Annual Report on International Religious Freedom

Special Briefing
Michael H. Posner
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
October 26, 2009

4:00 P.M. EDT

MODERATOR: Welcome to the Foreign Press Center. As you know, the International Religious Freedom Report was released today, and we have Assistant Secretary Michael Posner here to answer some of your questions regarding this report.

Mr. Posner.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Thanks very much. Just a few opening comments and then I’ll just throw open to questions.

I was confirmed just last month as the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. And in that position, I’m charged with leading the bureau in which the Office of International Religious Freedom is a part. And prior to joining the State Department, I served for about 30 years with a nongovernmental organization called Human Rights First, which is dedicated to respect for human rights, including religious freedom through the rule of law.

The report that we’ve released today is a product of several months, months of hard work both by the State Department here in Washington and embassies around the world. The U.S. Government’s promotion of religious freedom is grounded on our national experience and supports the broader human rights and national security interests of the U.S.

We recognize religious freedom creates necessary space for religions as well as secular groups to advance a common good and engage in a public debate and interact peacefully with diverse belief communities. Many governments understand the reasons for the importance of religious freedom and tolerance, and yet we’re aware that even in our own society and societies in Europe and elsewhere, with robust legal safeguards, we’re not immune from acts of intolerance of religion.

And we mourn the death of Mawra el-Sharibi – Sherbini, rather – a young Muslim woman from Egypt who was brutally stabbed in a German courtroom in July by a man filled with hatred for Muslims. And we’re equally aware of the shooting and killing of a security guard, Stephen Johns, at the Holocaust Museum in June by a man with a long history of anti-Semitic diatribes.

Incidents like these remind us of the importance of fostering religious tolerance. In releasing this report, we don’t position ourselves as an arbiter on religious freedom, but rather as a member of a community of nations that have committed themselves to upholding international human rights standards. I think you have the report or can get access to it now. There is a parallel process, or process that we’re about to undertake, which is to review the findings of the report to determine Countries of Particular Concern, and that’s a process that will be undertaken over the next few weeks and months. And we’ll come out with a designation of countries.

I’m glad to answer any questions that you have.

MODERATOR: Okay. Please wait for the microphone when you ask your question, and if you could identify yourself and your media outlet. The lady there.

QUESTION: Okay. My name is Yuni Salim from Voice of America, Indonesian service. I would like to know, could you elaborate more on Indonesia, and especially on the case of issuance of identity card, which is a continuous problem. And I would like to know what is the action from the U.S. to solve this problem? Thank you.


QUESTION: Also the other problem for Indonesia.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: The report has a long section on Indonesia, and I can’t say that I’m familiar with every piece of it. I think the general thrust of our analysis is that Indonesia – at a national level, the government has made a commitment to religious freedom. There are problems with the Ahmadiyya community. There are issues like the identity card that you mentioned. And there are certainly interreligious or religious tensions that play themselves out at a local level, where the government can and should be doing more. But beyond that, I think our general sense of Indonesia is that the government, at a central level, has made a commitment to undertake the things that will allow religious groups to function.

MODERATOR: We’ll take our next question from New York. Go ahead, New York.

QUESTION: Hi there. My name is James Reinl. My newspaper is The National. The National is a paper in the UAE, the United Arab Emirates. And my question kind of relates to that region, the Gulf. All these countries are covered in the report – you know, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE, probably taking Saudi as a separate case because the report is, you know, quite strong on that one. I mean, the UAE and the other countries, they got a fairly clean bill of health in the report.

Briefly sort of summarizing what the report says, is that there’s a kind of prioritizing of Islam in these countries, but they’re relatively tolerant towards the practicing of non-Muslim faiths in the country. So I’m kind of wondering what you kind of say towards the UAE and these kind of countries. I mean, you got good diplomatic relations with them, of course, but equally, they’re more conservative Muslim countries. So what is your – what is the report saying to these countries?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, a couple of things. I don’t want to characterize in the broad way that you did the overall findings. I think you ought to look at each of these reports on their own merits. And there are details in each, some of which are critical, some of which are praiseworthy. I think there is a sense that we have, and it’s one of the trends that I would say is encouraging in the last year, that there have been initiatives, including by the Government of Qatar, including by the Government of Jordan, in the region to begin interfaith dialogue and outreach. I think that’s very much in the right direction. It’s the sort of initiative that we’re trying to encourage.

There are, I think, throughout the region, different approaches and different levels of tolerance of non-majority faiths. And as you say, we probably devote more time and attention to Saudi Arabia, which continues to be and has been since, I think, 1999, a Country of Particular Concern. But there are, throughout the reports in the region, various particular things, specific things, that we’ve raised that are concerns and that we’ll continue to raise with each of those governments separately.

