Release of the 2012 International Religious Freedom Report

Special Briefing
Suzan Johnson Cook
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom 
Washington, DC
May 20, 2013

AMBASSADOR COOK: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. It’s an honor to serve you.

Good morning. The 2012 International Religious Freedom Report provides a factual rendering of the status of religious freedom around the world. Religious freedom is essential for a stable, peaceful, and thriving society. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This is the standard against which we assess religious freedom and the International Religious Freedom Report. This report seeks to advance religious freedom by shining a spotlight on abuses and violations. As Secretary Kerry said, when a country fails to provide equal protection of religious freedom for all, the groundwork is laid for political instability and sectarian violence. When a government favors one group or set of beliefs and restricts the rights of others, some in society may take that as tacit approval to further target marginalized groups.

As this report makes clear, much work remains to be done. Secretary Kerry just described some of the most troubling trends, and please let me note some others. Thousands of people around the world are jailed because of what they believe or don’t believe. In Iran, more than 116 Baha’is are in prison for teaching and expressing their faith, and many Christians, Sufis, and Sunnis are facing similar treatment. Additionally, a Christian pastor named Saeed Abedini, who is an American and Iranian citizen, was sentenced to eight years in prison just for his beliefs. In Eritrea, people are detained on account of their religious beliefs. Some have reportedly died due to torture or lack of medical treatment. We seek the release of all individuals detained or imprisoned because of their beliefs.

Many governments fail to prosecute the perpetrators of crimes motivated by religious animosity, creating a climate of impunity that fueled further discrimination and violence. In Egypt, the government failed to appropriately investigate and prosecute perpetrators and often did not effectively intervene when sectarian violence arose. In Pakistan, religious minorities continue to encounter societal discrimination and violence, and authorities frequently fail to arrest the perpetrators. As sectarian violence claims more lives each year in Pakistan, over 200 Shia were killed in the first two months of this year alone. In Nigeria, elements of the extremist sect Boko Haram claimed the lives of both Christians and Muslims. The government response has involved gross violations of human rights of a civilian population and deepened impunity.

Governments must fulfill their responsibility to condemn religious intolerance and bring to justice perpetrators of abuses. Just last month, I traveled to China where I pressed government officials to uphold the right to religious freedom for all and to stop abusing this universal right. The government restricts the practices of many groups, including Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, unregistered Christian congregations, and Falun Gong practitioners. In 2012, 83 Tibetans chose to self-immolate to protest Chinese policies. The total number now is over 100. We urge governments to protect the rights of all to hold, express, or change their faith without fear.

In Syria, the government targeted faith groups it deemed a threat, including members of the country’s Sunni majority and religious minorities. Such targeting included killing, detention, and harassment. Syria – excuse me – Syria Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi were kidnapped April 22nd by persons unknown, and still remain missing.

Societal intolerance against religious minorities is on the rise. Too often this intolerance finds expression in acts of violence, vandalism, and desecration. In Iraq, extremists target religious ceremonies, leading people not to attend services out of fear for their safety. And sectarian violence directed at Muslims spread to central Burma in March 2013, resulting in casualties, displacement, and the destruction of places of worship.

Anti-Semitic rhetoric persists in some Middle Eastern media and too often appears in public discourse in some countries in Europe, especially where anti-Semitic parties have gained seats in parliaments. We continue to see violent attacks against Jews in Europe, and I look forward now to working with my new colleague Ira Forman, who was introduced to you by Secretary Kerry. I look forward to working with him to combat this pernicious problem.

Anti-Muslim sentiment and discrimination are evident in places as diverse as Europe and Asia. We call on societies and governments to foster tolerance and hold perpetrators of violence accountable.

We also partner with members of international communities to support religious freedom, to protect religious minorities, and to safeguard freedom of expression. We particularly advocate engaging women and youth on religious freedom as their voices are a positive force for change.

Violations of religious freedom easily capture the world’s attention, so I therefore want to highlight some positive developments that tend to fly under the media radar. Although governments’ restrictions on religious freedom remain in Vietnam, the government took a step forward by allowing large-scale worship services with more than 100,000 participants.

