Briefing on Religious Freedom Designations
Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom
MS THOMPSON: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you very much for joining us for today’s on-the-record briefing on the rollout of the religious freedom designations. Leading our discussion today will be the State Department’s Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Ambassador Sam Brownback. Ambassador Brownback will start us off with brief remarks, and then we’ll take a few questions from you.
Ambassador Brownback, I’ll go ahead and turn it over to you.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thanks, Nicole. Appreciate that. And thank you all for joining us on this line. Religious freedom is a key foreign policy initiative and issue for the Trump administration. We are serious about it. We hosted the first-ever ministerial on religious freedom earlier this year. We will do another one this next year. We’re working with a series of countries around the world to push religious freedom issues in regional meetings as well.
Earlier today, the Secretary – Secretary Pompeo – publicly announced his designation of Countries of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act. Countries of Particular Concern are those nations that have allowed or conducted severe, ongoing, egregious, systematic violations of religious freedom. The list this year includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The Secretary also placed Comoros, Russia, and Uzbekistan on a special Watch List for governments that have engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
It’s worth noting that for the first time since 2006, Uzbekistan is not a Country of Particular Concern.
Those countries placed on the special Watch List is a category where we are basically telling nations if they don’t change their course of action, they could well end up on the Country of Particular Concern list.
Finally, the Secretary designated al-Nusrah Front, al-Qaida, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, ISIS, ISIS-Khorasan, and the Taliban as Entities of Particular Concern, as provided for, again, under the International Religious Freedom Act. These designations are a tool and key part of our effort to advance religious freedom. There have been a number of people involved in this process to put these designations out and forward.
Religious freedom needs to move forward in the world. Unfortunately, 80 percent of the world’s population lives in a country where there’s some type of religious freedom restrictions, in some cases very significant. The ones – the countries we’ve listed today are the most egregious violators of religious freedom around the world.
It’s also important to note that most countries have signed on to the UN Charter Declaration of Human Rights, which turns 70 this year. And in that charter, it provides for religious freedom, and the countries that signed on to that charter signed on to guarantee religious freedom. And yet most people in the world live in countries where there’s significant religious freedom restrictions.
We cite the worst violators today. We are hopeful that people around the world, governments around the world, will work more aggressively to provide religious freedom for their people, and we are committed as the Trump administration to see this on through.
With that, be happy to open up for questions as Nicole calls on people.
OPERATOR: Our first question is from the line of Shaun Tandon with AFP. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this call. I wanted to ask you about Pakistan and the reason for the designation. Do you see it as there being a degradation in the past year? And how do you think this affects the situation in Pakistan? We recently had the case of Asia Bibi, the supreme court order for her release.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, Pakistan has been a country people have watched for some period of time. Most recently, the prior Secretary of State, Secretary Tillerson, put them on the special Watch List to warn Pakistan really at the time that if they didn’t change their behavior, they were likely to be a Country of Particular Concern. And the current Secretary, Pompeo, made that determination and then made them a Country of Particular Concern.
It includes a number of things, unfortunately, that have happened in Pakistan – laws that criminalize blasphemy. And they’ve got – in the world’s population of people that are in prison for blasphemy, half of them are in Pakistani prisons, including Asia Bibi recently, who was recently released and is now awaiting a re-hearing of sorts by the supreme court of Pakistan. Also, the Pakistani Government criminalizes the identification of Ahmadis as Muslims, and then also – and this one has really been difficult and troubling for a lot of people – the government often fails to hold accountable perpetrators of killings and violence against members of religious minorities targeted on account of their religious beliefs or affiliations.
So for all these reasons, that’s why they were placed as a Country of Particular Concern. It’s our hope that they will – the new leadership in Pakistan will work to improve the situation. There was some encouraging signs seen recently on how they’ve handled some of the recent protesting against the blasphemy laws, and we continue to watch very carefully what’s happening to Asia Bibi.
MS THOMPSON: Okay, we’re ready for our next question.
OPERATOR: And that’s from the line of Kelsey Dallas with Deseret News. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. As you mentioned, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights protects religious freedom; and I was just curious: Does the United Nations join with the United States in condemning this list of countries?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: To my knowledge, the United Nations doesn’t have a process like the statute, the International Religious Freedom Act, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t create a process, and I would encourage them to do that. When we hosted this first-ever ministerial on religious freedom, brought together 84 countries from around the world to talk about it, it was really the first big gathering of nations in recent decades around the topic of religious freedom. It’s my hope that the UN does pick this up.
We work with the UN special rapporteur on religious freedom in several places around the world, so we’ll work with the UN, do work with the UN. But to my knowledge, they don’t have a process where they do a listing, a fact-finding on religious freedom, but I hope that they will engage that.
OPERATOR: Next we’ll go the line of Abigail Williams with NBC News. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, Ambassador. Thanks so much for doing the call.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Sure.
