Remarks on the Release of the International Religious Freedom Report

Michael H. Posner
   Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Suzan Johnson Cook
   Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom 
Washington, DC
September 13, 2011

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Thank you. Good morning, everybody. As you know, the State Department is mandated by law to produce this report each year. The Secretary of State also designates Countries of Particular Concern, countries whose governments have, and I quote the statute, “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”

Secretary Clinton has designated eight states as Countries of Particular Concern. They are: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. All of these countries have been long-term, chronic, and egregious violators of religious freedom. The report documents in full detail the violations that have prompted these designations.

In Burma, for example, hundreds of Buddhist monks are still in prison, and the government refuses to recognize that the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, are Burmese citizens.

In China, the government’s overall level of respect for religious freedom declined in 2010 and has worsened this year. The repression of Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims continues.

In Iran, members of the Baha’i are arrested, expelled from university, and their leaders languish in prison.

Saudi Arabia prohibits the public practice of any religion other than Islam, and the government discriminates against the Shia minority.

And in Uzbekistan, it’s illegal to proselytize; and it’s dangerous for a Muslim even to discuss religious issues outside of a state-sanctioned mosque.

These and many other violations in the eight Countries of Particular Concern are spelled out in great detail in the reports. But I want to emphasize that the list is by no means the only measure of serious violations of religious freedom. In a significant number of other countries, we are also closely monitoring official repression of religious minorities or official indifference to their plight, and urging governments to uphold their affirmative obligations to protect religious freedom. Let me mention a few.

We are deeply concerned about the fate of Christians in Syria. Many of these people have been victimized twice: they fled the violence in Iraq and now many are seeking to flee Syria. The government has created a climate of instability and violence in which the human rights of thousands are being violated on a daily basis.

In Pakistan, the government has not reformed a blasphemy law that has been used to prosecute religious minorities and, in some cases, Muslims who promote tolerance or to settle personal vendettas. This year, there have also been several assassinations of those who called for reform of the blasphemy laws, including the Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for minorities, whom Secretary Clinton and I met in February before he was killed.

The Government of Pakistan has taken steps to address these rising concerns. For example, in March, Shahbaz Bhatti’s brother, Paul, was appointed a special advisor on religious minorities to the prime minister. In July, the government also created a ministry of national harmony, which will have oversight for protecting religious minorities at a national level. And in August, President Zardari celebrated National Minorities Day and committed his government to support protection of minority religious rights.

We will continue to engage with the Government of Pakistan to address these issues, to promote tolerance, and to improve religious freedom.

In Iraq, religious minorities and Shia pilgrims have been the targets of devastating attacks since 2003. Last October, more than 50 worshipers were killed in an attack on Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad. We welcome the fact that the Government of Iraq has tried and convicted the perpetrators of that attack, but the tragic massacre of the Shia pilgrims that Secretary Clinton mentioned that came to light yesterday indicates that there is more work to be done.

In Vietnam, the record is mixed. While the government has allowed hundreds of new places of worship to be built, significant problems remain, especially at the provincial and village levels. These include slow or no approval of registration for some groups, especially in the north and northwest highlands. There are also reports of harsh treatment of detainees after the protest over the closing of a Catholic cemetery in Con Dau Parish. And the government re-imprisoned Father Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic human rights defender who has been paroled 16 months earlier after suffering a series of strokes while in prison.

In Egypt, tensions between Christians and Muslims continue. For example, in January, a bomb at the Church of Two Saints in Alexandria killed 22 people. After the fall of the Mubarak government in February, soldiers fired on unarmed Copts at the Saint Bishoy Monastery, wounding six. And in May, clashes between Muslims and Christians in Imbaba left 15 dead, 232 injured.

In response to the Imbaba clashes, military leader Marshall Tantawi issued a strongly worded public condemnation of sectarian attacks, and 48 suspects have been referred for trial. Prime Minister Sharaf has ordered 17 churches be allowed to reopen across Egypt.

We will continue to call on the government to pass a unified law which would set one single, unified standard for building houses of worship that would apply both to Christians and Muslims. And we stand ready to support political, religious, and civic leaders in Egypt as they work to build a new society where democracy and religious tolerance can flourish.

