Briefing on the Release of the 2017 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom

Special Briefing
Sam Brownback, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom
Washington, DC
May 29, 2018


AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I want to thank Secretary Pompeo. I’m grateful to him, to President Trump, Vice President Pence, the administration for their effort in defending religious freedom. As he announced and stated, it’s a top priority of this administration. I also am very proud of my incredible team in the Office of International Religious Freedom – several of them are here today – and the work and the job that they’ve done. I’ll also point out to you former congressman Frank Wolf is here, who the act is named after; the 2016 Religious Freedom Act is named the Frank Wolf Religious Freedom Act. He’s been a wonderful friend and a mentor.

The International Religious Freedom Report is the annual assessment of the state of religious freedom in our world today. We all have a stake in this fight. One person’s bondage is another person’s burden to break. We’re all people with beautiful and undeniable human dignity. Our lives are sacred. Our right to choose the road our conscience takes is inalienable.

We report on what has occurred and been said around the world. We don’t make judgment calls in this report of what’s worthy to report or not. We just report it all. There are people killed in the world today for their faith. There are people denied access to work or medicine for their beliefs. There are more subtle forms, as well, of persecution. We report it all, without comment or analysis.

Our goal is to protect the freedom of conscience for all people. That means protecting a Muslim, Buddhist, Falun Gong practitioner, or Christian in China and their ability to pray and live out their life. That means protecting a blogger in the Middle East, who doesn’t believe that his government might – what his government might believe. Our desire is to protect both – to protect everyone’s right to freely practice what they believe.

We’ve been doing that by working with other federal agencies, the NGO community, the Hill, and with other governments so that we can effectively advocate for those who need it most. My office hosts a weekly roundtable to meet with stakeholders to discuss concerns from all over the world, and I’d invite you to participate in that.

As the Secretary mentioned, we’re now 20 years after the International Religious Freedom Act was originally passed. I was pleased to be an original sponsor of that in the Senate. We’ve seen progress, but there is much, much work to be done.

Secretary Pompeo noted some of the more troubling cases around the world, including the plight of the Rohingya and now the Kachin in Burma. I visited several of the refugee camps in Bangladesh about a month ago. The situation is dire. We must do more to help them, as they continue to be targeted for their faith.

Also was at the Andrew Brunson trial in Turkey. I’m grateful for the President and the Vice President and the Secretary’s leadership on this. We will all continue to raise this case every chance we get until he is released. There are way too many Andrew Brunsons held unfairly in prisons around the world.

And unfortunately, there are plenty of other countries we could mention that are covered in the report.

For instance, Eritrea. The government reportedly killed, arrested, and tortured religious adherents and coerced individuals into renouncing their faith. And Tajikistan continues to prohibit minors from even participating in any religious activities.

Saudi Arabia does not recognize the right of non-Muslims to practice their religion in public and imprisons, lashes, and fines individuals for apostasy, blasphemy, and insulting the state’s interpretation of Islam. In Turkmenistan, individuals who gather for worship without registering with the government face arrest, detention, and harassment.

All four are Countries of Particular Concern, or CPC countries, designations that are also vital tools meant to spur action.

We also remain very concerned about religious freedom or the lack thereof in Pakistan, where some 50 individuals are serving life sentences for blasphemy, according to civil society reports. Seventeen are awaiting execution. And in Russia, authorities target peaceful religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, equating them with terrorists.

I’d welcome engagement with these and any governments on urgently needed reforms.

So today, 20 years after Congress passed the original International Religious Freedom Act, we’ve made important progress, but for far too many, the state of religious freedom is dire. We have to work together to accomplish change.

This report is a critical, important report, but strong action must follow. We must move religious freedom forward. We must defend it in every corner of the globe. And that’s why the Secretary is hosting the first ever Ministerial on Advancing Religious Freedom.

Two key objectives of the Trump administration are reduction of terrorism and growing the economy. With religious freedom, you get both of them. It is also a fundamental human right under assault in much of the world.

The problems are great, but the opportunity for change is too. The ministerial will be an important event. We look forward to working with other governments and our partners in the religious community and civil society to advance this fundamental right.

I’d be happy to take some questions, and I think Heather is going to be calling on people.

MS NAUERT: All right. We’ll start with Josh Lee from – Lederman, pardon me – from the Associated Press.