QUESTION: Could you speak a little more about what it – what the significance is of placing Russia on the Watch List, and what consequences exist for them because of it?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Russia has engaged in and tolerated really severe violations of religious freedoms. The widespread suppression of religious expression following their 2016 law criminalizing illegal missionary activity, they’ve included 156 cases reported by NGOs targeting groups as wide-ranging as the Salvation Army, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Lutherans, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Ukrainian Reformed Orthodox Church. They’re prosecuting members of certain Muslim groups. They’ve got 145 current prisoners jailed for religious beliefs, and 106 of those are Muslims. They really have targeted and stepped up their oppression.
The significance of it is that we’re saying to Russia that if you don’t change this trajectory, it’s bad for you as a country, but then it may well be that it will make you a Country of Particular Concern, which can involve then sanctions involved in nations where they are deemed or determined to be Countries of Particular Concern.
I’d also, Abigail, if I could say this as a bit of a sidebar, but this report we put out there as telling people these are the worst actors, countries in the world. On the other side of it, if you will engage in religious freedom, our studies are showing you’re going to have less terrorism long-term and you’re going to have more economic growth. A freer society is one less prone and moved and pushed really towards terrorism and one more open to economic reform. That’s why Uzbekistan, for the first time since 2006, is off the list. They’ve made substantial changes, and they’re doing it because they want to grow their nation. They want to see less terrorism, and they see this as a key route to really improving the livelihood of people throughout their nation, which we agree with, and we’re working with them.
OPERATOR: Next is the line of Jennifer Hansler with CNN. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi there. Thank you for doing the call. I just wanted to check, following up on your mention of sanctions, are you encouraging sanctions on any of these nations? And if so, what does the timeline look like on that?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: What we are doing – in the Countries of Particular Concern, the statute provides for a list of sanctions. Some of them can be double-hatted – you’ll notice several countries on there that we have problems with – or the sanctions can be waived by the President, based upon national interest. And we’ve got a mix in this group. We’ve got some of the countries are being sanctioned. Most of them are double-hatted sanctions; actually all of them are double-hatted sanctions. And then some of the countries are not being sanctioned and being waived – the sanctions on them are being waived because of national interest. So that’s kind of the – that’s what happens and the process under it.
If you’d like, Jennifer, I can go through which ones are in which categories here. Let’s – let me take the next question, and then I want to pull the list up here of which ones are having double-hatted sanctions and which ones are being deemed a country of national interest and so the sanctions are waived. But let’s go to the next question, then I’ll double back to that.
OPERATOR: And that’s Conor Finnegan with ABC News. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, Ambassador. I know that Burma’s been listed again, but the administration has still made no legal determination on whether the violence against the Rohingya has been a genocide. Has the administration entirely ruled out that determination or is it something that’s still under consideration? And then could you just talk a little bit more about China and the oppression of the Uighurs out west, and the concerns that you have about that?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yes, happy to. And I don’t know the further consideration on Burma, further actions. You do know, obviously, the administration’s been speaking very strongly against the situation, the Vice President, the Secretary, Ambassador Haley at the UN, myself. I’ve been there to Bangladesh to the refugee camps. We recently sanctioned five Burmese generals and two military units. Prior, Secretary Tillerson designated it ethnic cleansing, and so it continues to be a highly watched and very keen area of interest, what’s taking place to the Rohingya and to other religious communities. The Kachin and Karen are also ones that are being persecuted in that nation, and all those together are reasons we obviously put them as a Country of Particular Concern on the list.
Regarding China, this is one of the just really worst human rights situations in the world, what’s happening to the Uighurs. And latest reports I read in one of the international newspapers was seeing it spread to adjacent provinces. But it’s a very bad situation for a religious community. Just yesterday, the Early Rain Church – news was coming out in Chengdu – it was raided, a number of people arrested. Put out strong statements about that. The treatments of Muslims, of Christians, of the Buddhists, over a long period of time in Tibet – have been persecuted to the point where a number of Tibetan Buddhists have self-immolated. And Falun Gong practitioners have been persecuted systemically for a long period of time. So for all those reasons – this is one of the obvious ones – we’ve kept China on a Country of Particular Concern.
My particular concern now for China is they’ve increased these actions of persecution against faith community. Reports of 800,000, up to 2 million detentions in the western part of China of Uighurs, but also ethnic Kazakhs and other ethnic groups in the region that have generally a Muslim-based population. China isn’t backing away from the religious persecution; it seems to be expanding. This is obviously very troubling to the administration.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I was going to go back to your list here. Those countries that were listed and sanctions placed on them include Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, and Sudan. Note, all those are what we call double-hatted sanctions. They’re sanctioned in other areas, but also will be considered sanctioned under the CPC. Saudi Arabia was – is in the waived category, along with Pakistan, on a national interest area. I believe those are my only other two. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are both waived as well under national interest, just to get that cleared up for the prior question.
OPERATOR: Next we go to the line of Laurie Mylroie with Kurdistan 24. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador, for doing this. My question concerns designating ISIS as an entity of particular concern, ISIS and other terrorist groups. Can you explain the significance of that?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: This was a new tool put forward in the Frank Wolf Act was to allow entities of particular concern. And what the Congress is providing in this tool was a way to identify non-state actors, because often those are some of the most egregious violators of religious freedom. Witness what ISIS did in northern Iraq, committing a genocide against the Yezidis and the Christian community that was there. And I thought this was a wise tool for the Congress to put in, because it is that way. Some of these non-state actors are some of the most egregious violators of religious freedom.