In these and other places, we will continue to review and assess the state of religious freedom, and we are prepared to designate other countries as Countries of Particular Concern as the situation warrants.

Finally, I would urge leaders of all these nations and civil society groups as well to use this report as a resource to help identify and address violations of religious freedom. We stand ready to help.

Now it’s my pleasure to introduce Suzan Johnson Cook, who is the ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom.

AMBASSADOR COOK: Thank you, Mike. And good morning. It is a privilege to be with all of you today as we release this important report. I was sworn in on May 16th after a long haul to get here, but it was worth the wait. Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to work with people of different faiths to bring them together to achieve common goals. It is my belief that in order to live peacefully side by side, we cannot allow violence based on religion to continue under any circumstances.

In my first months in the Office of International Religious Freedom, I’ve met with inter-faith leaders from Switzerland, Turkey, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, OIC. And I’m working with my colleagues in the U.S. Government and the religious community to address systemic challenges to religious intolerance.

As the Secretary said in her remarks last week, too many countries in the world today do not allow people to exercise their religious freedom, or they make it difficult or dangerous to do so. So as hard as it may be, we need to get up every day and keep trying to make a difference. The International Religious Freedom Report we’re releasing today is one way to do that. It shines a spotlight on this fundamental human rights issue and guides our policy making. The report is the work of my dedicated and talented staff in the International Religious Freedom Office who have put in long hours, as have all our missions overseas and others here in Washington, to verify that this report is comprehensive, accurate, and fair.

I would also like to thank the hundreds of activists and academics who regularly provide us with reporting and analysis, sometimes at great personal risk.

This year, we are publishing the report on our website, is now the one-step location for all our human rights reporting, and we’re updating it every day with other State Department statements, speeches, and materials.

This report covers every country, every faith, and myriad forms of harassment, persecution, and abuse on the basis of religion. We hope it will prompt other countries to redouble their efforts to create an environment where citizens can freely follow their faith or profess no faith, according to their own conscience.

In some cases we spotlight government violations of the right to religious freedom, and in other cases we call out governments that are not doing enough to stop violence by some citizens against others. Sadly, the list is long. So I urge all of you to read the Executive Summary, where we have distilled in just a few pages the state of religious freedom in 2010. Obviously, a great deal has happened since the end of 2010, including the upheaval in the Middle East and an uptick in sectarian violence there. So we’ve included a summary of key developments around the world in 2011.

We also used shoe leather diplomacy, where at the State Department, we call engagement. It’s going to countries and talking to government officials, religious leaders, educators, human rights activists, journalists, young people, and others about how to combat hatred and religious persecution. So I’m going to be hitting the road in the fall. I hope to visit a number of countries that face challenges in protecting religious freedom, including Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

And the third way we make a difference is by spotlighting examples of where things are going right. So I also plan to travel to countries that are doing the hard work of resolving religious animosities and taking practical steps to guarantee religious freedom to all their citizens. In July, I went with Secretary Clinton to Istanbul for a meeting on combating religious intolerance. As the lead U.S. coordinator for the implementation of the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 1618, which she referred to this morning, I’m eager to work with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and others, other partners to discuss best practices and exchange ideas on how to best protect freedom of religion.

I will convene a meeting of experts later this year, with participants from around the world and from a wide variety of faiths and religions. We’ll talk about how to counter offensive expression through education, interfaith dialogue, and public debate and how to prohibit discrimination, profiling, and hate crimes. And we will share ways of combating hate without compromising the universal right to free expression, because everyone must have the right to believe as well as the right to manifest their belief.

So I want to thank you for coming this morning, and Assistant Secretary Posner and I will be happy to take your questions. Thank you.

MR. TONER: Any questions? Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. I have two questions regarding China. The first is, according to CECC, the Congressional and Executive Commission on China – according to their reports, Beijing had launched a new round of a campaign since the year 2010 to year 2012 that says calling for increased transformation of Falun Gong practitioners. So I’m wondering if you have been aware of this persecution, this continued persecution?

