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  • Telephonic Press Conference – Preview of Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom

  • BRIEFERS: Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel D. Brownback

BACKGROUND:   Secretary Pompeo will host the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom (MARF) in Washington on July 16-18.  A broad range of stakeholders, including senior government representatives, international organization representatives, and up to 1000 civil society and religious community representatives, will convene to discuss challenges, identify concrete ways to combat religious persecution and discrimination, and ensure greater respect for freedom of religion or belief.

Ambassador Brownback previewed the Ministerial and discuss the status of religious freedom around the world.


MODERATOR:  Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for waiting.  The Foreign Press Centers are well pleased to be welcoming back Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback, who today will give us a preview of the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.  He’s well known to FPC participants, so I won’t quote from his bio, which was in the invitation.  What I’ll do now is turn it over to him to make some introductory remarks, and then, as stated, we’ll come back for a brief Q&A.

Thank you for very much, Mr. Ambassador.

The whole effort is to stir action.  We have way too much religious persecution that’s taking place in the world, people being killed for their faith and harassed and imprisoned.

Ambassador Brownback

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Thank you, Benjamin; appreciate that.  Thank you all for joining us today; appreciate that very much.

Next week, the State Department will host its second-ever Ministerial on Religious Freedom.  This will be the largest religious freedom event ever held in the world.  It’s really two events.  There’ll be religious and civil society leaders gathered on the first two days, on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week.  There’ll be over a thousand religious leaders, civil society leaders gathered.  And then day three is the governments that will be attending at that event.  We have more foreign ministers that have RSVP’d this year already than came last year, so we’re looking forward to their participation.

The whole effort is to stir action.  We have way too much religious persecution that’s taking place in the world, people being killed for their faith and harassed and imprisoned.  We will start off, and the lead speakers for the whole event will be those who have been persecuted.  And we have over 20 different people from many different faiths that will testify.  The start-off group will be three people from the Abrahamic faiths:  a Jewish rabbi from the San Diego synagogue where the shootings took place there; a Christian from Sri Lanka that has worked with a number of the individuals that were – experienced the deadly Easter bombings that took place in Sri Lanka; and a Muslim from New Zealand that was in the mosque attacks that happened there.

The best known people that are persecuted for their faith that’ll be speaking are Nadia Murad – she is the Nobel Peace Prize winner, a Yezidi woman that has advocated and been a staunch advocate for her people in northern Iraq that experienced the genocide at the hands of ISIS – and then Andrew Brunson will be here as well and speak.  Andrew is a U.S. pastor that was in a Turkish prison for two years that the President himself, President Trump, was deeply engaged in getting him to freedom.

As I mentioned, this is to stir action.  We want to see a grassroots movement taking place around the world, uniting the faiths to stand up for each other’s right to exist.  Every faith that’s a majority in one country is a minority in another country.  Each of them have the right under the UN Declaration of Human Rights and under most countries’ constitutions to practice their faith freely and without persecution.  Yet most of the world, over 70 percent of the world, experiences substantial religious persecution.  So we want to stir this grassroots movement.  We’re asking countries to start, or places to start religious freedom roundtables, where the people of faith get together and stand up for each other’s religious freedom.  We hope to have follow-on conferences.  We anticipate at the event itself a series of actions being announced by the United States Government and other nations in attendance.

There will be over 80 sidebar events, events done at the margins by activist groups.  If one wants to see the names of some of those, you can go on their website.  It’s called the .  Again, that’s for a listing of these sidebar events.

Because we’re oversubscribed, there will be a second stage operating to accommodate the overflow at George Washington University.  The Loeb Institute is hosting that.

The entire event will start at the Holocaust Museum on Monday, July 15th.  It’s starting there to remind people of what can happen in these situations where a faith gets persecuted, like what took place in the Holocaust.  Last year’s event, one of the people that were persecuted in – when they were touring the Holocaust Museum, saw pictures of some of the prisoners in the concentration camps and said, “Why, my uniform looked very much similar to that one.”  And another person responded that evil is not very imaginative; it just keeps doing the same thing.  And unfortunately, we keep seeing these evils perpetrated.  The British report out last week on Christian persecution cited a very high level – indeed, some are saying the highest level in history – of Christian martyrs for their faith.

So we start at the Holocaust Museum Monday.  We’ll end at the African American Museum on Thursday, July 18th with a closing reception.  And we really are anticipating just a fabulous event and really moving this forward.

I analogize the human trafficking movement is one that’s started with – started by a number of people in different places, but a lot of push by the U.S. Government, is now a very aggressive and growing grassroots movement around the world to stop human trafficking.  We want to see the same thing happen on religious freedom – a grassroots movement around the world of people activating and active for their religious freedom and for the religious freedom of others.  This is a right that only exists if everybody has a chance to participate and has this right, and their experience is that they have this right.

With that, I’d be happy to take some of your questions.

MODERATOR:  I’ll turn it over to Josh, please, our AT&T colleague, who will explain the process.