MODERATOR: Next question.

QUESTION: Hi, Betty Lin of the World Journal. In your executive summary – this is on China – you talk about the government strongly opposed the profession of loyalty to religious leadership outside the country, most notably the Pope and the Dalai Lama. So could you elaborate on that? Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Sure. There is – I think we have both concerns about – let’s take each of those separately.

We have very serious concerns about the continued restrictions placed on religious leaders in Tibet and their ability and the Tibetan people’s ability to communicate fully, to travel, et cetera, to have interaction with the Dalai Lama. We continue to believe that nonviolent practice of religion in Tibet, including expressions of concern by Buddhist leaders there about human rights conditions, ought to be tolerated. And there are restrictions in that regard, ongoing restrictions, harassment, even persecution of some Buddhist leaders there. So that’s a concern that’s expressed in the report, and it’s a concern of the United States.

With respect to the Christian community and the Catholics in particular, I think there’s a recognition in the report that there is a growing – a rapidly growing Christian community in China, by some estimates 90 million or more. Some are practicing in state-accepted churches, others in informal house churches that the government has not registered or accepted. And we take exception to that. We think there ought to be – for all people who practice their faith in a nonviolent, appropriate way, there ought to be the space and the legitimacy to open a church, to open a mosque, et cetera, in a way that allows them to practice freely.

The link – again, the Government of China, I think, takes particular exception to the links with the Catholic community in China and the Pope, and that would be, again, to us, part of a natural expression of religion. The Pope is the most senior figure in the Catholic world and there ought to be every opportunity to interact with him.

MODERATOR: New York, we’ll take your question.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Kahraman Haliscelik and I’m with Turkish television. Sir, I have a follow-up question to what you just said on China and then if you – if I may, I’ll just ask two more questions.

Can you elaborate more on what happens in East Turkistan in contact – contacts with – and you know, China’s issue? The other two questions are how did the political – you know, how did political conflicts around the world, like in Pakistan and Afghanistan and Iraq, affected the outcomes of the report? And this – the other question is, can you please elaborate more on what the report stated on Turkey and the – what kind of solutions you propose for countries that actually have conflict between secular and more conservative sites? Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Sure. On the first question on East Turkistan, I think the report speaks for itself. I don’t have anything to add to what it says. On the issue of how, in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan and elsewhere, larger – I guess the question is larger – how do larger political factors weigh into the report.

The theory of this report, and we try to stand by this, is that we’re looking at information, reliable information, about restrictions on religious practice. It is part of a larger discussion within our government and even in terms of our government’s reporting about a whole range of human rights issues. Clearly, the government will make judgments about bigger political questions based on more than reading these reports. And we understand that and accept that.

The purpose of these reports, as best as we can, is simply to make information available as reliable information that can help inform those debates, both in this country and around the world. One of our audiences for this report are the religious – the minority religious communities that are mentioned in the report that are often targeted or restricted in practicing their religion. But another explicit purpose of the report and what Congress mandated us to do was simply to give information to the U.S. Government so that it can make the broader political judgments with this as at least one factor.

On the report on Turkey as well, the report is quite detailed. It is a mixed picture. There are certainly a number of positive things in the report about the government’s performance. But there are some concerns about minority religions there, Greek Orthodox and others’ ability to operate freely. And again, I think the report speaks for itself.

MODERATOR: Take the gentleman here.

QUESTION: Mohamed Elmenshawy from Taqrir Washington. You mentioned Saudi Arabia as a country of a special concern since 1999. What’s new this year with the new Administration and its first time under Obama watch? What are you going to do with Saudi Arabia (inaudible) the international religious freedom issue? And last 11 years, nothing has changed at all.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, as I said earlier, we have very real, very serious concerns in a couple of different areas, one of which is the inability of people outside of the Muslim faith to openly practice their religion. And even restrictions with Shia Muslims in some instances, even in private, there are still constraints and there still is religious police, which we think needs – that whole system needs to be reviewed as it relates to interfering with religious observance.

We also have very real concerns about the ongoing practice of dissemination of educational materials, the textbooks, which continue to be not only distributed within Saudi Arabia, but externally to various populations around the world – to the madrasas, for example.

I don’t know that I would agree with your characterization at the end that nothing has changed. I think our feeling is there’s been a fair amount of engagement between the U.S. and the Saudi Government, as well as others, about the textbooks in particular. And I think there have been changes made.

