Samuel D. Brownback, Ambassador at Large for International Religious FreedomOffice of International Religious Freedom
MR ICE: Thank you very much and good afternoon, everyone. I’m glad you could join us for this on-the-record briefing to discuss the 2020 Ministerial to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Ministers’ Forum of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance.
Over the past two days, the Government of Poland hosted the virtual 2020 Ministerial to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief, which convened more than 50 nations and international organizations and featured discussions about the most pressing religious freedom issues in the world. On November 17, on the margins of the Ministerial, Secretary Pompeo hosted the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance Ministers’ Forum, where Alliance member-states planned their collective action for the next year in the religious freedom space.
Our briefer today is going to be Ambassador Sam Brownback, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.
Ambassador Brownback is going to open with some brief remarks, and then we’re going to take your questions. I’ll go ahead and give a preview, as the operator was alluding to. You’re going to dial 1 and then 0 to join the question queue. Just a quick reminder that the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call, and it is on the record.
With that, I’m now going to turn you over to Ambassador Brownback. Ambassador Brownback.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thank you very much, JT, appreciate that, and thank you, everybody. Thank you all for joining me on this call and this briefing. This has been an amazing time and events today.
In summary, I would say basically the global religious freedom movement is launched. We saw it take place today, the finishing up of the third annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom or Belief. This one for the first time was hosted outside of the United States by Poland. They did an excellent job. Unfortunately, it had to be virtual, but it was still, I think, a very good gathering on the topics and the key topics facing the issue and the cause of religious freedom. There’s just way too much religious persecution in the world. It continues to be the number that roughly 80 percent of the world’s population faces some form of religious persecution, restrictions, limitations of things that they can do.
The movement has really grown and gained speed. We’ve seen now going from the first ministerial that Secretary Pompeo hosted, the first two, to now this one in Poland, and then just today Brazil announced that they would host the next Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom or Belief next year.
We had an excellent meeting of the Alliance. This was a group announced in February and kicked off by Secretary Pompeo at that time. We had 26 countries at the initial launch of it. There are now 32 member nations of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance. This is a network of activist countries to push on topics of religious freedom. We had our first annual foreign minister-level meeting just today. It concluded roughly an hour and a half ago. It had 20 either foreign ministers or deputy foreign ministers that attended that, announcing various things that they would seek to have initiatives on, plus we had a final statement that will be coming out from the Secretariat from – and about the Alliance’s activities this next year.
Some of the things that I can tell you that we’ve done this year and plan to do this next year: COVID-19 advocacy. We together push for the rights of freedom of religion or belief during the pandemic, and that appropriate safeguards can be put on – but that members of the religious community are entitled to meet – and no greater restrictions that are put on groups similarly situated. We’re very concerned that the pandemic was going to be used to persecute people additionally.
We advocated for prisoners of conscience to be released during the pandemic, while the incarceration setting is one of the most virulent ways for the COVID virus to be communicated to various individuals. We sought to have religious prisoners released during the pandemic, and a number were in countries from Uzbekistan, Iran, Burma, Cuba, Egypt, Yemen, Vietnam, Eritrea. Literally thousands of religious prisoners were released. We want to have the practice that you’re not locked up for your faith, that people can freely practice their faith without fear of incarceration, and that’s our objective moving forward.
We have a number of multilateral themes that are coming forward. We seek the end to apostasy and blasphemy laws. Australia announced today that they will seek to end the death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy. There are 10 countries in the world that give – they give the death penalty for apostasy or blasphemy. Very pleased to see that Sudan recently repealed its apostasy law, and that’s a first in the world in recent memory for one of these laws to be repealed. We seek for all of them to be repealed as a undue restriction on people’s religious freedom.
There was announcements of efforts to protect religious sites in conflict zones. We’re seeing unfortunately a great deal of destruction of religious sites in conflict or occupied zones, and there’s now a growing global movement to push back against that destruction of these religious sites. Now this is an attack on a culture, it’s an attack on a religion as well, but a number of the countries are pushing back against that.
