place. I really believe we’re at that moment in time and it’ll be a great thing. Three-fourths of the world’s people live in countries where they have some or substantial religious persecution taking place. And it’s been bad, it is bad, but I really believe that we’re at the moment of changing that.
This administration is very serious about this and we believe this is such a foundational right it will really help in other places if we can get this one right, and so this conference is a big kickoff for that. It’s a launch. It’s a launch of a partnership; it’s a launch of an alliance with governments, with nonprofit, with faith community people, and we think we’ve got a lot of energy moving forward from this one going forward.
I’m happy to take some questions that people might have. Do you want to --
MODERATOR: Great, thanks so much.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Why don’t you go ahead.
MODERATOR: Andrea, did you have a question?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Hi, Andrea.
QUESTION: Hi. What is the prospect that Turkey will actually let Pastor Brunson go – come home, not just have him in house arrest? And can you speak to the issue of the Palestinians, given the fact that there are reports that the refugee office may be closed by OMB – that’s under consideration – that refugee aid through the UN has been drastically cut, and that there doesn’t seem to be very much communication right now because of problems on both sides, but no communication really at any senior levels between the administration and the Palestinian people?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Let me take the first one. The second one, I won’t have a good, informed comment to be able to make to you. But on Pastor Brunson, I think there is excellent prospects that he’s going to come home. This issue has been raised with Turkey for some months now. It’s been raised in many forums. It’s been raised by every level of government. The President has raised the issue of Brunson with the Turkish leadership, as has the Vice President, as has the Secretary of State, as have I, as have members of the Congress. The Senate has passed a resolution on this. This has continued to build and build and build.
QUESTION: And can you --
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: And I – Turkey obviously took a step, the court did yesterday, to put him out on house arrest, which is – is an improvement, but he is not free. The charges are specious. We’ve reviewed them at length and in depth and I believe he will be coming home. Now, if the Turkish authorities continue to keep him under arrest, there will continue to be actions taken by the United States, as was announced today by the President and reiterated by the Vice President.
MODERATOR: Thanks. If we can go to Michele from NPR, please.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks. A little bit following up on what Andrea was talking about with the refugee issue, how do you square the U.S. effort to protect religious minorities with this administration’s determination to limit the number of refugees that it accepts here in the U.S.?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, the religious freedom issues that we’re pushing here are ones that unite all of us – that’s one thing I would put forward – and that if you were there, saw any of the forums that we’ve had the last couple of days, we had people of every faith and idea that were there. And everybody was pulling together, that we believe in religious freedom. We believe in religious freedom for everybody.
You heard several of the delegates say here today that we need to deal with the issue of religious freedom and that that will help people in their home countries much more, if they can practice their faith freely there. And they think – many of the delegates do; I’m stretching that. Several spoke about the need to have religious freedom as a way to be able to have people be able to stay in their home countries, as a very important issue.
So what we’re trying to do – and this may not satisfy you – but what we’re trying to do is what we did with this bill when it passed 20 years ago. Because this is a space we agree on, which is on religious freedom for everybody everywhere, and that this is an important human right. But we haven’t had the push behind it. We haven’t put enough energy or effort behind it at all to get accomplished because we’ve got three-fourths of the world living in religiously restricted atmospheres. That’s the focus, that’s the intent, and that’s what we’re going to stay on.
MODERATOR: Laurie, K24, please.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for this whole event. I’d like to ask you about your visit to Kurdistan in northern Iraq earlier this month. Can you tell us your impressions, particularly from the perspective of the position of threatened religious minorities there?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I am impressed with the resilience of the Yezidis and the Christians in that area for as far as a – a oppressed minority. They are moving back – some of them in some areas, quite a few – into some of the areas. There still isn’t sufficient security in the region. There are still Yezidis, several thousand, that are unaccounted for and are probably being held in bondage somewhere else – probably Syria. I met with heartbreaking situations with the number of Yezidi women that spoke about being sold three, seven, ten times. One woman talking about having a 15-year-old mentally challenged son of hers ripped out of her arms. Another woman saying: I’ll sell a kidney to get my child back that I don’t know where they are now.
