SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good morning, everyone. Today, the State Department is releasing the 2021 International Religious Freedom Report. This report offers a thorough, fact-based review of the state of religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories around the world. We produce this document every year since 1998, starting under the leadership of then Secretary Albright, whose life and legacy we continue to celebrate.
Back then, the Office of International Religious Freedom, which leads this annual process of drafting the report, was the only government entity in the world charged with monitoring and defending international religious freedom. Now, more than two decades later, we have more than 35 governments and multilateral organizations that have created offices that are dedicated to this goal.
And I’d like to thank the office for its efforts again this year under the leadership of Ambassador Rashad Hussain. This team has done remarkable work, and I very much appreciate the efforts.
I also want to thank the hundreds of State Department officials around the world who gather information, conduct the fact-finding that’s actually at the heart of this report. And all of us – all of us – are indebted to civil society, faith leaders, religious organizations, human rights groups, journalists, and others who share their perspectives and analysis, and who do the critical work of promoting religious freedom every day in every part of the world.
When Secretary Albright first introduced this report, she noted that from our earliest days, Americans had believed, and I quote, “that nations are stronger, and the lives of their people richer, when citizens have the freedom to choose, proclaim, and exercise their religious identity.”
Indeed, religious freedom is the first freedom enshrined in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. It’s been recognized by nations around the world as a human right, including in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Respect for religious freedom isn’t only one of the deepest held values and a fundamental right. It’s also, from my perspective, a vital foreign policy priority. Here’s why. We know that when the fundamental right of each person to practice their faith or to choose not to observe a faith is respected, people can make their fullest contributions to their community’s successes; entire societies are better off.
On the other hand, when governments deny this right, it ignites tension, it sows division, it often leads to instability and conflict.
This year’s report includes several countries where we see notable progress, thanks to the work of governments, civil society organizations, and citizens. For example, last year the Kingdom of Morocco launched an initiative to renovate Jewish heritage sites like synagogues and cemeteries, and to include Jewish history in the Moroccan public school curriculum.
In Taiwan, authorities are making it easier to report employers who refuse to give their workers a weekly rest day in order to attend religious services.
In Timor-Leste, the new president, Ramos-Horta, recently pledged to defend the rights of all citizens regardless of religious background.
And in Iraq, national leaders welcomed Pope Francis for the first ever papal visit to the country, where he conducted Christian and interfaith ceremonies in Baghdad, in Mosul, and in the Iraqi Kurdish region.
One local leader from the city of Nasiriyah, Sheikh Haider al-Dubaisi, later reflected on the Pope’s visit, and he said, and I quote, “He came even though he could barely walk. He sent a message not only to Iraqis, but to the whole world, that Islam and other religions can sit together peacefully.”
Sitting together peacefully. Ultimately, this report is about spreading that kind of progress to more parts of the world.
Unfortunately, the report also shows that we have more work to do. In many parts of the world, governments are failing to respect their citizens’ basic rights. Some governments continue to use blasphemy and apostacy laws, which banned defamation and renunciation of religion, to police the language of religious minorities. Others curtail expressions of religious belief like restrictions on religious attire.
And all societies, including our own and across Europe, must do more to combat rising forms of hate, including anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.
To highlight a few examples, in March, based on extensive legal review of the evidence, I made the determination that Burma’s military committed genocide and crimes against humanity with the intent to destroy predominantly Muslim Rohingya in 2017 – intent that was evidenced by, among other things, attacks on mosques, the use of religious and ethnic slurs, the desecration of Korans, among, again, many other actions.
In Eritrea, only four religious groups are permitted to practice their faith freely, while members of other religious minority groups have been detained, arrested, forced to renounce their faith as a precondition for their release.
In Saudi Arabia, we recognize the important recent moves to increase interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance. However, publicly practicing any faith other than Islam remains illegal, and the government continues to discriminate against members of religious minority communities.
