Moderator: Good afternoon everyone from the Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub based in Manila. I’m Zia Syed, the Media Hub Director, and I’d like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent.
Today, we are very pleased to be joined from Taipei by U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Samuel Brownback, who will discuss the current state of religious freedom in the Indo-Pacific region. Ambassador Brownback is in Taipei to lead the U.S. delegation in the “Civil Society Dialogue on Securing Religious Freedom in the Indo-Pacific Region” which started yesterday and continues today.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Ambassador Brownback, then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get in as many questions as we can, and we have about 30 minutes for this call. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record.
With that, I’ll turn it over to Ambassador Brownback.
Ambassador Brownback: Thanks Zia, and thank you all for joining me here today.
We’re in the last afternoon of this dialogue that’s been taking place here in Taipei on religious freedom. This is our second of these regional summits that we put together from the State Department with partner nations to discuss religious freedom and particularly, contextual issues in the places that we’ve gone to. The first one was in Abu Dhabi and we talked about educational material and the presentation of religious beliefs and educational material. Sometimes some very derogatory pictures are put forward of religious minorities in textbooks that can really have a long-term impact on a society.
This one here [in Taipei] is on civil society organizations. We’ve had a number of excellent discussions on civil society participation to create international religious freedom roundtables in various countries in the continent of Asia, and I think the dialogue has gone very well. We’ve had activists here that really represent a number of different faiths.
Religious freedom is a high priority for the Trump administration. We hosted the first-ever ministerial on religious freedom last year in Washington. That will be done again this year, July 16-18. We had 84 countries participate last year. We anticipate more this year. We had 400 civil society activists. I wouldn’t doubt we’ll be double that this year. There’s a high degree of interest in this topic, and a lot of support.
I remind everybody that the UN Charter of Human Rights lists religious freedom as one of those foundational human rights. We believe it’s a foundational human right that if you get it right, there will be a better chance for economic growth and less terrorism in a country. Other rights flourish when this one flourishes as well. Others diminish when this one diminishes. So we put a high value on this. We’re going to continue to push it aggressively on a global scale.
The Secretary is very committed to this as is the President, Vice President, and I’ve been traveling the world aggressively taking that message on forward.
With that let me take any questions you might have.
Moderator: Thank you. We’ll now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
If I may open the questions for you, a question that I know several of our journalists are interested in is what is the current state of dialogue between Washington and Beijing over the mass incarceration of Muslims that has been occurring inside that country?
Ambassador Brownback: I would describe it really as [not really] a dialogue. It seems like it’s more like dual monologues taking place. We’ve been putting out very clearly that this is a horrific situation that’s taking place in Xinjiang. Over a million Muslim Uighurs and also some ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are in detention facilities. I regularly get names, a list of names in the mail from individuals asking where these individuals are. The details on the detention camps are coming out as some people are able to get out, but there’s just a very tragic, and I think, a horrific situation there.
The monologue back from China is that, initially it was denied that they even existed, and then the statement was, well, these are vocational training facilities which the people are appreciative of. Which we just don’t agree with.
I believe it really does need to have an international community, an unbiased group, come in and look at it and look at the various facilities of what’s taking place there. And we would call on them to release the individuals that are in these facilities and tell the family members where their mothers and fathers, brothers, and sisters are, because that’s who we get contacted by on a regular basis.
The international press has done, I think, an excellent job of covering the situation, to the degree that they can. And I think it’s a completely unacceptable situation that’s taking place right now in Xinjiang.
Moderator: Thank you.
We received several questions from our participants in advance. I’m going to ask you one of those questions that we received:
What measures could the U.S. consider taking against China beyond listing them as a Country of Particular concern? Both at the government level and through international organizations, such as the UN.
Ambassador Brownback: There are a number of measures that the United States can take. I would note for those on the call that China has been listed as a Country of Particular Concern since 1999, and that may have been the first year we even put out a list of Countries of Particular Concern. Countries of Particular Concern are the worst violators of religious freedom, or the worst persecutors of people of faith of countries around the world and China’s been on that list virtually from the very outset.
There are sanctions that can go with that. The sanctions can be waived, but there are sanctions that are available to go with that [designation] if corrective actions aren’t taken. There’s also the Global Magnitsky authority that the Congress has granted the Administration to cite particular individuals that are involved in religious persecution or other matters as well — we can have a Global Magnitsky designation against that individual or group. That’s a possibility too. There are other avenues too that exist on top of this.
So there are avenues for this to be pursued. The Administration is serious about religious freedom matters and deeply concerned about what’s taking place in China.