It’s horrible. Really horrible. But you are seeing rebuilding taking place – much of it privately financed. The U.S. Government has really worked to try to get our financing more to help out and rebuilding efforts, rebuilding homes and communities in that northern Iraq area, rebuilding hospitals, water systems – all the things that ISIS destroyed.
So I’m heartened that people are moving back from those minority communities. I’m – I think the challenge remains getting enough funding to rebuild, which the U.S. Government and private sector groups are working on, and other governments are too. Hungary is in the area. But the second and the bigger one remains the security, a question which is still insufficient, which we met with the prime minister of Iraq about, met with our military leadership about as well.
MODERATOR: Right back here in the back. Could you just let us know where you’re from?
QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, Toshi from Radio Free Asia. I talked to you earlier on the first day. But the – there are 150 Tibetans who have self-immolated themselves in Tibet, shouting for their religious leader to come back to Tibet. So what – you have told – the Mr. Secretary always told that they are focusing on the concrete action. So what would be the concrete action that you could go and see by yourself or the ambassadors or representative from the United States Government?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thank you. We had a number of Tibetan Buddhists testify and speak here, and people that have experienced the persecution that’s taken place for years in Tibet. And they were here – what we are working on doing and pulling together is an international consortium to press China about religious freedom. This is one of the position papers that have been put forward. It’s Tibetan Buddhists, it’s Uighur Muslims, Christian house church leaders, Falun Gong – there’s a whole series, and this has been going on for some period of time. We’re trying to do is get that international coalition pulling together to push on the Chinese Government to let people practice their faith freely as they see fit. We’re not asking for anything beyond a basic human right, a basic human right in the 1948 UN treaty, that this is your right to pick to worship as you see fit.
We had a video presentation by the Dalai Lama at the seminar as well. He’s getting older and it’s more difficult for him to travel. A number of us have met with him over the years many times, and he’s probably the best spokesman, one of the best spokesmen in the world for religious freedom. And he spoke via video at this, but we’re going to continue to press that issue and press it with the Chinese Government and build an alliance, build a series of allies like out of the group that’s here today, to press the Chinese for this basic human right for Tibetans and for the rest of the people of China.
MODERATOR: This will have to be our last question. Adelle, please.
QUESTION: Hello, Adelle Banks from Religion News Service. I was wondering how you work on this upholding the U.S. principle of separation of church and state, even as you seek to have religious leaders and government officials from around the world work on reducing religious persecution. And if I may, I also wondered if you could say, for that international religious freedom fund, if you have received any donations yet and if so, how many countries or other organizations have said they’re interested or have already said, “We’ll give.”
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: On that second piece of it, I’ve heard during the delegation presentation one country said something. But I haven’t been there during all of them, and several of them are still determining what they’re going to do. That’s on the governmental piece we ask, and also to raise private sector funds to help out as well. Your first question, I didn’t quite understand the character of it, so please --
QUESTION: In our country, we are known for the principle of separation of church and state, and now you have people from all sorts of states globally and all sorts of religions that you’re trying to have work together, and I’m just wondering how you relate those two things.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, and I hope I’m getting to the heart of your question. My intent is to do that. The United States – you know this nation; it’s founded on religious freedom. We believe that countries around the world – the role of the government is to protect the right to religious freedom, that’s the government’s role. It’s not to pick a winner or loser; it’s not to say we favor this faith or that faith or whatever the case might be. It’s to protect the right. You have a right to religious freedom to do as you choose with your own soul, period. And that’s what we are pushing, and we think that’s fully consistent with separation of church and state, is that the government’s role in this is to protect the right, and that that’s work we’re going to continue to pursue.
And it’s also – it’s the safe space for a government to be in, to protect the right. It’s also the best place for you to be in if you want to grow your economy and if you want more security. We now have studies coming out that – societies that protect this right have more economic growth, you have more diversity, you release more – what some would refer to as a type of spiritual capital where you have faith groups that come in and put schools in and hospitals and things like that that governments like to have, but have hard time raising funds for. And you also have more security; you have less terrorism. More religious freedom leads to less terrorism, and that’s now in the academic data. So we’re pushing it with governments that it’s not only just this foundational human right, which it is; it’s also good for your growth, it’s good for your security, it’s good for your future.
Thank you all very much for being here.
MODERATOR: Ambassador Brownback, thank you.