OPERATOR:  Ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, press * then 0 on your phone.  You will hear an acknowledgement tone, and an operator will gather your name and further instruct you.  Once again, press * then 0 on your phone if you do have a question.

One moment for our first question.

If the operator has gathered your name, at this moment press *1.

MODERATOR:  All right.  And if we could take a question please from Simon Ateba.

OPERATOR:  Simon Ateba, your line is open.

QUESTION:  So my name is Simon Ateba from Today News Africa, USA here in Washington, D.C.  President Trump has issued executive orders banning Muslim from coming into the U.S.  He has also reduced funding for the State Department for civil right organization supporting gays and lesbian and for women and for safe abortion around the world.  (Inaudible) media enemies of the people and called Africa a “shithole.”  So I’m just wondering why do you think that anyone should believe that the U.S. remain that partner that can spread freedom around the world?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Well, Simon, I wouldn’t agree with your characterization of all of the items.  And the United States continues to stand and has stood, since our founding, for human rights and democracy and participation by all individuals and continues to do that.  This will be the largest human rights gathering that’s ever been done at the State Department.  It is the largest religious freedom gathering ever seen in the world.  I would hope those things would be acknowledged and focused on as well.  And that what we’re doing here is something that’s serious, that needed to have been done a long time ago, and that has been a human right that I think has been persecuted and we’ve seen deadly things happen because of it.  So I would hope people would see the importance of addressing this rather than just trying to be critical of the administration.

MODERATOR:  All right.  And if we could take a question from Kitty Wang, please.

OPERATOR:  Kitty Wang, your line is open.  Please go ahead.

QUESTION:  Okay.  Thank you.  This is Kitty Wang with NTDTV.  Ambassador, recently State Department released the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.  And at the press conference I think you talked about China and the organ harvesting issue.  So I’m just wondering for this ministerial conference, any specific discussion on – in the conference will be focused on China or the organ harvesting issue?  So can you talk a little bit about that and what kind of actions you may expect to see through this conference?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  There will be discussion of the actions that China has taken on the areas of religion and the religious persecution that’s happening in China to Uighurs and the – just the million that are in camps.  There was a report out recently on even what’s happening to the children of some of those that are being held in these detention facilities in western China.

There are sidebar events, I know, that are happening on the organ harvesting issue.  There was a recent British report that was not a governmental report but by a distinguished group of scholars citing the organ harvesting that’s taking place – that has been alleged to have been taking place in China, and I know that there’s a group, an outside group, that’s going to be hosting and showcasing that.

There will be extensive discussions about China.  China continues to be a Country of Particular Concern for us in our reporting on religious freedom.  Persecution has increased in the last several years.  It’s broad-based; it is going after many faiths – Tibetan Buddhists, Muslim Uighurs, Chinese house church, Chinese Catholics, Falun Gong, and others.  So there will be a strong discussion about what’s taking place in China and actions that should follow.

MODERATOR:  All right.  Do we have other questioners?

OPERATOR:  Yes.  For all those that have a question and your name was gathered, at this moment press *1.  Once again, if your name was gathered by an operator, press *1 at this moment.

MODERATOR:  Can we please go ahead and take one from Dmitry Zlodorev?

QUESTION:  Good afternoon.  My name is Dmitry Zlodorev.  I am from Sputnik newswire service in Washington, D.C.  I have a question:  Will the United States call on Ukrainian authorities and the representative of newly organized church to stop violations against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate and return the property they hijacked?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  I would not anticipate there will be any discussion of Ukrainian property issue.  That’s one that should be resolved by the churches there.  We obviously recognize what’s taking place of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church seeking autocephaly and its own separate status and have been supportive of that decision by the ecumenical patriarch.  This is a church decision that he has made and that the Ukrainians have sought, but the property issue is one that’ll have to be worked out by the churches and the religious officials.

Thank you all for letting me brief you on this.  We hope there’s coverage that will take place of the event this next week.  Don’t see anybody else up.

MODERATOR:   The ambassador can take a couple more questions, so let me please take Muna Habib, please.

OPERATOR:  Muna, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Oh, hi.  I’m just wondering, are you going to call on Pakistan to address their issues with religious freedom and religious tolerance and the crimes that have been happening there on people of other faiths?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Yes, we will.  Pakistan is one of our Countries of Particular Concern.  That’s a designation of a nation that has ongoing and deep religious persecution that’s happening and either being allowed, ignored, or conducted by the government itself.  We have deep concerns about what Pakistan has done.  The number of people that they have locked up for – on blasphemy charges is large, and there have been a number of different actions that Pakistan has taken.  I traveled there this year to meet with Pakistani officials.  We are going to continue to press them to open the space up, that it will be good for their nation if they would open up to religious freedom and allow various adherents to practice their faith and not in a way that they really risk a great deal for their families or their – the people that are – they are practitioners, if they do practice.  So we will be addressing the situation in Pakistan.

