SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Great, thanks. Thanks for joining us. Tomorrow night we’ll have the launch of the International Religious Freedom Alliance, something that Secretary Pompeo spoke about last July at the ministerial. The President spoke out – spoke about it at the UN General Assembly in September, and then we’ll get the actual launch.
We’ve got, to date, 27 countries that are a part of the alliance. That’s fluid. It could go up one or two, down one, because we have different members that are talking about – this is the – we’re calling it kind of the activist club of nations that are willing to aggressively push globally on religious freedom issues. A number of the human rights have had – my estimation – a deterioration, substantially so, over the past several decades, and I think it’s because a lot of countries haven’t been willing to speak out and act more aggressively on it.
I also think there is some problem that they’ve all been bundled together and that we need to start focusing on these individually and what they need to – what needs to take place to get them moving forward. So you’ve heard this administration speak about religious freedom. We see it as fundamental and one that you can really build and expand the other human rights off of. If you get this one wrong, the other human rights tend to deteriorate as well. This is a really key one.
It’s also one where a number of people are getting killed around the world because of religious persecution. There’s religious cleansings that have taken place around the world. And that’s not a term of art or a legal term, but it’s what’s happened to the Rohingya, for instance. It’s what’s happening to the Uighurs. And we think this right needs to be stood up for, and it’ll expand and help all the human rights in that area.
Tomorrow night, the Secretary will address the group of nations that will be assembled. Over half will be foreign ministers, so this will be a high-level meeting. Some will not send their foreign ministers that they either didn’t have time or there was not – not able to get that in the queue, but it’ll be a high-level meeting of the individuals.
We’ll discuss kind of areas that we’re going to work and focus in and the toolbox of tools to use. Areas will include things like technology and religious oppression, blasphemy and apostasy laws, for instance. Those are – and there will be other topics that people will bring up.
Toolbox will include things like, whether it’s putting out statements, actions that can take place in international bodies that the group can come together and hopefully come behind, the possibilities of sanctions being used. It’s a consensual body, and by that I mean there won’t be votes taken, and every nation is not bound to join in each of the items that come forth. But as countries look at this and say that’s something we’re interested in, then they can join. And if they decide, look, that’s not one we’re interested in, then they won’t, and there is no penalty or foul for any of participation or nonparticipation.
But these are folks that generally – these are countries that generally have good records in this space. We’re not going to vouch or speak for in all the areas that the country is acting but that they are good in this space, and they’re willing to push on it, and they’re willing to push collectively.
We’re excited. The administration is excited about this. This is a strong administration push behind this, and so we’ve got good, broad administration support. It’s a bipartisan topic. The National Prayer Breakfast this year, which will be on Thursday, the topic this year is religious freedom, and they’ll have a number of people that have been persecuted of all different types of faith that will be there at the prayer breakfast on Thursday. So that’s – and that is chaired by a Democrat congressman, Congressman Suozzi I think it is, from New York. That’s the chair – one of the co-chairs of it this year.
That’s kind of the big – that’s the high end, high bar of it, and we’re looking forward to it.
MODERATOR: Questions. Carol.
QUESTION: (A) Will you give us a list of the countries? And (B) I’m wondering about the timing of this and what you would say to countries that say the United States is not really in a good position to push this given the travel ban on so many Muslim countries.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We will give a list of the nations. Tomorrow night, I think, is probably the planned time. There will be a – the Secretary – currently it’s planned the Secretary will give a public presentation at the outset of it, and so the people that are part of it will be there at the meeting. It’ll be here in the Truman building. So there will a list of nations put forward.
I think the United States is in a great position to put this forward. The travel ban issue is in – I think in another field outside of the religious freedom space. If you are in the United States and you’re here as a citizen of the United States, you have every right to practice your faith freely, peacefully, anywhere, any time. And we protect that and we’ll fight for it. I think the travel ban is a separate issue, and what we’re looking for is countries that will fight for this type of religious freedom, that you’re entitled to practice your faith peacefully without fear of reprisal.
It’s also – I think it’s a good global time for this to come forward. You just saw yesterday the celebration, recognition of one-year anniversary in the UAE of the papal visit there, and they announced an Abrahamic House, and this is an area that they’re going to have a mosque, a Jewish synagogue, and a church all in a similar area. And it’s not about a common faith; it is about a common human right. And there you’ve had several Arab countries there where this is a harder issue for them to come forward saying this is something we need to do. The papal visit last year was the first ever to the Arabian Peninsula in the history of humankind. And so I think you’re starting to see more of the leading countries say this is a key one we need to work for.
QUESTION: I have a follow-up on that. Just you were speaking specifically about religious cleansing and Myanmar and the Rohingya. Aren’t you concerned about your message being harmed by the travel ban in the context of trying to convince other countries to take in some of these refugees who are fleeing persecution?