So the significance is to really put that forward in the world, show that there is a sanctioning provision that can have some impact. But it’s more of an identification that these are some significantly bad actors that have taken place, as why they’re designated an entity of particular concern.
OPERATOR: Next is the line of Jessica Donati with Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello. Thank you for doing this. I was wondering if you could go into a little bit more detail about the statement they – these countries will be considered for sanctions. What kind of sanctions and is this new sanctions?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: It is not a new set of – the – any country that’s a Country of Particular Concern is subject to a series of sanctions under the International Religious Freedom Act. What has taken place, what – identified in the prior question – is some of the countries, the sanctions were dual-hatted. They were sanctioned under other statutes, sometime on arms control, export of arms control, loan or aid programs. And those dual-hatted sanctions were continued under the CPC, the Country of Particular Concern. Some of the countries – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia – the sanctions were waived under national interest. And – but there can be other sanctions put in place, but to date what we’ve done on these is just – is dual-hat a series of sanctions in some of these countries that were already in place. No new sanctions were put forward.
OPERATOR: Next we’ll go to the line of Michel Ghandour with MBN. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. The Secretary has said in his statement that the United States will not stand by as spectators in the face of such oppression. What can the U.S. do other than designating these countries and imposing sanctions?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, you saw the President address very strongly the situation of Andrew Brunson in Turkey. When the Turkish Government held him unlawfully for two years, the President put steel and aluminum tariffs on Turkey, and it had a substantial impact on their currency and economy, and he was eventually let free. So there are other steps that can be taken. What we’re announcing today is what was required by the statute for us to designate a legal determination of Countries of Particular Concern, but this administration will be very aggressive on pushing these causes and issues.
The Vice President made a major speech on China a month ago and human rights and religious freedom concerns taking place in China, which have only grown since that period of time. So what we’re doing today is our statutory requirement to put these out, but further actions can follow, and good chance will follow in several of these cases.
OPERATOR: Next we go to line of Yeon Lee with Voice of America. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. North Korea has been on the list for 17 years. I wonder, is there any signs of change in North Korea?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: The President has engaged North Korea like nobody else has before, and I’ve been around watching this space for a couple of decades. So I don’t know that you can say that there’s been substantial changes to date taking place there, but a substantial engagement has happened. Secretary Pompeo has been over and negotiated and met with his North Korean counterparts multiple times. They did let free the three people that the Secretary flew back to the United States. These are ongoing and very pointed discussions that are taking place with North Korea, and I believe we’re getting things – that we’re seeing things start to move in some positive direction.
But much remains to be done, and as you’ll recall, there have been – administrations in the past have engaged on North Korea not at the level or the intensity of this one. It’s a difficult country to deal with.
MS THOMPSON: Okay, Leah, I think we have time for one more call, one more question.
OPERATOR: Very good. It’s the line of Soyoung Kim with RFA. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for having me here. I have a following question regarding North Korea. Like you said, even though we probably saw some substantial engagement, but can you say that it really has to do with the freedom of religion in North Korea? Because a lot of reports said that they always see North Korea the – one of the worst countries with the religious freedom.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I’m not sure I understand quite the question that you’re – what you’re getting at with it. If you could restate that, if you would.
QUESTION: Okay. I’ll just give you different question, then. So is there any other actual actions that Department of State can take to improve the worst situation of freedom of religion in North Korea in the future?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yes, there are additional steps that can be taken in North Korea. I mean, I’m pleased that several of the activists were brought out by the Secretary. At least one of them was a person of faith that came out. I was pleased that we had the remains of a number of U.S. servicemen were returned. That’s something that was very meaningful to us, to have those.
And I think really us pushing this issue of religious freedom and what happens to religious prisoners in North Korea can help effect change in North Korea. We had a lady that got out of North Korea, spoke at our religious freedom summit or ministerial that we had. She had powerful testimony of – she was put in prison because she had a Bible. She was given a forced abortion as well without anesthesia. And she had powerful testimony, and that testimony went global. And as those stories get out of people, then others around the world look at it and say, what is going on here that they are doing this to people, particularly people of faith. Often if you are North Korean and you have contact with somebody of a religious organization, you’re put in a prison camp and given the harshest treatment, is what our reports have been told – what we’ve been told that we put in our reports. I think as you shine light on that, it does help. It helped in the former Soviet Union era during the refuseniks time period, and I think that shining of light will help change North Korea.
Want to thank you all for joining us on this call and your interest in this topic. It is a key foreign policy issue for the administration, as I said at the outset, and we’ll continue to press this issue, and we’ll be doing another, as I stated, ministerial on religious freedom this coming year. Thank you for joining us. God bless you all.
MS THOMPSON: Thank you, Ambassador Brownback, and thank you, everyone, for joining us. Have a great afternoon.