QUESTION:  Okay, and you said that you traveled there.  Do you think they are receptive to your recommendations?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Yes, but if – for us, it’s good to have a discussion and we’re all for discussing things.  We want to see actions taking place.  We do applaud that the Pakistani Government released Asia Bibi after the supreme court ruled in her favor that – and overturned any blasphemy charges against her, and we’re glad that she is out and free with her family.  This is excellent, but there are many others that are on – in prison for blasphemy, and there are many other communities that are fearful and operate in fear, religious communities that operate in fear in Pakistan because of lack of protection by the government or communal violence or even actions that the government itself allows to take place.  So much more needs to be done.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  We’ll take a question from Owen Churchill, please.

OPERATORChurchill, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Hi there, Ambassador.  Thanks.  Thanks a lot for doing this.  This is Owen Churchill with the SCMP.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Sure.  Yeah, good to talk to you again.

QUESTION:  Yeah, you too.  I just had a couple of questions, and I missed the beginning of the call, so I apologize if this has been raised.  The first question on China:  There’s been several moves reported over the past few weeks by the administration to postpone or cancel public remarks by officials in administration, including of course Vice President Mike Pence, who was expected to condemn China’s record on religious freedoms.  And we understand that that was done out of concern to protect progress in the trade negotiations.  So I just wondered, going into next week with the ministerial, whether that will be weighing on minds at all, and how you would respond to concerns that the Trump administration is perhaps more focused on trade negotiations at the moment than on human rights and religious freedoms in China.  And then just a second brief question whether or not we’re going to see any announcements next week or discussion of possible action over Xinjiang.  Thanks so much.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  There will be strong discussion on China taking place next week and their record on religious persecution.  As I stated, they’re a Country of Particular Concern.  They remain that way.  We put our report out on religious freedom a couple of weeks ago.  We did a separate section on Xinjiang because the situation is so egregious, and we wanted to get as much factual information out there as possible.  The trade talks are what they are, and they’ve been at sensitive points.  I think people are concerned with – about that, but we continue to press these issues and do so factually.  That’s the role of this office.  It’s a statutorily created office.  The Congress and the Secretary are very mindful of the role that we play to put this information forward and draw the world community’s attention to it.  I think there will be follow-on announcements taking place by governments at the – at or after the event on – as it closes on Thursday.  You’ll have to wait to that time to see what those are, but I think there are substantial announcements I know being discussed.  Not – I don’t know about necessarily on Xinjiang, but there will be a number of discussions of what the world community can do to really drive the issue of religious freedom forward on a strong basis.

MODERATOR:  All right, we have time for one more, so can I please have Alex Raufoglu Aliyev?

QUESTION:  Yes, hi, thanks for the opportunity.  Ambassador, thank you for a background.  My question is about the role of civil society.  You did mention that there will be some platforms for civil society members to get together in frame of this event.  Can we talk about freedom rights violations in the countries like Azerbaijan and Russia?  The U.S. side had several recommendations as properly the role the U.S. Government could play, and one of them was about (inaudible) relationships between the American diplomats and local human rights activists that – who work on behalf of smaller faith groups.  My question is:  Next week, what do you expect from the civil society members, and where is the state of that relationship that I am referring to between the U.S. diplomats and local human rights groups?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Well, we see a very big role for civil society groups.  And as I mentioned, this is really two events.  The first two days are for civil society and religious actors together, and the final day is for governments.  And we’ll have over a thousand civil society and religious freedom activists gathered here, so it’ll be the largest gathering in the world.

We seek to partner with civil society groups that are seeking similar things that we are in bringing these agendas to fruition.  We want to see more religious freedom around the world, and a lot of times, it’s civil society actors that are the ones that can organize in host countries to do it.  We’ll work with them everywhere that they’re willing to work with us to pursue this.  I mentioned about the – our desire to see more of these religious freedom roundtables gather, where you get civil society and religious actors together in a country to stand for each other’s religious freedom.

Politics and government is often downstream from faith and religious communities.  In other words, the faith and religious communities really help form the thoughts and philosophies for a country and a society.  Well, if we can get the religious groups together to stand for each other’s religious freedom, we hope that can affect downstream politics and government to stand for it as well.  And we want to see this happen rapidly and we want to see it happen everywhere.  It’s everybody’s right all the time, no matter where they are in the world.

Thank you all for joining me, and I hope a number of you can cover the event.  I think it’ll be an amazing event overall, and I think it’ll be groundbreaking and very stimulative to the global religious freedom movement.

MODERATOR:  Let me thank Ambassador Brownback for taking the time to read it out for us.  We will have a transcript posted as soon as we can.  And please do follow the ministerial and its developments on FPC social media.  You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms.  And thank you very much for joining us this afternoon.

# # #

Find the last FPC briefing with Ambassador Brownback here:

International Religious Freedom

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All briefings are subject to change.  Please call (202) 504-6300 or visit the FPC website for the latest information on this and other FPC programs.

U.S. Department of State

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