SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good morning, everyone. Twenty-five years ago, President Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act into law. And that gave us a range of new tools to give voice to the persecuted, to empower advocates, to promote religious freedom around the world.
At that time, President Clinton noted that freedom of religion was a bedrock American belief. And he said that, and I quote, “When we promote religious freedom, we also promote freedom of expression, conscience, and association, and other human rights.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms this same interdependence.
Religious freedom is also vital to stable, secure societies. When each person is respected for their beliefs, they are more empowered to reach their full potential, which in turn lifts entire communities and societies.
Today the State Department is releasing the 2022 International Religious Freedom Report, which provides a fact-based, comprehensive view of the state of religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories around the world. This report wouldn’t be possible without the contributions of our civil society partners around the globe who help to shine a spotlight on abuses and advocate for victims of religious persecution. We are grateful for their vital work.
This report assesses the actions of countries that are our partners and those with whom we have disagreements, evaluating all by the same standards. Its aim is to highlight areas where freedom of religion or belief is being repressed, to promote accountability, and ultimately drive progress toward a world where freedom of religion or belief is a reality for everyone everywhere.
Over the past year we’ve seen real progress in some parts of the world on expanding religious freedom as people demanded their rights. Civil society groups pushed for change and governments listened.
Belgium formally recognized its Buddhist minority, which entitles Buddhist religious organizations to teach their faith in state schools and eventually to apply for federal funding to do so.
Lawmakers in Brazil codified religious freedom guarantees for Afro-Brazilian indigenous communities at the municipal and state levels across the country. They also passed legislation making it a crime carry out discriminatory acts against any religious practices.
Canada and the European Union both created new offices to combat Islamophobia, while Croatia appointed its first special advisor for combatting anti-Semitism.
In the Central African Republic, the country’s special criminal court continue to prosecute cases of religious-based violence and other human rights violations against civilians since the military coup in 2003.
And more broadly, civil society and other concerned governments around the world have successfully secured the release of many who’ve been detained, even imprisoned, for exercising their freedom of religion or belief.
Now, that’s the positive news. Unfortunately, the report also documents the continuation and, in some instances, the rise of very troubling trends. Governments in many parts of the world continue to target religious minorities using a host of methods, including torture, beatings, unlawful surveillance, and so-called re-education camps. They also continued to engage in other forms of discrimination on the basis of faith or lack of faith, like excluding religious minorities from certain professions or forcing them to work during times of religious observance.
Governments use anti-conversion, blasphemy, apostasy laws, which ban the act of leaving a faith, to justify harassment against those who don’t follow their particular interpretation of a theology, often weaponizing those laws against humanists, atheists, and LGBTQI+ individuals.
Around the world, citizens and civil society organizations stepped up to counter these acts, often at great personal risk. NGOs like Campaign for Uyghurs and Uyghur Human Rights Project are documenting the genocide and crimes against humanity against predominately Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China.
Human rights defenders are sounding the alarm on attacks on the Catholic Church by the Ortega-Murillo regime in Nicaragua. Lawyer Martha Patricia Molina Montenegro’s reporting exposed more than 160 attacks against the church and its members since – in 2022, from desecrations to arbitrary arrests. One of those unjustly detained was Rolando Alvarez, a bishop who criticized the regime’s crackdown on civil and religious liberties and was promptly labeled a “traitor to the homeland” and sentenced to 26 years in jail.
People across Iran, led by young women, continue peaceful protests demanding their human rights, including freedom of religion, galvanized by the killing of Masa Amini, who was arrested by the so-called morality police because her hijab did not fully cover her hair.
Amidst the Burma military regime’s ongoing repression of religious minorities, thousands of teachers from Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, and other religious backgrounds continue to teach the importance of human rights, including religious freedom and respect between religions.
The United States will continue to stand with and support these brave advocates for religious freedom. We’ll keep advocating for religious freedom in countries where the rights are under attack, both publicly and directly in our engagement with government officials. We’ll keep working to defend and promote religious freedom here at home, including through the interagency group that President Biden created in December to combat religious bias and discrimination.
We defend the right to believe or to not believe, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because of the extraordinary good that people of faith can do in our societies and around the world to promote peace, to care for the sick, to protect our planet, to expand opportunity for underserved communities, and so much more.
So this is an enduring commitment of this administration. This report released today reflects the picture that we see – saw emerge in 2022, but we are acting on the findings and observations of the report every single day in our efforts around the world to advance freedom of religion and belief.
The person who is leading our efforts in that regard is Ambassador Rashad Hussain. It is my pleasure to turn the podium over to him now. Rashad. (Applause.)
AMBASSADOR HUSSAIN: Good morning. I’d like to thank President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Secretary Blinken for their sincere commitments and strong leadership of our global efforts to advance freedom of religion or belief for all people. Let me also take a moment to express my gratitude to our dedicated colleagues at the office of international religious freedom and U.S. embassies and consulates around the world for their remarkable work. They assemble and draft this report after engaging directly with governments, with civil society, and faith actors of every background, and by conducting their own meticulous research. And they are motivated by their unshakable commitment to the idea that saving even one person or improving even one life is well worth their effort.
This historic year marks a quarter century since the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act. During these 25 years, the report has served as an invaluable tool for anyone seeking to understand and address religious freedom conditions in any country around the world. So if you ever wonder whether the religious persecution of any group in any part of the world escapes our attention, the answer is in the country-by-country analysis in this report.
The role of the International Religious Freedom Office is to work with governments and civil society to expose, counter, and prevent restrictions on religious freedom. The report helps us tailor our diplomatic strategies to the circumstances in particular countries and to inform our policy decisions, and it identifies positive actions as well and trends that we will seek to support.