QUESTION: Since Myanmar was added, right?
QUESTION: Since Myanmar was added to the travel ban.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I am not an expert on the travel ban, so that’s not a space that I’ve handled that issue. What I do know is the right to be able to practice your faith in this country and our desire to push that, and we’re going to continue to do that. I don’t know all the reasoning and the pieces on the travel ban. You need to ask somebody else in the administration, and I’m sure people have been putting statements out about that. But we allow people here – we – and we’re going to continue to, and we’ll continue to push in this space.
QUESTION: Forgive me, but that’s why they want to come here, right? I mean, they want to come to the United States because of having the ability to practice openly their religion, rather than being persecuted in the country that they live in.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right.
QUESTION: So it feels like that’s at odds.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, but it also – historically we’ve taken a number of people from a lot of places, and my estimation, this has all been for our good. We’ve gotten a lot of great talent from around the world this way. But they shouldn’t have to leave their country to practice their faith, and that’s what we’re saying now, and that’s really – was much of the project in northern Iraq that you’ve seen the administration put 300 million plus into. And a lot of political effort is to say that the Yezidis and the Christians shouldn’t have to leave Iraq, because you’ve basically washed the Middle East of Christians and Jews outside of Israel or the Jewish faith, and Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq’s really diminished a great deal of the Christian faith. And but that shouldn’t be, and you shouldn’t have to flee. And we’re saying that’s the – that really should be the first bar. Also it’s – for a number of people, it’s hard to get to a Western country, I mean, if you’ve languished in a refugee camp for a long period of time.
QUESTION: Thank you for answering.
QUESTION: Not to spend too much time on this, but —
MODERATOR: No, let’s not.
QUESTION: — you mentioned that most of the folks —
MODERATOR: Let’s not.
QUESTION: — most of the countries who are coming —
MODERATOR: Three in a row.
QUESTION: — are good actors on this. They have good track records. If —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: In this space.
QUESTION: In this space. If – how are you going to then —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: In this space. Because you could look at them and you could say, okay, I don’t – they’re not particularly good here on this issue, and you’d have to say, yeah, I mean, if you look at the international reporting and the international standards that we’ve put forward. But on religious freedom, they are good on this.
QUESTION: And how are you going to get that message of the need to be able to practice your faith freely to these countries that aren’t – don’t have good records on that front?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’re going to push on them. That’s what I mean about the topical areas working on in the toolbox. We’ll have a series of topics that we think are important. Now, this – these are open to modifications or expansion by the group, and then a series of tools that we hope to be able to use.
QUESTION: But are there plans to engage directly with the bad actors on that front, or is it just group pressure?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes. Well, I mean, engage with them in that we would hope this group would, or some assembly of this group, would act to put forward different events. Like – and I’m going to give you some examples on that. We had a – at the UN General Assembly last year, we had an event on Xinjiang that was very well attended. And I think we had three countries that were co-sponsoring that event. We’ve done a similar one in Geneva with three or four countries. We would hope to do things like that, where you’ve got a specific item, and we’d hope to have a broader coalition of countries join us.
On Myanmar, we’ve put – we put some sanctions on individual actors there. We would hope other countries would join in that. That’s a harder get. A number of nations are very hesitant about putting sanctions on individuals. So if we get two other countries to do something like that, or five, we may be happy with that, but it’s better than just us. So there’s kind of different – there’s different strategies, but we’ll hope to have now a group that we can work with that we hope are more willing to come along. It will be ethnically diverse, it’ll be religiously diverse, it’ll be geographically diverse – the group will.
QUESTION: The group of the 27, you mean?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Religiously diverse. Yes.
QUESTION: You just answered it a little bit, but if you can elaborate on that toolbox and, like, whether you’ve set country targets. You said that you might engage with some of these actors directly. Like, which countries would they be?
And the other thing is, like, U.S. has bilateral relations in some of – with some of these countries, like China is a big one. And the Secretary spoke, criticized the treatment of Uighurs. But then, for example, about Kashmir, there was silence from the State Department. How are you going to make sure that these contradictions in your bilateral relations should – do not complicate this effort, and how are you going to make people believe that this effort is actually sincere?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I hope they believe we’re sincere, because we’ve been at it for a while. And we have our own difficulties; there’s no question about it. And we are not perfect, but perfection’s not the standard that you call people to, and we’re trying to get better.