China continues its genocide and repression of predominately Muslim Uyghurs and other religious minority groups. Since April 2017, more than 1 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and others have been detained in internment camps in Xinjiang. The PRC continues to harass adherents of other religions that it deems out of line with Chinese Community Party doctrine, including by destroying Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, and Taoist houses of worship and by erecting barriers to employment and housing for Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners.
In Afghanistan, conditions for religious freedom have deteriorated dramatically under the Taliban, particularly as they crack down on the basic rights of women and girls to get an education, to work, to engage in society, often under the banner of religion. Meanwhile, ISIS-K is conducting increasingly violent attacks against religious minorities, particularly Shia Hazaras.
In Pakistan, at least 16 individuals accused of blasphemy were sentenced to death by Pakistani courts in 2021, though none of these sentences has yet to be carried out.
Beyond these countries, the report documents how religious freedom and the rights of religious minorities are under threat in communities around the world.
For example, in India, the world’s largest democracy and home to a great diversity of faiths, we’ve seen rising attacks on people and places of worship; in Vietnam, where authorities harass members of unregistered religious communities; in Nigeria, where several state governments are using antidefamation and blasphemy laws to punish people for expressing their beliefs.
The United States will continue to stand up for religious freedom around the world. We’ll keep working alongside other governments, multilateral organizations, civil society to do so, including next month at the United Kingdom’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.
At its core, our work is about ensuring that all people have the freedom to pursue the spiritual tradition that most adds meaning to their time on Earth. It’s about giving people the chance to express themselves freely, which is part of being their fullest selves. That’s the progress. That’s the progress that this report hopes to help create.
So once again, I’d like to thank everybody whose hard work made this report possible. And with that, I want to turn the floor over to the person who’s maybe worked the hardest, Ambassador Hussain, to highlight a few themes from this year’s report. Rashad, over to you. (Applause.)
AMBASSADOR HUSSAIN: Thank you so much, Mr. Secretary. I’d like to thank President Biden, Vice President Harris, Secretary Blinken for leading United States global efforts to defend and advance human rights, including international religious freedom for all people everywhere. And I’m grateful to our colleagues in governments and to thousands of civil society partners in the United States and around the globe, partners from all political and faith backgrounds, who were instrumental in developing the report.
Religious freedom is a critical part of the American story. Our nation was founded centuries around by individuals fleeing religious persecution. It is natural then that freedom of religion was enshrined in America’s founding documents, including in the First Amendment to our Constitution in our Bill of Rights. Freedom of religion is also a universal right enshrined in several international instruments and covenants, including in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Earlier today, we transmitted this year’s 2000-plus page Report on International Religious Freedom to Congress. And I’d like to thank Bob Boehme, his editing team, and our colleagues at embassies and posts around the world for their tireless work in collecting the information that’s in this year’s report.
The report gives voice to countless individuals around the world who have been killed, beaten, threatened, harassed, or jailed for seeking to exercise their beliefs in accordance with the dictates of their conscience. The United States will continue to stand for those who are oppressed all over the world.
On the pages of this year’s report are stories of individuals who have endured unspeakable persecution, governments that have sought to restrict religious belief, practice, and expression for people across a wide range of belief traditions. Non-state actors have targeted religious groups, attacked places of worship, and vilified religious, ethnic, and racial groups in their hateful narratives, including on social media platforms. From Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia; Jews in Europe; Baha’is in Iran; Christians in North Korea, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia; Muslims in Burma and China; Catholics in Nicaragua; and atheists and humanists around the world, no community has been immune from these abuses.
I’d like to lay out three key themes in the report.
First, too many governments use discriminatory laws and policies and abuse their own people. We have seen two genocides of religious minority communities in recent years – in China and in Burma.
Second, rising societal intolerance and hatred are fueling violence and conflict around the world. Governments must not sit silent or stand idly by in the face of such oppression.
Third, powerful collaboration among civil society, governments, and multilateral partners has led to some progress and provides hope in addressing these complex challenges.
