Opening Remarks at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom
Deputy Secretary of State
Well, good morning, everyone. On behalf of Secretary Pompeo, whom you will see later in this forum, I’m delighted to welcome you to the Department of State for the second day of this first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. It’s an honor for me to address this distinguished gathering of civil society leaders and advocates.
Yesterday’s discussion focused on equipping civil society with the tools to get the resources you need to facilitate your important work. Today is all about listening to you so that we can better understand the threats to religious freedom around the world and improve our protection of this precious right. You are the first line of defense and often the first support network to those who are persecuted or attacked. Please know we stand with you. You are vigilant to report violations to our government and to others, and we hear you. And you are staunch advocates so that no person or government can silence with impunity another individual or group for living out their faith. We defend you.
So thank you for your commitment, thank you for the risks you take for this cause, and thank you for being here today to help us better defend and promote religious freedom around the world.
Religious freedom is vitally important to the United States and to the Trump administration. Indeed, religious freedom is fundamental to our democracy. It holds us together. Whatever our differences may be, we are unified in having the freedom to differ. Our Bill of Rights clearly and powerfully protects individual liberties, including, first, the freedom of religion, followed by the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of peaceable assembly.
Religious freedom is in our DNA and it is close to my heart, as Ambassador Brownback said. I am the grandson of Irish Catholic immigrants who arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, in the 1880s. When they arrived and for many decades that followed, Catholics faced widespread prejudice. And something that Ambassador Brownback said in his opening remarks caught my attention, and that is our coming together. What helped my grandparents and their fellow immigrants who came to the United States was they had each other, they had a community, they had people who came together – even if they were persecuted, they had each other, and that was what sustained them. And ultimately, when I grew up in the 1960s, we had an Irish Catholic, John F. Kennedy, from my home state of Massachusetts, run for president in 1960, when he gave a prominent speech to reassure the nation that his faith was compatible with the duties of the office of the president. And as we all know, our country responded and agreed with him and elected him president of the United States.
Throughout my life, I’ve made it a point to work in support of individual liberty, including religious freedom. And I’m glad to say that my passion for this important work is shared throughout this administration by vibrant leaders like the President himself, Vice President Pence, Secretary Pompeo, and of course Ambassador Brownback, who is such a forceful figure and a vigorous and effective advocate for the protection and promotion of religious freedom. (Applause.)
The fact that the United States cares deeply about religious freedom is manifest by this very ministerial itself. Respect for the human dignity of every person, regardless of religious belief, is a key component in not only protecting human rights but ultimately to fostering a society that can flourish, building upon each other’s strengths and moving forward together.
Religious tolerance is a key building block of peace and security. It is the mark of responsible governance. Inter-faith understanding, respect, and the protection of religious freedom and other human rights are bulwarks against extremism. Tomorrow Secretary Pompeo and the Vice President will echo that point as they each address foreign delegations from more than 80 countries on concrete actions to protect religious minorities, defend religious freedom, and to create a world where every person can fully enjoy their God-given right to believe what they want.
All governments must prioritize protecting religious freedom and belief, and in working toward that end, we need you. Your voices and your support are critical to this important message so that it spreads wide and takes root. Please continue your courageous work to expose religious persecution and discrimination.
Our first plenary session today is an opportunity to expose that persecution and discrimination that so many across the world face, and it gives us an opportunity to define the challenges that surround us. Survivors of genocide and religious persecution are sharing their experiences throughout this ministerial to point us in the direction of solutions. The problem is very real. To defeat it, we must speak openly, plainly, and honestly. That’s the only way we can stop it, the only way to preclude it from happening again. But I know we can, because I have faith.
In November of last year, I met with the leaders of the Al-Neelain Mosque in Khartoum, Sudan. I joined them with people from many different faiths, backgrounds, and cultures to talk about their important work to embrace tolerance and further the goal of mutual respect among all citizens. The work that this community of religious leaders and NGOs are tackling is impressive. They, like many of you, are looking to bridge deep divides to find areas of understanding and to ultimately make life safer and more just for those around them.
This is no easy task, but we’re honored to support their work. We’re also encouraging the Sudanese Government to make much-needed reforms to make sure that everyone in Sudan can enjoy religious freedom. We recently cosponsored with Canada an unprecedented meeting of churches and religious groups with Sudanese Government officials to try to foster progress.
There is much more work to be done, but I left Sudan encouraged. The religious leaders and civil society groups I met with are nothing short of inspiring. They gave me reason for hope and optimism about the future. Together we hope and pray that government will follow through on its commitments to take new steps on religious freedom.
When I look out on the hundreds of people gathered here today representing so many faith groups and NGOs from all over the world, I feel that same sense of hope and optimism about the world we are trying to create. Again, thank you for your tireless work. I implore you to continue to find ways to work with those around you so that we can amplify this message and find more and better ways to protect religious freedom from all – for all.
And most importantly, persevere. Challenges assuredly will come during difficult and frustrating days. Perhaps we might even feel discouraged. In those moments, please know that the United States and this administration supports you. We look forward to working with you to promote and defend religious freedom today and every day.
So thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to speak with you this morning, and I look forward to participating in the ministerial. (Applause.)
And now it’s my honor to welcome to the State Department two survivors of ISIS’s atrocities in Iraq: Nadia Murad and Bishop Nicodemus.
Nadia, with whom I’ve had the honor to meet in the recent past here at the Department of State, is a leading Yezidi activist and advocate for survivors of ISIS captivity. When ISIS attacked the Sinjar region in August 2014, killing and abducting numerous Yezidi men, women, and children, Nadia was taken captive. In the time since her escape, she has dedicated herself to speaking on behalf of Yezidis and other minorities who have been targeted due to their religion. Today she leads an NGO, Nadia’s Initiative, which continues to fight for the human rights of minorities in Iraq.
Bishop Nicodemus is the Syriac Orthodox archbishop of Mosul. He was one of the last Christians to flee Mosul when ISIS took over the city. As a senior Christian religious leader, he has valiantly led efforts to assist the country’s Christian community, which has sadly declined in numbers in recent years. He is a leading voice for the future of Christians and other religious minorities in the region.
Nadia Murad and Bishop Nicodemus are brave examples of dedication to the cause of religious freedom even in the face of unimaginable difficulty, violence, and tyranny. Their resilience and courage are an inspiration to us all.
So with that, please join me in welcoming them to share their thoughts on the challenges we face and how we can work together to address them. (Applause.)
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