None of this work, of course, is possible without the tenacious leadership of civil society, including the dedicated leaders who are joining us today. So thank you so much for your partnership.
I’d like to share some key findings from this year’s report regarding religious discrimination and hatred at the governmental and societal levels and describe what we are doing to address it.
First, far too many governments continue to freely target faith community members within their borders. Russia, a Country of Particular Concern for the second year in a row, continues to target faith communities within its borders and beyond. Brave people of faith in Russia who dare to speak against its brutal war against Ukraine are targeted for repression.
The People’s Republic of China seized, imprisoned, and banished predominantly Muslim Uyghurs to re-education camps. They continue the repression of Tibetan Buddhists, Chinese Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners – many of whom are fleeing the PRC’s abuses.
In Afghanistan, members of communities that do not toe the Taliban’s narrow theological line must hide their religious identity or flee for their lives. In Saudi Arabia, we recognize the important recent moves to increase interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance. Publicly practicing any faith other than Islam, however, remains illegal.
In India, legal advocates and faith leaders from across the country’s diverse religious communities condemned a case of extreme hate speech against Muslims in the city of Haridwar, calling for the country to uphold its historical traditions of pluralism and tolerance. And the Burma military regime continues to repress the Rohingya population, causing many to flee their homes.
Our report also describes our response. We address these concerns directly with governments. We meet with and listen to victims. We partner with civil society and we also urge other countries and multilateral organizations to speak up, to build coalitions, and decry violations and abuses of the freedom of religion or belief.
As we do this work of advocating for people all around the world, we are sometimes asked: Who are you as the United States to speak to other countries about their human rights conditions? Well, I believe that we are uniquely situated to stand up for religious freedom around the world for a number of reasons. First of all, we are ourselves a country founded on religious freedom, founded by individuals fleeing religious persecution themselves. They felt so strongly about this right that they enshrined it in the First Amendment in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. And we are a country of immigrants. People come to the United States from all around the world and demand that their elected representatives and government official promote our values in their homelands. They would have it no other way. So who are we to stand up for religious freedom around the world? In many ways we are representatives of the rest of the world gathered here in the United States. And we also don’t walk away from discussing our efforts to form a more perfect union here at home.
A second theme and trend the report highlights is the increase of government restrictions on access to holy sites and places of worship. We have all seen the sad pictures of Ukraine’s civilians sifting through the rubble of their beautiful and most historic churches destroyed by Russia’s brutal war of aggression. Uyghurs have witnessed the PRC Government destroy or repurpose their mosques or cemeteries. Authorities also destroy the monasteries of Tibetan Buddhists and expelled monks and nuns.
On my trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank last month, I joined services at al-Aqsa Mosque, attended the Holy Fire Ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and visited the Western Wall during the convergence of Ramadan, Orthodox Easter, and Passover. I sat down with government leaders as well as leaders of the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities to discuss the importance of religious coexistence and protecting access to these religious sites.
Third, many countries continue to legislate and enforce apostasy, blasphemy, and anti‑conversion laws and related polices. These laws are direct attacks on the right to freedom of religion or belief. They criminalize religious expression and justify discrimination and harassment against members of minority religious groups or others who do not conform with the dictates of the approved theology.
Fourth, the report shines a light on the need for governments to ensure equal access to primary services for all, including education. Despite the near universal consensus among Islamic scholars regarding the right to education for women and girls, the Taliban in the name of religion continues to rob women and girls of this fundamental right. In Nigeria, yesterday Leah Sharibu turned 20 years old but remains captive to the Islamic State in West Africa Province after being kidnapped six years ago.
On the sidelines of last year’s UN General Assembly, I unveiled Pathways to Respect, an effort that highlights the importance of educational initiatives to prevent and combat hatred. Many of these efforts, such as the 2016 Marrakesh Declaration play a critical role in educating public broadly, not just in the formalistic classroom setting; on the rights of religious minorities. I would be remiss not to mention the countless young people who have been forced to flee their homes based on their beliefs regarding religion and find themselves locked out of any educational at all. I had the opportunity to visit some of them in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Finally, in addition to discriminatory laws and policies, the report describes growing bigotry at the societal level in many places around the world. Let me note the ongoing and deeply disturbing proliferation of anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred, and xenophobia that target religious and non-religious communities. We are seeing increasing links between these forms of hatred and between those who propagate them at home and abroad. Earlier this year, I traveled with Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff and Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt to the Holocaust sites on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. We continue to participate in the White House-led interagency effort to combat anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hatred. And on March 15th, the anniversary of the Christchurch massacre, the United States joined with countries around the world on the First International Day to Combat Islamophobia.
Despite the challenges we face, and in many ways because of these shared challenges, defenders of human rights are building a global movement to respond. The 42 members of the International Religious Freedom of Belief – or belief – Freedom of Belief Alliance[i] collaborate to call for the release of prisoners of conscience, advocate for laws promoting religious freedom, and partner with civil society to promote respect and tolerance around the world.
The International Contact Group and civil society coalitions of religious, non-religious, humanitarian, and development organizations cast light on religious freedom violations. They give voice to those who are locked away or forcibly disappeared. And in London last July, I had the honor to join thousands from countries around the world at the International Religious Freedom or Belief ministerial. The Czech Republic will serve as this year’s host.
Religion can be such a powerful force for good in the world. Societies who seek to restrict it or use it to harm others cannot achieve their full potential. We vow to redouble our efforts to ensure greater respect for freedom of religion or belief for everyone, everywhere. And we will continue to stand in solidarity every day with all of those are seeking to exercise their beliefs. Thank you so much.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very much. Thanks to everyone for being here today. Thanks for your work every single day to advance religious freedom and freedom of belief around the world. Thank you all.