To provide concrete examples of how these themes are playing out around the world: first, far too many governments remain undeterred in the repression of their citizens. It comes as no surprise that the People’s Republic of China is a glaring example here. The PRC Government continue to commit genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs who are predominantly Muslim and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups. The PRC uses sophisticated emerging technologies such as AI and facial recognition to surveil and maintain control of its open-air prison in Xinjiang. Behind all the evidence and data, the many reports of deaths in custody, torture, and physical abuse, there are thousands of Uyghur family members – daughters and sons are desperate to know where their parents are, but are terrified of what news they could discover and are wondering whether they will ever be safely reunited.
The PRC Government also continued its crackdown on Tibetan Buddhists. Authorities arrested, tortured, and committed other abuses against Tibetans who promoted their language and culture, possessed pictures and writings of the Dalai Lama, or practiced their religion at Buddhist monasteries. Secretary Blinken recently determined that the Burmese military committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya. Throughout Burma, already vulnerable communities, including civil society leaders and members of religious and ethnic minority groups, continue to face heightened risk of atrocities and other abuses.
Following its designation as a Country of Particular Concern for the first time last year, Russia has doubled down on its violations of religious freedom rather than reverse course. Russian courts regularly reach new milestones for excessive prison sentences against individuals exercising their religious freedom, and Russian authorities carry out hundreds of home raids against suspected extremists that frequently include violence. President Putin sought to justify the unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine through the blatantly false pretext of de-Nazification. The world clearly sees through this lie and is instead witnessing Russia’s brutal suppression, including suppression of religious leaders and the appalling destruction of religious sites.
Religious Freedom conditions in Afghanistan have deteriorated since the Taliban seized control. The Taliban regime and rival militant group ISIS-K have detained, intimidated, threatened, and attacked members of religious minority communities. And as the Secretary stated, in India some officials are ignoring or even supporting rising attacks on people and places of worship.
To elaborate further on the report’s second theme, there are a number of ways that rising societal intolerance and hatred are fueling violence and conflict around the world. Governments must speak out and protect the vulnerable and marginalized. Anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred, and xenophobia are on the rise in many countries. Democratic backsliding and the rise of nationalism and nativist rhetoric and policies have been used to justify violence towards members of ethnic or religious minority groups and historically marginalized peoples. Social media platforms are used to spread hate speech and to incite violence by vilifying and threatening members of religious minorities.
And finally, I’d like to say a little bit more about the report’s third theme, how collaboration between civil society and government has created some progress. While this report paints a challenging picture of the state of religious freedom around the world, we remain hopeful about the future. Civil society groups and countries all over the world are essential to this report and to our work. Their advocacy changes laws, it lifts up the names of prisoners, provides lawyers to fight against spurious charges, and pushes governments including our own to do the right thing. I’ve had the opportunity to work with civil society on powerful initiatives, such as the Marrakesh Declaration, which affirms the rights of Christians and other religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries, and the Istanbul Process, which rejects criminalization of blasphemy.
Independent and strong civil societies help governments solve problems and better serve their people by shining a light on the issues that matter most. Where civil society thrives, governments operate with more transparency and accountability, creating a tangible impact on the lives of everyday citizens. We must listen to and empower the voices of civil society, including those who dissent from majority views or criticize the government, as we work towards a more just and peaceful future for us all. Change is only possible with the hard work of the groups and individuals dedicated to fighting for these rights. Today, more than ever, we have tools at our disposal to facilitate the flow of information to keep individuals informed. We have mechanisms to shed light on abuses taking place, and we have the means to hold bad actors accountable.
We have more partners in this effort now than ever before, including religious leaders. And religion can be such a powerful force for good, and it should never be used to harm people. Our greatest hope is that together we can unite our efforts to ensure respect for freedom of religion or belief for all people around the globe, and we continue to stand in solidarity with all people seeking to exercise their beliefs.
Thank you. (Applause.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you all. Appreciate the good work. (Applause.)