And the second question is: Recently, China is trying to amend their criminal procedure law, and if this is adopted, it would expand the police power and it may authorize the forced disappearance. So what’s your comments on that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Sure. Let me just put those two questions in a slightly broader context. We’ve said repeatedly that we have concerns about what really has been a deteriorating human rights situation, especially since February of this year. I was in China in April for the human rights dialogue. We raised a number of these issues publicly. And the specific question you raised with the Falun Gong is part of a broader pattern. We have concerns about the treatment of those who are in unregistered churches, so-called house churches – the Shouwang Church, for example, in Beijing, where beginning around Easter time people were not allowed to gather, and a number of the leaders of that church were put in prison. We have concerns about the Uighur community and the restrictions on Muslim religion. We have concerns about the Tibetan community, the Kirti Monastery, where 300 monks were taken from the monastery and detained.

So there is a broader pattern of religious and other persecution that’s part of a broader human rights problem. I also would call out the case of Gao Zhisheng, a lawyer who has represented religious communities and who’s been missing since April of 2010.

QUESTION: Follow-up?

MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Two questions, one just to follow on China. As far as religious freedom in China, you say you’ve been visiting China and meeting officials and all that. One, what answer to you get from them as far as their – not their belief or not believe, but how they prosecute people because of their faith, especially people from Tibetans and Buddhists are still in jails and we don’t know – you may not know how many of them. And every day they go to jail because of their belief in God or what they worship. So what do you hear from them year after a year? This report comes and you meet and greet here and there and all that.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I take the view – first of all, we will continue to raise these issues in China and elsewhere because they’re universal norms, they apply to every country in the world, and there is an obligation of every government to respect those norms. We have continuous discussions as part of a broader engagement with China, but these issues are an important part of that dialogue.

And I can’t tell you that every time I’ve had a conversation, we’ve agreed or had satisfying results, but I do believe that raising these issues both publicly and privately serves a number of purposes. It provides assurance to people in the country that we’re paying attention; we know what’s going on. It reinforces their commitment to move – to continue working. And in some cases, we have been able to get results like releases or better conditions. We’ll continue to press, even if some of the discussions are difficult.

QUESTION: My other question is on overall religious freedom. Let’s say – I’ve been going through this report and also what you said and Secretary said, as far as in Pakistan and also Saudi Arabia. And including in the U.S. or in Saudi Arabia or in Pakistan, if you go in the mosques, the teachings are not about their religion. Their teachings is basically hatred against other religions in the mosques. And also, in Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs and Christians are under attack more and more as you go through the last year’s report. But government officials have not taken any steps against those, even including reading these thirteen lines on Pakistan.

And so Pakistan is like an open society in many ways and friends of the United States and ally. And also on comparing with Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, it may be a different story because in Saudi Arabia, they don’t allow any non-Muslims to practice anything. But in Pakistan, it’s a different society. But still, why is there – Pakistan has not been taken care of or taking any steps against those who persecute other religious people?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I think what I said in my opening comments – we are, as your comments suggest, or your question – we are concerned about the blasphemy law, about the intolerance in Pakistan, about the murder of Minister Bhatti and Governor Taseer.

At the same time, the government has in the last several months taken a few positive steps, and we’re working with the government on the assumption that these issues need to be addressed. We are – we work with the government on a range of things. This is an important subject. And the increasing extremism in that society, I think, is worrying to everybody.

So we are very mindful of the things you raise in both Pakistan and in Saudi Arabia, and these are issues that we’re very attentive to and will be more so.

QUESTION: One more quickly, if you don’t mind.

MR. TONER: Come on, let’s give – Goyal, let’s give some other people a chance. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. You mentioned engagement as a way of promoting religious tolerance in different countries. What about the countries where you don’t have access to, where you don’t have any relations, you don’t have presence such as Iran, for example?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, we are obviously very frustrated by a number of things in Iran, including the continued harassment of the Baha’i. There were seven Baha’i leaders who were sentenced to 20 years in jail. The government then reduced it to 10 and now they’ve upped it again to 20 years. There are eight leaders of one of the Baha’i schools of higher education that are being put on trial. People – Baha’i kids can’t go to the regular universities. So there’s a range of things, not only the Baha’i but other minority communities.

We’ve raised these issues, we continue raising these issues. We have, obviously, a difficult relationship with that government or North Korea, other places that are on the list. But I think it is, again, important for us to be clear about the facts, to hold every government to the same standard. It does reinforce people in those societies who understand and know that the United States Government is listening and paying attention.