As I said in a speech the other day, it’s as if China has just really decided to go after all faiths. They’re going after the Uighur Muslims, they’re going after the Tibetan Buddhists, the house church Christians, the Falun Gong. It’s across the board. We’ve seen how these groups come together in one organization to call for the United States to act and call for China to open up.
And I would finally say, China needs to open up religious freedom. The arc of history moves towards freedom, and China is a great nation and it needs to embrace this freedom. That’s a basic foundational freedom. What you do with your own soul is your choice, not something that the government picks.
It’s also in the Chinese Constitution for religious freedom, but it’s certainly not being practiced or allowed there now.
Moderator: Thank you.
Let me ask one more question we received in advance with regard to China: The Chinese government has been receiving at least some international public criticism for its treatment of Uighurs and other minority groups. Do you think, or are you aware of how, the Chinese government has reacted or changed its approach in any way given the international scrutiny? And if so, how?
Ambassador Brownback: Well they have changed their approach. Initially they didn’t respond, then they denied that it was taking place. Finally, they’ve more recently settled on this idea that this is vocational training. They haven’t said that it’s involuntary vocational training, but they’ve just said it’s vocational training for Uighurs and Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, all Muslim groups in the region.
All of these are completely unsatisfactory answers. I asked at the UN the other day, I was in a meeting there and the Chinese representative said they were vocational training facilities, at which I responded back saying, I get lists of names of individuals. Would you please help me find these individuals, these Uighurs who are in detention facilities so we can tell their family members where they are? There was no response that came back. And I get lists of hundreds of names.
I stated that we believe there’s probably around a million people in detention facilities. This is pretty well documented. The buildup of the detention facilities on Google Earth maps that various human rights groups have documented. It’s past time, in the year 2019, for the Chinese government to answer what it’s doing to its own people. And the thought of the scale of this detention facility, in this year, is really extraordinary and something that the Chinese need to hear the cries of their own people, of what they’re saying and what is happening, and answer where these family members are, that have been taken away and their family members don’t know where they are now.
Moderator: Thank you.
Media: Hi, Philip [Wen] from Reuters, here.
Ambassador Brownback, you mentioned the Global Magnitsky Act earlier as a possibility. What needs to happen there? What’s the process now in terms of getting that ball rolling and actually making that happen?
Ambassador Brownback: The process is an interagency process, mostly done by the Treasury Department and a number of reviews that they have to put forward. There’s legal standards that lawyers have to look at to see. There have been calls by members of Congress and letters calling for various Global Magnitsky designations. It is a pretty intensive legal review and process of identifying assets that Treasury goes through
It is also, I think, a pretty effective tool that the Congress has given. It’s targeted. It’s targeted at individuals primarily. I think it sends a pretty clear message of the role these individuals play. We hope it sends a message as well to individuals in government considering taking actions that are of a very bad nature on religious persecution, that there are individual consequences to doing something of this nature. That’s the general process involved.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. And thank you for your question.
We received another question in advance and I know we’ve been speaking a lot about China and there’s certainly more to be said about that, but we received a question from the Hanoi Times from Dao Minh Dao who is asking how you assess the religious situation in Vietnam and any measures that the U.S. is taking to help improve the situation.
Ambassador Brownback: It’s a difficult religious situation in Vietnam. I was just speaking at this conference with a gentleman that’s a Montagnard and he was describing his father being killed, and him out and helping other Montagnards that have escaped. For religious minorities and sometimes particularly ethnic religious minorities, it can be quite a bad situation.
Vietnam got off the Country of Particular Concern List probably in the mid-2000s. It’s been some time that they’ve gotten off of it, but there continues to be a very difficult religious situation, particularly for religious ethnic minorities. The Vietnamese government seems to have a particular umbrage against them, and what they do.
Let me make it clear here. In the United States, when we look and we make these assessments on countries and individuals, what we believe is the basic standard is that religious freedom is a right that the individual has. Many governments don’t look at it as an individual right, even though they signed on with the UN Declaration for Human Rights. But it’s an individual right. The individual has a right to choose what to do with their own soul, and that is a right that the government should protect, and that’s the role of the government — to protect this right.
We see particularly in a situation like Vietnam, where they can conflate often the issues of ethnic groups and persecution of an ethnic group, that they may find somewhat troubling to stay in power, that they look at them as a challenge. But their religious freedom is entitled to them as an individual and it isn’t a group issue. It’s an individual right. In that situation, there’s a number of individuals and a number of small groups in Vietnam that are in very difficult religious freedom situations and [there is] a lot of religious persecution.
Moderator: Thank you.