QUESTION: I think you merged our two colleagues.

MS NAUERT: I merged your names. Apologies. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Sure.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask about the information in the report about up to 120,000 political prisoners in North Korea, including some held for religious reasons. Do you feel that that issue should be raised as part of the upcoming potential bilateral meeting with the U.S. and North Korea, and do you expect that it will be a topic of conversation with the North Koreans?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, in a sense it already has with the three people that were released that the Secretary brought back, and I do expect the – the President is right on point on North Korea. He’s very engaged on this, as you know. The Secretary is very engaged on this. And I think they’re raising all of these issues. But the first three people they brought out were people that had been imprisoned in North Korea, and so this is a matter of discussion.

MS NAUERT: Okay, next question, Lesley from Reuters.

QUESTION: Hi. Good morning.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Good morning.

QUESTION: You said you had been to Myanmar and you had raised --

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: No, I’ve been to Bangladesh.

QUESTION: Sorry, you’d been to Bangladesh.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yes.

QUESTION: And I understand that you had not been given a visa to go into Myanmar. As we know, the USAID administrator has just been there and he got access. But do you think that there have been any kinds of progress made in resolving this issue?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I had asked for access into Myanmar and to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi or – and to go into northern Rakhine State, where the problems have been most acute, although there’s plenty of problems in various places in Myanmar. And I was denied those accesses. So they might have let me in, but they weren’t allowing me to have the meetings or access to the places I needed to go.

I don’t think you’ve seen progress taking place there in the country. If anything, the administration there is doubling now its effort and going after the Kachin in the northern part of the country, and the refugee numbers are increasing in the northern part now of Burma.

So you’ve got the continued situation of the Rohingya, which is desperate, and the rainy season is now on us. When I was there you had 38 kids that had been killed, had died of diphtheria. I thought we were done with that. And they – you had – once there I randomly – there was about 20 young children that had gathered around me, and I asked randomly five of them what they had seen. Of the five, four had seen a direct close family member killed, and the fifth had seen a brother wounded. This is in a random grouping. It’s a terrible situation that requires the world’s attention. There is a lot of world attention on it, but I think there needs to be more action from the world.

MS NAUERT: Andrea Mitchell, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Ambassador, Senator.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Good to see you.

QUESTION: Good to see you again. A question to follow up on Josh: Do we have any insights from the North Koreans into the conditions for these 80- to 120,000 political and religious prisoners from all of these increased communications with the North? Have they given us any answers at all about the conditions in their prisons?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, I can’t answer what the President is getting from there. I can tell you what I have seen and what we have in the report.

QUESTION: What do we know?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yes, what we know is that you’ve got a gulag system operating in North Korea, and it’s been a terrible situation for many – for many years. You can go on satellite, open-source satellite, and see some of these camps and the situation. You have people that have gotten out and have written about the situation in North Korea. We know it is – we know it’s very difficult and desperate, and particularly for people of faith. That’s why North Korea has remained a Country of Particular Concern for us.

QUESTION: Well, should this be linked to an overall normalization of relations, which is the end goal, as well as, of course, denuclearization?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, I’m going to let the President, who has the direct – who’s doing an outstanding job on this of elevating and dealing with the issue. I remember when I was back in the Senate, I was raising the issue of North Korea at that time, but you couldn’t get anybody to act. Well, this President is acting and he’s taking this issue on even though it’s threatened us for years if not decades.

MS NAUERT: Okay, Michele Kelemen from NPR.

QUESTION: I’m way in the back. Thank you. Who is going to be invited to this ministerial meeting? What’s your goal out of that? I mean, are you going to invite Countries of Particular Concern, for instance?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, we’re – there’ll be people invited and the invitations will go out soon from all over and every region of the world, and it will be mostly likeminded countries, or it’ll be ones that are working towards a greater religious freedom now in their nation. We’ll work to get some actionable items coming forward out of it and also follow-on meetings.

The intent is really to drive the issue of religious freedom more aggressively globally, and the outcomes are really twofold that we intend to get out of it: less terrorism, more economic growth. And then just this realization of this fundamental human right that a – over 70 percent of the world doesn’t get to experience, which is their right to do with their conscience what they choose.

MS NAUERT: Michel --

QUESTION: But are the countries that are on the list of concern, are they going to be invited?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: You’ll see as the people are invited.