We want to – the United States announced today that we will pursue the topic of misuse of technology to oppress religious minorities. We’re seeing this graphically done in Xinjiang, where high-tech observation systems using artificial intelligence and facial recognition are oppressing a dominantly Muslim majority from practicing its faith, this along with being locked up in detention facilities – over a million Muslim Uyghurs locked up in detention facilities. And we’re going to launch into an effort that this technology not be misused to oppress religious minorities.
And then there seems to be a great deal of interest in three additional areas by the members of the Alliance. One is to pursue education, to teach religious respect for various religions. Another is an activity, a desire in the Middle East/North Africa region to allow religious minorities to be able to stay in that region. That’s a region that’s been virtually drained of Christians except for a couple of countries now, and several countries were talking about the need to be able to allow religious minorities – and in that case in particular, Christian minorities – to be able to stay in the Middle East.
And then there was a clear desire for interfaith dialogue and – with a push for that to take place as a way to build understanding and also to reduce violence. We particularly see a lot of Muslim-on-Christian violence in Africa, and we’re looking for ways to push back on that and engage theologians from the Abrahamic faiths to say that our religion does not support the use of violence in promoting the religion.
So those are some of the things that came out of it. I thought it was an outstanding event. The Alliance has come a long way since its launch in February. It already has a number of accomplishments that it’s done, and we really heard a hearty endorsement of it from the countries that were attending and the need for this in this day and age.
We – and if I could just conclude on this point, I think what’s happened is that we – the world has uncovered and seen now this level and scale of religious persecution, and the chains of those who are persecuted start to rub against our skin, and we feel it. We’re pushing back against that, and this global movement has now launched and it will not be deterred, it will not be thwarted. This will continue.
So with that, let me attempt to answer your questions.
MR ICE: Very good. Thank you, Ambassador Brownback. Okay, just as a reminder to everyone to get into the question queue, dial 1 and then 0. And we’ll try to get to everyone. At this time, let’s go to Matt Lee at the Associated Press.
QUESTION: Thanks a lot. Mr. Ambassador, I’d like to kind of pull back and focus on your last comment there, but look at this – today’s and yesterday’s event from a kind of 30,000-foot level. How concerned are you – given your comment that you said that we’re pushing back, this is a global movement now, it will not be deterred, it will not be thwarted, it will be continued – how concerned are you that the incoming administration won’t be as – I don’t know what the right – enthusiastic, or it won’t have your portfolio as high a priority as this administration has obviously made it? And if you are concerned, what steps are you taking to try to make sure that it doesn’t become less of a priority for American foreign policy? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, thanks, Matt. An excellent question. The reason I’m optimistic about it is this is a bipartisan movement. This law that this – the position I’m in was created under and renewed under the Frank Wolf Religious Freedom Act. It was a bipartisan act, signed by President Obama when he was in office, had large bipartisan support in both houses for it. Speaker Pelosi spoke at our last ministerial in Washington, strongly concerned about religious persecution in China in particular.
So while a different administration may emphasize different aspects of religious freedom, this goes deeply into the American psyche. We just had the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower, the pilgrims coming here seeking religious freedom. And I think this is just – this will continue. There’ll be different emphasis points that a new administration will make, but it’s got broad bipartisan support, and I think that will continue here, and it will continue overseas. I mean, now you’re seeing other countries pick up the cause that the United States launched. I think without the U.S.’s leaning in and pushing it, this would not have gotten launched.
But now that it’s launched and you have a regular ministerial, and you have an Alliance that stood up on the topic, and you have 30 religious freedom roundtables that are grassroots activists around the world, this – the movement’s launched and it’s not going to stop with the change of an administration. And I might be – I hope that the Biden administration would be strongly supportive of this as well. Joe Biden was when he was a senator. I would think he would continue to do it as president if that’s the final court ruling.
MR ICE: Very good. Let’s go to Jeremy Weber at Christianity Today.