One other question we received in advance, and to follow on something that you have said yourself, there is obviously the human rights perspective to expanding religious freedom, but you also mentioned that there are other benefits that stem from countries granting expanded religious freedoms. You mentioned economic and political benefits. Can you expand on that a little bit?
Ambassador Brownback: Two of the things that’s in the research is that a country that embraces more religious freedom will have less terrorism and more economic growth. That’s in the academic research. You can look around and see examples of it. I’m in Taiwan, that’s really embraced a great deal of religious freedom, and you heave a very vibrant economy here.
I just came from Abu Dhabi about two weeks ago where we were doing a similar conference there. A nation that has just hosted Pope Francis, the first Pope ever to give a mass on the Arabian Peninsula. A vibrant, active economy. I attended mass in Abu Dhabi. There wasn’t a security issue or situation. The only real problem we had was the traffic getting there.
Those countries that embrace this sort of freedom of thought, and allow people to pursue their own beliefs, or no belief at all, they grow and they grow faster than other places that are trying to control faith or to manipulate religions. It’s a key foundational human right, but there are other benefits that come from it, namely less terrorism and more economic growth.
Moderator: Thank you.
One other question we received was, going back to China: Aside from governments taking action and making statements against the behavior we’ve seen, who else would you like to see more active in countering China’s tactics? So, [in other words], who outside of governments would you like to see more active?
Ambassador Brownback: I would like to see civil societies and religious groups. One of the things I love to see is when religious groups of all types and persuasions come together and voice their support for each other’s religious freedom. Every Tuesday that I’m in Washington, I attend an international religious freedom roundtable. At [these roundtables], there are people representing all different sorts of faiths and no faith at all. The American Humanist Association is a part of it. And they come together to protect each other’s rights.
We want to see that sort of model take off in a lot of different places. I understand there’s six of those formed in various countries where you have primarily the faith community that come together to protect each other’s rights, and to protect this right and to advocate for it because it needs advocates. Unfortunately, most of the world is in a religiously restricted atmosphere. Nearly 80 percent of the world lives in an atmosphere where there’s substantial religious restrictions. And yet again, most of the world professes a faith, they have a faith persuasion.
This is something I think the faith community itself needs to bond together much more and be active to ensure that the government isn’t picking a winner or loser in a faith community. It isn’t favoring one over another or persecuting faith, any or all, or persecuting a minority faith for a political advantage, but rather it’s there to protect. The government should protect these rights and the faith community should bond together to advocate for those rights for everybody in their country. That’s one of the things we’ve been pushing here at this session in Taipei in particular, is the formation of these international religious freedom roundtables in various countries around the world.
Moderator: Thank you.
Ambassador, we received a question from Business World, a media outlet in the Philippines, who was asking about what you may think about the Philippine President making verbal attacks against the Catholic Church. The questioner said, is it a cause of concern given that church leaders are receiving death threats? And generally speaking, what does that say in relation to the state of religious freedom in the country and the region?
Ambassador Brownback: I don’t know if that has much of a statement regarding religious freedom in that country or region. Obviously it had some impact that the President has made these sorts of statements, but our general assessment is about how the government generally either protects or denies religious freedom in that particular country. I wouldn’t really have a comment about whether or not the President’s comments have that impact one way or the other.
It is key that everybody, and this includes religious leaders, have the ability to speak freely without fear of reprisal about what a government is doing. I know as a former Governor and Senator myself, a number of people are very critical of the things that I said. Some were people of faith that were critical of what I would say or do. That is their right and prerogative and it should be protected and it shouldn’t matter whether or not they’re a religious person. They have that right to speak their mind freely, and that’s part of what makes for an open, vibrant discussion in a society, that there’s not fear of reprisal. And there shouldn’t be fear of reprisal for a religious institution if they are concerned about a particular situation in the country. We have seen that taking place in Venezuela where there has been reprisals [against faith institutions], and in Nicaragua, of reprisals towards faith institutions who have spoken up in those countries. They should be free to speak without that fear of reprisal, and often you’ll find faith communities will speak out, trying to speak up for those that are in the most difficult situation in a society. The hungry, the poor. The people that have great difficulty in that society, and those are voices we should listen to. Not try to thwart.
I want to thank you all for this call. I do want to note we will be doing other regional, religious summits around the world and then we will be doing the international, global one in Washington, DC July 16th to 18th that the Secretary of State, Secretary Pompeo has called to have. We need lots of advocates for this basic human right.
Thank you for joining us. Appreciate it very much. God bless you all.
Moderator: Thank you very much for participating in the conversation today. I’d like to thank U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback for joining us, and thank you all for participating. Apologies to those that may have been waiting to ask questions that we didn’t have time for all of them.