We’re not satisfied. There are still very serious – I think some of the content is inappropriate, and we’re going to continue to push that. But this has been a priority, both here in Washington and in Riyadh.

MODERATOR: Go to the gentleman back here.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Endale Getahun. I am from Waltu Information from Ethiopia. I just have to take you to East Africa, and what’s your assessment on the difficulties in religions in Eritrea and – with – compared with that and where there’s also – I know there’s – in Ethiopia, there’s not as (inaudible) doing their religions. There’s no problem with that – with a report from Ethiopia, but in Eritrea. Can you elaborate on that, please? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Sure. As you know, Eritrea is one of eight countries that were put on the list of Countries of Particular Concern last January by Secretary Rice. And we’ll be reviewing that, as I said, at the outset in the coming weeks and months.

One of the reasons Eritrea was identified as such is that there are very serious restrictions on free exercise of religion by government. Government ministries, as the report outlines, are very severe in their constraint of religious belief. And so it is a place, I think, that we see ongoing concern and certainly are not satisfied that there’s been progress in the last year. Again, we’re going to review its status as well, but it’s one of the countries we’ve certainly got our eye on.

Ethiopia, again, I can’t add to what’s in the report, but it’s a more mixed picture.

MODERATOR: Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Annabel Kim from MBC-TV, Munhwa Broadcasting. I just had a question on North Korea. I was wondering if you could elaborate a little bit on that. Also, because obviously, there is no U.S. embassy in Pyongyang, I’m just wondering how you are able to collect your information or data for North Korea.

And also, if you could speak about, within the State Department, how much freedom, religious freedom or human rights is talked about in terms of bringing North Korea back to Six-Party Talks or trying to engage with them more. How high of a priority is this, actually?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: First on the findings and how we got the findings on North Korea, as you say, North Korea is one of the most closed, maybe the most closed society in the world, and it’s very difficult to get information. We rely, in part, on people who have left the country, on other diplomats, public reports, reports from NGOs, the combination. But there is no doubt that it is a very tightly centrally controlled society that doesn’t tolerate independent activity of any sort. So if you look at the broad picture of North Korea, it’s not at all surprising that religious belief that’s outside of the government’s control would simply be one of many things that they’re actively controlling.

I don’t think that we’re totally comfortable with the findings. Some of the exile groups have said there may be 80 or a hundred thousand people for education camps or in prisons. It’s a dire, dire situation. And so, broadly speaking, it’s a human rights priority specifically on these issues. It’s a priority. How we factor human rights into the broader Six-Party Talks and the larger political question is a more complicated question.

My job coming into the State Department is to make sure that human rights is on the agenda everywhere. We’ve got huge concerns with a nuclear program in North Korea, as we do in Iran, as we do other places. We’ve got strategic economic concerns with other countries. When you have a situation that’s as dire as North Korea, it’s absolutely critical that we keep human rights on the agenda.

And our job, my job, is to encourage that to keep happening. These are things that people in the U.S. Government, both the State Department and Congress care a lot about. And I think we’re about to recognize or reflect on 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. If there’s anything that the dissidents from the Soviet era taught us, it’s that you can’t forget about people living in closed societies that are challenging seemingly impossible odds to try to make things better. There are courageous people in North Korea that are challenging a very draconian system. And it’s our job to give them the space to breathe and to provide a lifeline when they raise their voices. So it’s important.


QUESTION: Hi. Betty Lin again. How would President Obama address the religious freedom issue when he goes to China next month? And is he going to receive the Dalai Lama in December?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: On the first question, I mean, I think you ought to address that to the White House. There is no question that the human rights issues are going to be part of our bilateral diplomacy for many years to come. We are in the process of trying to set up a human rights dialogue, which I hope to be part of sometime next year, probably. There will be discussions.

QUESTION: Not this year?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I think it’s – we haven’t set a time. But I think in all likelihood – I just arrived, there’s a whole lot of things going on – I think – I’m hoping that it’ll happen in the first few months of next year, but there’s been no decision made on that. But there’s certainly a back and forth between the two countries about resuming it. There is going to be a range of discussions taking place, both during the President’s visit, before and after, where human rights will be part of the agenda.

And on the Dalai Lama, I think it’s been made clear to everybody that the President and this Administration is concerned about Tibet. The President’s willing and ready to meet the Dalai Lama. I don’t think a date has exactly been set. But the Dalai Lama’s own representatives have said, (inaudible) and others, that they’re very satisfied with the Administration’s concern about these issues and with the President’s willingness to meet.

MODERATOR: One last question? No? Okay.


MODERATOR: Thank you very much.