QUESTION: Good morning. Hello, Ambassador. Two questions. One, you mentioned the 30 roundtables. I was wondering if you could just pick three that have seemed to be the most promising or you’re most excited about what they accomplished so far. And the second question, on the subject of efforts to protect religious sites in conflict zones, obviously everybody’s looking at the current armistice with Armenia and Azerbaijan. The president of Azerbaijan pledged to protect the Armenian sites. We just posted a op-ed today from the Catholicos Karekin II basically expressing skepticism that that will in fact take place. Curious for your read on the likelihood of religious sites being protected there. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: No, thank you. The – I’d say two of the roundtables that immediately come to mind that have been outstanding – the one in D.C. is fantastic. It is now – and it’s gone global. Every – it meets every Tuesday 11:00 to noon. I am on that call with them. Greg Mitchell heads it up and they – they’ve had over 800 different individuals on those calls, usually get about 120 to 140 people on them, and bringing in cases all over the world of people plugging in now that it’s gone virtual.
The other one that just launched about two weeks ago is in Sudan of a religious freedom roundtable, and here’s a country that was a Country of Particular Concern ruled by Islamist militants, and now it’s embracing this religious freedom concept and seeking peace agreements built around the concept of religious freedom. And they’re getting it in their region. Those are two that immediately come to mind that I think are really doing an outstanding job.
The issue on the protection of religious sites in Nagorno-Karabakh came up in the Alliance meeting today, and the Armenian ambassador that presented brought that topic up about the need to protect these sites and for the religious adherents to be able to have access to them. I – it is my hope that that will happen. The Azeri ambassador called me when one of the sites had gotten shelled and was saying this was an accident and they – it was not an intentional thing. Now, I haven’t heard the final determination on that, but we certainly are going to be calling on Azerbaijan and any other people involved to protect these religious sites.
What I’m excited about is that going forward, you’ve got a series of these places – Russia occupies the Donbas in Crimea and parts of Georgia – that they allow these religious sites to be protected and they protect them. And we see this in a number of places around the world. I think this is a growing movement that you’re going to see much more world condemnation when these places get hit if they are intentionally attacked.
MR ICE: Very good, thank you. Let’s go to Mamatjan Juma at Radio Free Asia.
QUESTION: Sure. This is Mamatjan Juma from Radio Free Asia. So you just mentioned about China’s persecution of Uyghurs, and recently United States Government officially delisted ETIM, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, from its exclusion list, last month. And – so what do you have to say to China, which continues to use ETIM and terrorism as a justification of persecuting Uyghurs and locking up millions of them?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, I think in particular what China is doing is absolutely wrong. It’s one of the worst religious persecution situations in the world today, if not the worst. And it is – it will not help them in their fight on terrorism. They’re trying to sell it to the world that this is an effort to prevent terrorism, but they’re going to create more terrorists. The answer to terrorism isn’t locking up everybody. The answer to terrorism is religious freedom, allowing people to freely practice their faith, and they won’t fight you as much. If the Chinese weren’t at war with faith, they would have – they’d have a more open society, but they’d also have a more satisfied citizenry that seeks to practice their faith and be left alone and left in peace.
So I – we continue to call on China to stop their war on faith, which will not be successful anyway, but against the Uyghurs, against the Tibetan Buddhists, against the Christian house church, against the Catholic Church, against Falun Gong. They are persecuting all faiths. And the big one that we announced today was this effort to really push back on the use of technology to create these virtual police states to persecute religious adherence. And this is something they’ve done in Tibet, they are doing in Xinjiang, and rolling out in different places in their country. And we want to stop this from spreading to other countries around the world or spreading more to other countries around the world.
MR ICE: Thank you, Ambassador. Let’s go to Jackson Richman at Jewish News Syndicate.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you very much, Ambassador Brownback, for doing this. My question is: how much of a focus will there be on anti-Semitism abroad, especially in Europe?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: There’s a great deal of it. Elan Carr is the special representative dealing with this area, and he’s doing a great job with it. And – but there is growing anti-Semitism. That came up in our Alliance meeting this morning as well. The representative to Israel pointed that out and also pointed out about the loss of Christians in the Middle East. But there’s going to be a growing pushback against that. And then – just we need to engage every tool that we can to push back against this feature of anti-Semitism that has not gone away and is growing more again.
