THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Thank you for joining us this morning at the Washington Foreign Press Center. Our speaker today is Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback. The topic of today’s briefing is the state of religious freedom around the globe.
Ambassador Brownback will start with some opening remarks and then take your questions. Ambassador.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thank you very much for being here today and thank you for joining us. Tomorrow we celebrate International Religious Freedom Day. It is a recognition of an act, commemorating the International Religious Freedom Act that was first passed 21 years ago. So it’s been 21 years since we’ve had an International Religious Freedom Act that created this job, that created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, that created a series of laws and entities and actions to push for international religious freedom. We think, particularly recently, we’ve created some real momentum in this space.
Over the past two years, we’ve had two ministerials on religious freedom where we brought together foreign ministers from around the world and civil society activists to talk about religious freedom, the state of it, the need for more governmental and civil society action in this space. This last ministerial we had this year was the largest human rights event ever held at State Department. It was the largest religious freedom event ever held in the world, had over a thousand activists at it, we had over a hundred governments. And we’re continuing to get a number of governments and civil society activists both saying we’ve really got to address this area of religious freedom if we’re going to really have a strong opportunity for the expansion of peace and the engagement of civilizations in a peaceful way around the world.
This year at the UN General Assembly, for the first time ever, a state – the United States held an event on religious freedom at the General Assembly. The President, President Trump hosted that event. As I mentioned, it’s the first time this has ever happened at the UN General Assembly. We had a number of heads of state of different countries who were at that event. At the event, the President announced $25 million that the U.S. would put in for security of religious sites and the preservation and – preservation and enhancement of religious heritage sites around the world.
He also announced, as the Secretary had earlier, an international religious freedom alliance, that the United States was going to recruit together like-minded nations from around the world to push on this topic of international religious freedom. Those nations have started to accumulate. We’ve had a number of meetings with different nations now about joining this alliance. This would be a group that would establish some basic protocols on religious freedom and push this topic as a concerted effort around the world.
There’s also, on the civil society area, another issue that’s moving forward aggressively: the creation of religious freedom roundtables around the world, that a number of nations are establishing these roundtables. And what they are is government and civil society religious actors all coming together around the topic of religious freedom, that everybody is entitled to religious freedom all the time no matter where they are, and that this is a right that individuals have whether they’re in the majority faith, minority faith, or no faith at all, that they have this right inherent as an individual. About 20 of these roundtables have been established now in various countries and venues around the world. Our effort is going to be – their effort is going to be to establish 100 of these in various countries and places throughout the world, and so that’s well on its way. I meet weekly here, when I’m in town, with the religious freedom roundtable that we have here. It meets every Tuesday, 11:00 to noon, normally on Capitol Hill. And we’re getting a strong attendance and a lot of interest of how to move forward with these topics, both here and then around the world.
So this – we think we’ve got some real momentum. We need momentum in this space. The most recent Pew research says that 80 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with high or severe restrictions on religious freedom. And we believe a government, a nation, a people can never reach their full potential as individuals if within their borders religious individuals are marginalized or oppressed. It’s by embracing and protecting religious freedom that countries can achieve their economic aspirations, ensure their security, eradicate terrorism. And so we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to the rights of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom of one’s – to change one’s religion or belief. So as we look at this 21st celebration of the act that created the office that I’m in, of International Religious Freedom Day coming up, I think there’s a real sense of hope and optimism that you’re going to see some major things start to move in this space with all of the energy and the effort now with some galvanizing of world commitments in this space.
Often – and I’ll just conclude on this thought – the biggest problem in policy making is to establish common thought and to get people to start pulling together towards that. I think the common thought has been established that we’ve got way too much religious persecution, that we’ve got too much carnage, killing, people being locked up simply for peacefully practicing their faith, and that we’re not going to achieve what we need to as civilized societies without religious freedom, and so that there’s a coming together of governments and of civil society and religious groups that we need to address this. And so you’re starting to see those taking place, particularly with the alliance and these roundtables, and I look for, really, action to start ratcheting up at even a much higher and a more aggressive level as we get these in place.
With that, let me open up and attempt to take questions that people might have.
MODERATOR: Great. And just a reminder to please state your name and your organization and wait for me to call on you. And we’ll start with the gentleman in the back.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Ambassador. My name is Shun Ishibe with NHK, Japan Broadcasting Corporation. European congress yesterday announced they awarded – the Sakharov award goes to Professor Ilham Tohti of Xinjiang, China. He is detained in China. So what is your view this award, and do you know his – anything about his latest situation, and how do you approach to Chinese Government to release him?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, I don’t have more current information on his latest situation. As you know, the U.S. has been raising the issue and the situation in Xinjiang for some time. We held a sidebar event at the UN just on Xinjiang and the persecution of the Uighur people that was taking place there, and this – the terrible – the million people that are in a concentration camp, the number of people that are missing, the number of people that have died in concentration camps in Xinjiang, and that that – in some press reports – is starting to expand to other Muslim populations in China as well.