For a long time, we didn’t sanction Saudi Arabia; we didn’t recognize Saudi Arabia as a Country of Particular Concern in the religious freedom space. And you’re kind of looking at it on its face and you’re going, “How could you not recognize Saudi Arabia?” Well, there’s all sorts of competing other interest in the relationship, and you guys cover foreign affairs and so you’re used to seeing competing interest coming into play. Well, but they are a Country of Particular Concern. Now we do put much more aggressive pressure on it, and that took some time. And I wouldn’t doubt that you’re going to see that happen in some of these other cases as well, but we’re going to try. We’ll try to be as balanced and open, as fair. We are – as I stated earlier, we are not perfect, but if you’re waiting on somebody perfect to lead this cause, it’s not going to happen, and you know that.
So we’re going to push and we’re going to – and we’ll try to be as open and as fair about it as we can. We don’t have a list of countries. What we’ll start off with is a list of topics, of areas that – like I mentioned, the use of technology in a religious approach in apostasy and blasphemy laws. And we’ll talk about a group of tools, what toolbox, what are the tools, whether it’s joint statements, joint actions at international fora, if possible joint sanctioning. And I’m hesitant on even saying joint sanctioning because most – many countries look at us thinking we’re just willing to go there immediately, and a lot of countries don’t want to do that. And so we’re really trying to hold back on talking about that, when I’d really like to try to do more of the international pressure, because that’s where a lot more countries are more comfortable.
MODERATOR: Okay. Lalit? And then Jessica.
QUESTION: I was going to ask you about tomorrow’s meeting. Would accepting refugees based on their religious background – one of the topics during the discussions tomorrow? And secondly, in the context of India, what’s happening there, what’s your assessment of the situation about religious freedom in that country?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. We don’t have that topic for as far as telling countries to identify the – the people that are refusing to – or that are being persecuted in that country. That’s not listed as one of the topics, if I’m understanding your question right.
QUESTION: I mean, because countries like India, which has identified taking – accepting refugees based on their religious persecution, right, which has been one of the main issues for current demonstrations happening, and they’re going on right now.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: I’m not going a specific country, but in general, in nature, is that an issue of concerns to you, when you accept refugees based on their religious background?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, I’m not sure if I’m understanding your question, but we grant asylum status to people that are persecuted in their home country, and oftentimes it’s – there’s a religious basis to that, if they believe and there’s a legitimate possibility that they will be persecuted physically or in other ways for their faith. So we do that, and we would hope other countries do, and some countries do.
We work actively to get people out of nations that have been persecuted for their faith, like the Asia Bibi case, that in Pakistan was a global cause celebre, where she was a lady that was accused of blasphemy law and put on death row and then eventually was evacuated out, and we worked that case, and she’s settled now in Canada with her family.
We are concerned about what’s taking place in India. I have met with the Indian foreign minister. I’ve met with the Indian ambassador. I’ve been in India. I’ve met with officials in India about what’s taking place in the nation and expressed concern, expressed desire first to try to help and work through some of these issues. I think the – to me, the initial step we try to do in most places is say what can we do to be of – be – help you work through an issue to where there’s not religious persecution. That’s the first step, is just saying can we work with you on this.
I just met yesterday with the Nigerian foreign minister and justice minister, and we put them on Special Watch List this past year because of the number of attacks that are religiously motivated taking place in Nigeria. And the initial conversations are about okay, what tools can we work with you on to not have this happen. And then if that doesn’t work, we get progressively more aggressive in the tools that we have.
QUESTION: Fair to say India is not on the list, is not in the group of 27, 28?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I – we’ll put them out tomorrow, put the list out tomorrow.
QUESTION: So is there any space in the policy at all for offering persecuted religious minorities safe haven?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes.
QUESTION: Could you give some examples? Because if you compare —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The Asia Bibi case, who’s been —
QUESTION: But that’s one person, whereas if you were to look at, say, Myanmar and like a million people there, and compare that to, say, the Holocaust or the Jews – I mean, if there had been that position that Germany had to reform, you would have no Jews left.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: So it seems as that there’s just no space in this policy for that. Would it be fair?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, I wouldn’t say that at all. The United States takes a number of refugees every year, and we take a number of asylum seekers. So I – no, I wouldn’t say that at all.
MODERATOR: Yeah. Two questions. Let’s go with Katrina and then – thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for coming –
MODERATOR: Sorry. Katrina first and then you can bat cleanup.
QUESTION: Thank you. You mentioned there’ll be people of all faiths at the National Prayer Breakfast. And can you just let us know, will that include Uighurs and Rohingyas? And is there any chance that POTUS will address either of those issues at – when he speaks to the National Prayer Breakfast?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. I don’t know about the President’s remarks. The Prayer Breakfast is done by the Congress, and it’s headed by the House this year, and Congressman Suozzi and Moolenaar are the two chairs, a Democrat and a Republican. It’s always a bipartisan. And they pick the topic of religious freedom this year. Now, we’ve been working with them, but it’s their event. It’s not an administration event, but the President always comes, the President always addresses it. So – but I don’t know – I don’t know who all they’ve got coming that’s been persecuted for their faith. I know there’s a group, and we’ve helped give names, suggest names of possible individuals. But I don’t know.