QUESTION: Resolutions have also been passed in Geneva, but even they apparently have not had any effect. Is there any other mechanism through which you can get to these countries, such countries?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I think with respect to Iran in particular, there is now a special rapporteur that’s focused on Iran who’s just beginning his work, and I think that will also play a useful role. It’s not just the United States. It’s the global community. The Human Rights Council selected that individual. And we’re now going to see whether the government lets him in, and if – and what kind of a report he produces and then what the reaction is.

But again, I think there’s a drumbeat and there’s a growing view in this world that these issues of human rights and religious freedom are part of what’s expected of every government in the global community.

QUESTION: Is the OIC itself helpful at all? It’s Islamic.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I think, again – and Sujay[1] can speak to this as well, I hope – and will – I think the OIC has helped us change the discussion, which was a very negative discussion of defamation which was at the Human Rights Council for a decade or so. We were debating endlessly a Pakistan and OIC-promoted resolution that really pitted us against some of the Islamic countries because it focused on ways to restrict free speech. Our view is that free speech and promoting religious tolerance and harmony are consistent.

And so what the OIC secretary general has done – and Sujay and Secretary Clinton were with him in Istanbul – is to talk about an alternative, this 1618 resolution which has now been adopted by the UN, which says let’s go at the problem of religious discrimination, religious intolerance, affirmatively, let’s find some practical ways forward. And he’s listed about a dozen of them. Those are useful things, and that’s partly what we need to be focusing on, an affirmative agenda.
[1] Sujay refers to Ambassador Cook

AMBASSADOR COOK: And the resolution that was achieved was the result of 10 years worth of work, and so it’s an ongoing effort. Where we’re now at is the implementation stage. And so Istanbul was a successful trip, and we’re going forward with my hosting the experts in December here at the Secretary’s invitation. So it’s ongoing, and so we will not let it go. Thank you.

QUESTION: Hi. I wanted to ask you about Israel. There’s issues of Christians and Muslims being able to worship freely, and also there has been several attacks on mosques in the West Bank. Have you been speaking to the Israeli Government about this? How much responsibility do they hold in trying to protect as an occupying power?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We do speak to the Israeli Government about this and a range of other human rights issues. I’ve been myself particularly involved since the Goldstone Report in dealing with some of the issues of humanitarian access, et cetera, in the context of a UN resolution. But I would say – I think to put this in a broader frame, at the center of a lot of the tensions in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza is the absence of a peace process, of a peace process that’s yielding a two-state solution. That’s what we favor. A lot will be – a lot of human rights issues are going to be dealt with much more directly and easily once we have that process up and running and once we get a result.

QUESTION: Thank you. And could you comment on the situation on religious freedom in Georgia in general? And also, I was wondering if you would give us some more details about Uzbekistan, the only former Soviet state that appeared in CPC list? Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I don’t have anything, I think, to add to what’s in the report on Georgia. With respect to Uzbekistan, we have had a set of – I’ve been to Uzbekistan twice. We had a – my colleague, Tom Melia, was part of a bilateral dialogue that occurred last week here with the Government of Uzbekistan. And one of the things he raised, and Ambassador Blake, is the issue of religious freedom. We continue to have concerns about both restrictions on the ability of religion – religious groups, unregistered groups to participate, to operate openly. I met with a number of religious figures when I was last there who had church services disrupted, some religious leaders arrested. So there really is an ongoing problem there, and we are eager to work with the government to try to improve that record.

MR. TONER: Last question. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Hitting Pakistan again, I wondered if you see any progress on the blasphemy law and whether you considered adding it as a CPC.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We certainly consider adding any country, and there – and we are very mindful, as I said in my opening comments, about the both misuse of the blasphemy law, the fact that it’s been applied so often, and the fact that some people have been – have received severe sentences as a result of it.

We are going to continue to work with the government. We’ve seen some positive steps in the last few months. But I think the message here is we have great concern about the overall situation of extremism and intolerance in Pakistan, and we stand ready to work with the government to try to address that.

MR. TONER: Thank you all.

PRN: 2011/1476