So we’ve raised this as an extraordinary concern and as a terrible situation, and it’s something that China shouldn’t do. And it’s against the individual’s rights under the UN Charter of Human Rights. It’s against the people of China’s rights under their own constitution to be able to practice freedom of religion themselves. So we’ve continued to call on the Chinese Government to lift these oppressive measures, to let the people out of these concentration camps, and let the people freely and peacefully practice their faith and not be at war with faith. And we’ll continue to call on that.
MODERATOR: We’ll go to the – the middle.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. Emel Akan from the Epoch Times. I would like to ask you about another question on China. White House Economic Advisor Mr. Kudlow said that China’s human rights violations as well as protests in Hong Kong are key parts of the ongoing trade negotiations with Beijing, and he said human rights is a very important part and President Trump has made that very clear. I am wondering how much progress has been made with respect to human rights issues in China during the talks with Chinese delegation, and are you part of these talks?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: The – I – I was talking with Mr. Kudlow yesterday about this, and I’m very pleased that the human rights issues are being brought up with China. I think it’s important that these be brought up and that they be put forward. There is not a formal set of talks like there are a formal set of trade talks going on, but the issues are being surfaced and put forward strongly by the United States and will continue to be put forward strongly in any venues that we have a chance to do. Just yesterday the Vice President gave another major address about China and the issues of human rights and religious freedom that are lacking in China.
So these issues, we’re going to continue to press them forward, and we’re going to press them in venues any chance we get, like we just did at the UN General Assembly. And I – it’s my hope that we’re going to be able to – that the Chinese will agree at some point in time to start directly addressing with us and with other communities around the world their horrific record on religious freedom, on religious persecution that they’re doing. And it’s not just Xinjiang and the Muslims; it’s house church, it’s Tibetan Buddhist, it’s Falun Gong, it’s the entire, really, faith community.
MODERATOR: Pakistan in the back.
QUESTION: Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV Pakistan. Sir, I have two questions actually for you. The first is: Sir, nearly 2 million people have been removed from the list of citizens in Indian state of Assam. Republican – the legislative (inaudible) also raised some concerns on that. Sir, (inaudible) reports that it is being done on the basis of religion. Is it a matter of concern for you?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, any time a group of people are identified and then excluded based on faith is a matter of concern to us, and I think to the global religious freedom community. And now the particular case you’re raising I think one would – I would want to, and I have been, looking more factually into it. So I want to know completely what the set of facts are with it. But I’ve raised many of these cases in different settings around the world, any time you’re excluding a group of people based on faith that are peaceful practitioners of their faith. But I want to know specifically more in cases like that, and that’s what we are looking factually into it today.
QUESTION: Sir, there is a concerning situation in Indian-held Kashmir, too. People are not allowed to practice their faith for the last many, many months, as there is a curfew and lockdown in the – on the (inaudible) in the Kashmir Valley. Sir, if you would like to also comment on
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah. And it’s the same situation. We believe people should be allowed to freely practice their faith wherever they are, whoever they are, as long as they’re peacefully practicing their faith. And that applies everywhere all the time. And I’ll be raising these issues – again, these are things that we try to get all the factual setting, and then try to raise them in constructive ways whenever we can and however we can. And we will do that.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Let’s go in the back.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you, Ambassador. My question is: As we know for years, Chinese Communist Party has been trying to export its religious persecution overseas through its influence operation. Recently people have just found that when they – for example, when you search on the Google website for what is Falun Gong, what automatically pop up on the top recommended by the Google are the website controlled by Chinese Government, a government website. So just wondering, what do you think about – like, how can we hold these American firms also accountable to stand up for our values, and not become part of the Chinese persecution?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: (Inaudible) you’re following, there’s a robust debate in the country right now. Whether it’s the tech companies or it’s sport entities, this is a big, robust debate, and it should be. These issues should be brought up, and it should be discussed. We stand for freedom of speech. We stand for freedom of religion. We believe these are rights that people are entitled to everywhere and all the time, that they’re inherent with being an individual, that they’re rights that governments should protect. And certainly applies to our citizens and people that are here. There are then individuals and companies – they say, well, I’m looking at it this way, I’m considering that, but I think it’s important that we constantly have this discussion, and that we have it in a robust way as a way of really defending and continuing to educate and talk with people about what these rights are.