QUESTION: Is it possible just to confirm if they include Uighurs and Rohingyas?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You’d need to call them, what —
QUESTION: I mean, from your suggestions?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I can’t confirm or deny it on that. We’ve obviously brought in a lot of Uighurs to different events that we’ve done and will continue to do so.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for coming here. [Senior State Department Official], you mentioned that the U.S. has been taking a number of asylum seekers. Has recently the U.S. taken any asylum seekers from Iran and North Korea? That’s number one. And number two – please pardon me if it’s already been addressed – but just for a bit of planning purpose, besides the major event tomorrow, is there any other date of the year like we should put on the calendar? And then is there an approximate date that the annual report will be released?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: What, our annual report?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, we’ll comply with the congressional deadlines that are put forward. We try to do that every year. Some years – I think, though, we’ve hit it on my watch. I know before we’ve let it drift more, but we generally get it out within the timeframe. We put the report out and then within 90 days afterwards we have to list the Countries of Particular Concern or on the Special Watch List. And we’ll hit the statutory guidelines.
Iran and North Korea asylum seekers – I am sure there are some. I know there are some from North Korea. Iran, I don’t know. We’ve got that Lautenberg Amendment process that’s gotten hung up with – it’s tighter scrutiny on background checks. It was started, actually, during the Obama era, the tighter background checks. Now, I don’t know what the number is now. That ought – you ought to be able to get that, though. That should be – I don’t know who has that one. Do you guys —
MODERATOR: We can follow up and see if we can direct you the right way.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, why don’t you – because that’s – if you’re asking about Lautenberg on Iran, that’s – we ought to be able to get you a specific answer on numbers there, because there have been some. I know the number is much less than it was in the past.
QUESTION: How about this – Iran’s Olympic medalist, the female, the only female Olympic medalist? Is she seeking asylum in the United States?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I am not familiar with that case, so I can’t – I don’t know. You’d have to ask somewhere else.
MODERATOR: She’s living in the Netherlands right now, as I understand it. Right? Isn’t that where she was training, in the Netherlands, and that’s – she said she wasn’t going back? I’ll check and see if we have anything further on it.
Michele, do you have a question?
QUESTION: Yeah. Are there any —
MODERATOR: Did you have a question?
QUESTION: I just had a question about the 27 – when you said geographically, is it predominantly European, or is it – can you give us a sense? And can you guys give us an embargoed list at some point before, in case we prewrite our stories?
QUESTION: And a follow-up on this: Are there any Arab countries in the coalition?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not going to answer that. I’m not going to preview the list. We want to get it to you. And you’ll – people will be able to be there and see. I don’t know if you guys want to release the list early, so I’m going let these guys make the —
MODERATOR: Wouldn’t release it publicly. Would it be in the Secretary’s remarks?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t know if – I haven’t seen – it wasn’t in a draft of the remarks that I saw, but we didn’t know who all was going to be in because it’s been fluid here.
MODERATOR: All right. I’ll follow up with you guys if we’re able to do that.
QUESTION: So is it predominantly European or —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s dominantly countries that really pursue this topic and have pursued it, but there’s been a number of new faces coming forward. This topic has historically been mostly dominated by the West, and by that I mean Western Europe and North America, but there is a growing group in South America. The OAS – Organization of American States – for the first time ever did a religious freedom statement that they put out. Colombia is going to host a regional Western Hemisphere religious freedom summit end of March. The Brazilians have expressed much more interest in the topic. Getting more interest in Central and Eastern Europe that’s taken place; Africa.
So there’s been – what I’ve seen that’s happened that’s been nice is it’s moved out of just being a European, North American topic, and you’re getting more players. Now, they’re newer to it. They don’t have – there are not as many that have ambassadors for religious freedom or nodes of organization in their foreign ministries, so they’re not – there’s not a formation really that’s there yet. But they’re – at the political level they’ve grown interest in it, and I think they’ve grown interested simply because they’re seeing the problem and trying to develop rational responses to a growing global issue.
Tony Blair had a great comment on this last year. I don’t know if any of you got to hear him speak when he was here at the ministerial, but he was saying either the global community is going to address this and start figuring it out, or you’re going to have a lot more conflicts based on the religious persecution or religious ideology. It’s a real area of growing concern by a number of global leaders.
I need to get going. Thank you guys for your interest and —
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thanks for taking the time.
QUESTION: Thank you very much.