MS NAUERT: Michel from Al Hurra.

QUESTION: Thank you so much for your time. How do you view the religious freedom situation in the Middle East, other than Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Yemen?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, Iran has been a Country of Particular Concern for some period of time since the report started. You have great difficulty in many countries in the Middle East in the area of religious freedom. That’s all noted in the report. You’ve – I noted the situation in Saudi Arabia. Iran – we hear and see horrific reports coming out of Iran on the lack of religious freedom and the persecution of people that aren’t in the majority faith stream and practicing as the government directs, and we see a radical export of that philosophy as well out of Iran and trouble in many other countries in the Middle East.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Rich Edson from Fox News.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Ambassador. As the United States engages in primarily economic conversations with China, how much does its religious freedom practices play into the discussions of what the United States pushes? Is it a factor at all?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: It is a factor, and these are parts of the discussion that we continue to bring forward and put forward. We noted in the report what’s taking place and the very troubling situation, particularly one right now that – the Uighurs and the problem that they’re experiencing in the country and the number of people in re-education camps. That was a concept you thought was gone decades ago and being experienced in a growing amount. The report cites a number of very, very troubling concerns and a decline in religious freedom. So that’s why we put it forward in this report for greater action to take place.

I’ve been meeting with people in the administration and on the Hill about what’s happening there, about the situation for Tibetan Buddhists that continues to be a very difficult situation for them, for Christians, for Falun Gong practitioners. China remains a very, very troubling country on religious freedom. And those are noted and put forward and discussed within the administration.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Nick Wadhams from Bloomberg.

QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Ambassador. Do you believe the U.S. authority to issue this report is undermined in any way by the fact that the President called for a Muslim ban in 2016 during the campaign and as recently as a month ago at a press conference at the White House refused to apologize or retract those remarks?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: No, I don’t think it is. We put forward in the report everything that’s happening around the world and we report it without favor or analysis. So we put that forward. The United States doesn’t report on itself because the statutory authority doesn’t allow us, but we do report to OSCE and other entities internationally that we’re a part of on our things that happen here. But I think there’s – there are good working relationships that continue to work with the administration and we continue to work with as well.

MS NAUERT: Carol Morello from The Washington Post.

QUESTION: Mr. Brownback, you mentioned that you will be pushing religious freedom more aggressively going forward. And as you know, Saudi Arabia is a Country of Particular Concern. The previous secretary of state issued a waiver for that designation as a national security concern. I was wondering if you will recommend that Secretary Pompeo going forward not waive sanctions against Saudi Arabia as a Country of Particular Concern over religious freedom.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I’m not going to say here today what my recommendations will or won’t be on Saudi Arabia. I’m pleased with what I am hearing said by the crown prince about a trajectory going forward for Saudi Arabia. We want to work to see that these are implemented. I note what’s taking place today in Saudi Arabia, but I’m hopeful that we can work to see more religious freedom taking place in Saudi Arabia.

For years, we’ve reported on the state of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. Today, I think we have some actual opportunities for that state to change and for it to get much better. Now we’ll see how the – we have to see the actions. As I mentioned, this is a report, but action needs to follow. And I’m – but I’m hopeful you’re going to start seeing change coming out of that country and that you are starting to see change come out of Saudi Arabia.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Francesco – I think you had a question – from AFP.

QUESTION: Yeah. I just wanted to know, coming back on Burma and the Rohingyas, you say that they are still targeted for their faith. Would you still say that some ethnic cleansing is going on in – now in Burma?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: That ethnic cleansing is going on?

QUESTION: Now.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yes, yes. I mean, that’s the – Secretary Tillerson had announced the finding of ethnic cleansing, and I believe it’s ethnic cleansing of a religious minority that’s taking place. You continue to see, as I noted, a horrific situation that fortunately has been reported on in Bangladesh of all the refugees coming out, and the international community and the international press has done a great job reporting this.

Unfortunately, now you’re even seeing them step up again in the north, in the Kachin area, and the number of refugees there has increased in recent – in recent weeks as the fighting there has expanded of another ethnic religious minority being pushed out of the country and their normal areas.

This is going to require a lot of, I think, focus on the international community. Fortunately, the international community is focusing, but I think it’s going to require action and I think you’ll see more action coming.

