January 24, 2022


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Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel D. Brownback On the 2020 Ministerial to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief and the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance Ministers’ Forum

24 min read

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.

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    What GAO Found The U.S. works with other nations through multilateral agreements to collectively manage high seas fisheries. For example, the U.S. is a member of nine regional fisheries management organizations (RFMO), which are treaty-based organizations of nations with an interest in managing and conserving fisheries in specific regions of the sea. These organizations establish rules for vessels fishing in the RFMO agreement area, such as limits on the numbers and types of fish that can be caught. In addition, the U.S. establishes bilateral agreements and conducts at-sea operations focused on strengthening other nations' capacity to manage their own fisheries and fleets. For example, the Department of Defense (DOD) leads a program aimed at building African partner nations' capability to enhance maritime security and enforce their maritime laws. However, DOD officials told us that, as a result of changes to the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, the department no longer has clear authority to conduct the operational phase of this program—known as Operation Junction Rain. By determining whether it has the authority to conduct this operation, and, if not, seeking such authority, DOD could continue efforts to support African partner nations' capability to enforce fisheries laws and regulations, which in turn helps them work to counter illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Coast Guard Officials Preparing to Board and Inspect a Fishing Vessel The U.S. collects and analyzes information from various sources to identify potential IUU fishing at sea outside of U.S. waters. For example, Coast Guard analyzes vessel location data to identify movements that may signal potential IUU fishing, and officials told us they use this data analysis to help to guide at-sea patrol operations to target these vessels. Several interagency groups and processes help coordinate federal efforts to combat IUU fishing at sea. For example, an interagency working group, established by the Maritime Security and Fisheries Enforcement Act in 2019, coordinates U.S. efforts to address IUU fishing government-wide. We found that the working group generally followed selected leading collaboration practices, such as developing a written work plan. The working group's tasks include assessing areas for increased agency information-sharing on IUU fishing-related matters, identifying priority regions and nations, and developing a 5-year strategic plan to combat IUU fishing and enhance maritime security. Why GAO Did This Study IUU fishing undermines the economic and environmental sustainability of the fishing industry in the U.S. and globally. IUU fishing encompasses many illicit activities, including under-reporting the number of fish caught and using prohibited fishing gear. While the illicit nature of IUU fishing means its consequences can only be estimated, a recent study estimates catches from IUU fishing could cause global economic losses up to $50 billion annually. A variety of federal agencies coordinate with one another, as well as internationally, to address IUU fishing at sea. GAO was asked to review federal efforts to combat IUU fishing outside of U.S. waters. This report examines how the U.S. (1) works with other nations to address IUU fishing at sea, (2) identifies potential incidents of IUU fishing at sea, and (3) coordinates its interagency efforts to combat IUU fishing at sea and the extent to which selected efforts are consistent with leading collaboration practices. GAO reviewed various international agreements and the mechanisms that support these efforts, as well as other relevant agency documents. We also spoke with officials from the U.S. Coast Guard, NOAA, and DOD, among others, about their approaches to identifying and combating IUU fishing at sea.
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  • Secretary Antony J. Blinken with Maupe Ogun-Yusuf of Channels TV
    In Crime Control and Security News
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    In Crime Control and Security News
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  • Weapon Systems Cybersecurity: Guidance Would Help DOD Programs Better Communicate Requirements to Contractors
    In U.S GAO News
    Since GAO's 2018 report, the Department of Defense (DOD) has taken action to make its network of high-tech weapon systems less vulnerable to cyberattacks. DOD and military service officials highlighted areas of progress, including increased access to expertise, enhanced cyber testing, and additional guidance. For example, GAO found that selected acquisition programs have conducted, or planned to conduct, more cybersecurity testing during development than past acquisition programs. It is important that DOD sustain its efforts as it works to improve weapon systems cybersecurity. Contracting for cybersecurity requirements is key. DOD guidance states that these requirements should be treated like other types of system requirements and, more simply, “if it is not in the contract, do not expect to get it.” Specifically, cybersecurity requirements should be defined in acquisition program contracts, and criteria should be established for accepting or rejecting the work and for how the government will verify that requirements have been met. However, GAO found examples of program contracts omitting cybersecurity requirements, acceptance criteria, or verification processes. For example, GAO found that contracts for three of the five programs did not include any cybersecurity requirements when they were awarded. A senior DOD official said standardizing cybersecurity requirements is difficult and the department needs to better communicate cybersecurity requirements and systems engineering to the users that will decide whether or not a cybersecurity risk is acceptable. Incorporating Cybersecurity in Contracts DOD and the military services have developed a range of policy and guidance documents to improve weapon systems cybersecurity, but the guidance usually does not specifically address how acquisition programs should include cybersecurity requirements, acceptance criteria, and verification processes in contracts. Among the four military services GAO reviewed, only the Air Force has issued service-wide guidance that details how acquisition programs should define cybersecurity requirements and incorporate those requirements in contracts. The other services could benefit from a similar approach in developing their own guidance that helps ensure that DOD appropriately addresses cybersecurity requirements in contracts. DOD's network of sophisticated, expensive weapon systems must work when needed, without being incapacitated by cyberattacks. However, GAO reported in 2018 that DOD was routinely finding cyber vulnerabilities late in its development process. A Senate report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 included a provision for GAO to review DOD's implementation of cybersecurity for weapon systems in development. GAO's report addresses (1) the extent to which DOD has made progress in implementing cybersecurity for weapon systems during development, and (2) the extent to which DOD and the military services have developed guidance for incorporating weapon systems cybersecurity requirements into contracts. GAO reviewed DOD and service guidance and policies related to cybersecurity for weapon systems in development, interviewed DOD and program officials, and reviewed supporting documentation for five acquisition programs. GAO also interviewed defense contractors about their experiences with weapon systems cybersecurity. GAO is recommending that the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps provide guidance on how programs should incorporate tailored cybersecurity requirements into contracts. DOD concurred with two recommendations, and stated that the third—to the Marine Corps—should be merged with the one to the Navy. DOD's response aligns with the intent of the recommendation. For more information, contact W. William Russell at (202) 512-4841 or russellw@gao.gov.
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  • Michigan Biodiesel Exporter Sentenced to Prison for Tax Fraud
    In Crime News
    A Bloomfield, Michigan, businessman, who operated a biodiesel fuel company, was sentenced to 30 months in prison today for filing a false income tax return.
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    In Crime Control and Security News
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  • Defendant Was Convicted of Multiple Counts of Sex and Drug Trafficking, Several Firearm Offenses and Other Offenses, Including Witness Tampering
    In Crime News
    Prince Bixler, 41, of Lexington, Kentucky, was sentenced today by U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Wier to 36 years in prison followed by 10 years of supervised release and ordered to pay $333,100 in restitution to three sex trafficking victims.
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  • U.S. Announces Additional Humanitarian Assistance for the Tigray Crisis Response
    In Crime Control and Security News
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