I’ve been involved in this space for 20 years. There’s – these things constantly come up, and they come up on factual settings. You’ve got a major principle, and you come up, okay, what about in this case? And then that’s where you have a robust public discussion about it. Sometimes the Congress gets involved, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the administration gets involved, sometimes it doesn’t. But I think that the important thing is there’s constantly really a reaffirmation of these basic principles that people are entitled to, and that they’re entitled to in practice not just in theory, and that – then they have to be determined at each in a specific type of setting. But I think we’re always at our best as a nation when we stand on fundamental principles, and we stand there regardless of who’s on the other side, but we stand for these basics: religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly – that these are your rights as individuals, and they apply all the time.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to Egypt.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir. I mean, I’m Thomas Gorguissian for Al Ahram Weekly, Egypt. I will try to talk more about the forest than the trees. And I followed you almost for 20 years in your religious freedom or this career that you have in different places, and you – it seems that over years, the religious freedom has not improved as a matter of fact. I mean, we all – my respect of the people who are trying to say different thing – how do you see that this can be handled in a better way or in a way that is become more practical and people face their – what they are doing and what they are not doing in regarding – I mean, you mentioned the roundtable discussions. I mean, what – from your perspective, what is the obstacle that others are facing or we are facing here in the United States in talking to each other frankly and – about everything related to religious freedom, even though – I mean, I’m not sure if religious freedom include those who are not even believing in religious, which is a factor important in this time in 2019 and in any time. So can you reflect a little bit out of your experience regarding this bigger question that I am trying to raise instead of being geographically here or there, or this country or that country, or that religion or that religion? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah. No, I think it’s a fair question, and I – you look at the raw numbers and you’d say the situation’s gotten worse; it’s not gotten better. And I think that’s accurate if I look at the raw numbers. I do think there has been a momentum shift within the past year, and particularly that the number of Western countries are now starting to say we’ve got to go at this issue. I think for a long time the West wanted to just not deal with the issue of religion and just hope it kind of went away over time, but that now they’re – look, we have to deal with this.
There’s just so much carnage and death and people that are being locked up. And you can go to many countries and see it. You can see it in the United States. You can see it in New Zealand at Christchurch. You can see it in Sri Lanka. You can see it in Egypt. You can – but we have to. And so my hope is then that you’re seeing some momentum shift taking place. You have the first ever freedom of religion event at the UN General Assembly. You’ve had the first ever ministerial, and now a second one on this topic. You’ve got this alliance coming together that hasn’t existed before. This will be the first one of the biggest new human rights pushes in organizations that have happened in the last several decades. Now, these aren’t panaceas, but they are showing that there is more global focus on it than there’s been, and you can’t just ignore a problem and just hope it gets – hope it gets better.
One final point I’d make to you is a gentleman who was of a minority religion. It was a gentleman that was a Baha’i, and I was saying to him in a speech I was giving and said we just haven’t – it hasn’t gotten better. And he said: I want to give you a different spin on that. He lived – most Baha’i in one country that he was aware of, and I’m not going to name it right now, but he said: The authorities know where we all live. We’ve got about 250,000 of us in this country, and authorities know where we are. If you guys hadn’t been pushing for religious freedom, we’d all been killed by now. We’re not. Now, we don’t get to participate in the society like we like; we’d like to go to the schools that we’d want to go to; we’d like to get better healthcare than we’re getting. But we’re not dead. And if you guys hadn’t been pushing this, we probably all would have been killed. So you’ve done good in that sense. And I was going, well, all right, if we’ve done that, yes, then that is a very good thing. It’s kind of a low bar, but it is something, and it’s a substantial something.
And I just – I do hope we’re at a moment where you’re going to start actually seeing the situation substantially improve in places and that there’s this momentum. Because I – as you noted, I’ve been around this topic a long time. I’ve not seen this kind of momentum before. I’ve never seen an administration like this one lean into the topic like this one is, the Trump administration, and you’re starting to get some Western partners – the Brits are leaning into it more. The Hungarians are leaning into it more. You’re starting to see Middle Eastern countries saying, “This is not good for our long-term growth that we’ve become this purified monoculture, one brand of Islam. This doesn’t serve us well as a nation to grow in the future if we exclude everybody else.” The leaders are saying that. So I – that’s why I continue to soldier on, and I believe we’re really at an era where things are going to start moving back a better way.
Thanks for that question. I’m going to end on that because I think that’s a good place to cap it. Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Thank you for joining us.
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