MR ICE: Okay. Very well. Let’s go to Jennifer Hansler at CNN.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. I wanted to follow up on Matt’s question, Ambassador, and see if you have engaged with the transition at all or if you intend to, and who you think might be a good replacement for you in the upcoming Biden administration. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, I haven’t engaged with the transition. We’ve had these really big events that are coming up, and we’ve got more to come on a Religious Leaders Engagement Peace Initiative and on the Abrahamic Faiths Initiative, where we’re getting these Abrahamic faith theologians together to push back against the use of the theologies for violence and saying these theologies, the Abrahamic traditions, are peace oriented. But I haven’t engaged the – anybody in any discussion – well, on – of any – the official transition team or apparatus. I’ve been focused on this. People ask me what I’m going to do, but I don’t – I’m not sure, and I’ve been focused on these events that we’ve had coming up this week.
MR ICE: Okay. Let’s go to Tenzin Dickyi at Radio Free Asia again.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity. Ambassador, I wanted to ask about the religious freedom in Tibet, which still remains very grim, and China continues to claim that it has the right to recognize the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama. As an ambassador, would you recommend any concrete action as part of the U.S. Government? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, number one, I traveled to Dharamshala, India to speak to the Tibetan community that were assembled there in exile and to tell them that the United States is opposed to China picking the next Dalai Lama. They have no right to do that. They have no theological basis to do that. The Tibetan Buddhists have successfully picked their leader for hundreds of years, if not longer, and they have the right to do that now. We believe – the United States supports – that religious communities have the right to pick their own leadership. That certainly includes the next Dalai Lama. So we’ve pushed back against that. We’re going to continue to push back against that. We think that’s completely wrong of the Chinese Communist Party to assert that they have that right.
MR ICE: Okay. Let’s go to Ilhan Tanir at Ahval News.
QUESTION: Thanks so much, Ambassador Brownback. I had two quick questions since today Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Turkey and met with Orthodox Christians, leader of the Orthodox Christians, and there was some backlash from Ankara. Can you please tell us how do you see Turkey, Turkish Government policies, in terms of religious freedom in general, not only minorities but if you see in general how it’s respect?
And secondly, Turkey’s in control of several territories in northern Syria, and recently United States Commission on International Religious Freedom watch tier stated that there are also some severe religious freedom violations in those northern Syria territories under the Turkish Government that directed by Turkish Government. Do you agree with this assessment? How do you see religious freedom in northern Syria under the Turkish Government control? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thank you for the question. We’ve had a great deal of difficulty with the Turkish Government and some of the actions that they have taken that have persecuted people of faith. Most notably was Pastor Andrew Brunson that was inappropriately charged, put in jail, in Turkish jail for two years, before being released under pressure from the United States and many other people around the world. And unfortunately, Turkey has taken a number of actions that have been against the notions of freedom of religion, and we call on them to be open and a country in good standing that does protect the right of religious freedom for its own adherence, for people at home and abroad.
We’re very concerned about the situation for religious minorities in northern Syria, and I’ve seen these reports as well, and we call on the people that are over a particular area to allow people to freely practice their faith without persecution and to allow religious minorities to live and to thrive in that war-torn area. It’s a very difficult situation right now for a number of people in northern – north Syria, whether they’re religious minorities or otherwise even too, but it’s particularly bad for religious minorities.
MR ICE: Thank you, Ambassador Brownback. And with that, I’m afraid we have run out of time on the briefing. I want to thank everyone for their participation today, for calling in, and I want to thank you, Ambassador Brownback. And with that, here – this is the end of the call, and the brief – the embargo is now lifted. Again, thank you.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it. Thanks, J.T. Take care. You guys all have a good day. God bless you all.