MS NAUERT: Okay, a couple more questions. Said, go right ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for doing this, sir. I wanted to ask about religious minorities in Iraq. Although with the defeat of ISIS, let’s say the Yezidis and the sabaya are breathing a little better and practicing a little more, but how do you keep track of their situation considering that there are a lot of conflicting militias and the government and so on still restricting their access to doing their own rituals and so on?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, as you know, that’s been declared a genocide by the United States, and fortunately, ISIS has been mostly if not all removed from that region, and ISIS prior to this administration coming in had 30 percent of the terrain in Iraq and now it’s virtually out, which has been an enormously helpful thing for the religious minority communities, particularly in that Nineveh plains region. And now some of the rebuilding has started. The administration has focused aid into that religious minority region to get it rebuilt. Some people are starting to move back, but not enough, and security needs to increase and the aid funds need to go into those areas to help rebuild that region.

So I’m happy we’ve got started and it’s focused, that ISIS has been mostly removed if not all removed from that region, but we’ve got a ways to go before the religious minority community is going to be back in any substantial, stable way into that Nineveh plains region. There’s some going back now, but we’ve – we need to get – we need to make it a much more stable environment for them to be willing to move back and not see themselves as being scared or risking their lives just to move home.

MS NAUERT: Michelle Kosinski from CNN.

QUESTION: Thank you. There’s been – as you said, the world has started to focus on the situation in Burma, but that tends to be after the fact.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yes.

QUESTION: And essentially, the world stood by while the greater part of this ethnic cleansing was going on. So twice now you’ve mentioned that there should be more action. What action should the U.S. be doing now in addition to the aid given to refugees?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I think we need to be more aggressive in following on our statements, and I think you’re starting to see that from this administration. You see the aid focus in the Nineveh plains region to address a situation. In Burma you’ve got a situation that – and the refugees that I met with had the most horrific stories of any refugees I have talked to anywhere around the world, and that includes when Frank and I went into Darfur, in other places. Just the thoroughness of the violence that took place, and their discussions of what further actions need to take place there by the United States and the global community.

The United States, I don’t – we are best when we can operate with other like-minded partners. That’s a big part of what this ministerial is about, is putting together other like-minded partners on the issue of religious freedom, and about it being a fundamental right, but also – and I don’t think I can emphasize this enough – we seek a world with less terrorism and more economic growth. You get both with religious freedom. And what we are going to be talking about with our like-minded countries is how you do get both of these with religious freedom, and to press this forward aggressively, and to build those consortiums and those alliances amongst various countries in the world that this is a fundamental good, it’s a fundamental right. You’ve signed on all the treaties that declare religious freedom a fundamental right. Now it needs to be practiced and practiced in your country. There will be benefits from this, and we need to go together to practice, to push other countries to allow their people to practice this fundamental right. And that’s what I mean, too, about actions taking place in consortium with other countries.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Final question, Tracy Wilkinson from The L.A. Times.

QUESTION: Hi. Yeah, thank you. Just to follow up on my colleagues’ question: Specifically, will Saudi Arabia be invited to the ministerial? And second – sorry. And second of all, what do you say to those who – the critics who say this administration is sort of elevating religious freedom over other kinds of human rights like women’s rights and reproductive rights and Palestinian rights and all those other issues that had been focus of administrations past?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: We’re not announcing today the invitation list. We’re going to be sending invitations out. And I would say that this is a foundational human right that this administration is supporting. You do religious freedom and a whole series of better human rights come out of it. It – this is the – this is a foundational piece, is what I would answer some of those who’d be critical of it. There is a reason it’s in these foundational documents, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the UN in the late ’40s, why it’s our First Amendment right – because it’s – that right of conscience is as – is that fundamental right. And then out of that you get a whole series of rights that get enhanced and do better when you get this foundational one right.

When you get the foundational one wrong, you really can’t build on the structure. And that’s why I think this one needs to be promoted and pushed more, and why you also saw in the Frank Wolf Religious Freedom Act a unanimous action by both houses, and both Republican houses, and signed by a Democrat president as one of the last acts of the Obama administration.

So this is something we all agree on, that it’s foundational and it’s important, and it needs to be pushed forward, and out of it much good will come.

MS NAUERT: Everyone, thank you so much. Ambassador, thank you so much for the report and for taking questions. We’ll see you later today.