Turkey – they loosened its restrictions on religious attire, allowing female students to wear headscarves in certain religious classes and in certain Islamic schools. As you will see and read, the challenges are daunting. But we remain committed to working tirelessly to ensure religious freedom for all.

I thank you and I will be happy to take your questions.

MR. HENSMAN: Ambassador Johnson Cook has a few minutes for a couple questions. Why don’t we start with --

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. The State Department has been issuing these reports for a long time. Apart from shaming publicly these countries, if they can be shamed, have you detected any change in their behavior over the years? And how does the State Department deal with allies like the Secretary mentioned, like Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, for being practiced in religious intolerance in varied degrees?

AMBASSADOR COOK: Well, for the first part of the question, in some cases there is change and progress. As I noted in the closing, there was progress in certain countries. Specifically, there was also places where the trends are not increasing and not doing well, and they’re going downward. So we look at the countries that – of particular concern that you’re talking about, that continue to have egregious, ongoing, systematic acts. And so we use different tools. Sometimes they’re sanctioned; sometimes they’re put on the CPC list. It depends on what happens. But we hope that people will take small steps for progress, because what we ultimately want is religious freedom for all in every country.


QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. The Secretary’s opening remarks mentioned about Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists increasingly facing protest and their religious freedom are being attacked in the various countries of the world. Do you know which are the countries? Have you identified the countries where Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists are facing problems in exercising their right to religious freedom?

AMBASSADOR COOK: Well, there are several countries. I think – I will refer you to the report, because there are several countries. We don’t want to highlight one particular one. Is there a country that you have a particular concern about?

QUESTION: I have seen some media reports about Pakistan, Afghanistan, about Hindus in Fiji. Do you know any other country where –

AMBASSADOR COOK: Well, in those particular countries, we certainly are concerned about religious minorities, Hindus as well as others. And so we press the governments – we urge the governments to allow religious freedom for all.


QUESTION: Can you tell us what’s new, what’s different from the previous report? And is there any countries you consider sanctioning them?

AMBASSADOR COOK: Well, this is the report for 2012. So every year – I refer you to the report in terms of how they progress. I would say there are certain countries that we’re looking at, as I cited in the end of my remarks, like Vietnam, who have made progress in terms of having – allowing large places of worship. I think each country has its situations, and there are countries that are doing very well.

I had the opportunity, the fortunate opportunity, to visit Saudi Arabia and China, who have been on the Countries of Particular Concern List, as well as Uzbekistan. And so we’ve tried to make small steps. There are some governments that are not moving whatsoever, and particularly in Saudi Arabia they don’t allow non-Islamic persons to have freedom of religion.

So each year is situational, and we progress and we look at all 199 countries, and I think the report will speak for itself.

QUESTION: So do you see progress by the Saudis?

AMBASSADOR COOK: They don’t allow any non-Islamic persons to have religious freedom, so I don’t see progress there.

QUESTION: Like last report.

AMBASSADOR COOK: Their report is very close to where it was last year, very much so. What happened was, though, I was allowed a visit, and so that’s a beginning. We want to continue to be engaged with them.

QUESTION: Yes, please. Ambassador, the Secretary raised the issue of blasphemy. As a matter of fact, become an issue even in a place like Egypt, for example, when like Coptic Egyptian – beside Coptic Egyptian, even Muslims sometimes face this charge of blasphemy. How we are going to handle this issue or record it or even make a report about it?

AMBASSADOR COOK: Well, at all high levels our government has been involved in Egypt, since you cited that, at all high levels across government. We are very concerned. We want to hold accountability for those who are perpetrators of violence. We want to make sure that there’s protection of religious minorities, including Coptic Christians – especially Coptic Christians. And where there’s possibility of reform of laws, we want that to happen. Egypt, as you know, is dealing with a new constitution. As we see it right now, there’s not much room for religious freedom. But we continue to press the government, and as I said, at all levels – high levels – our government has been intervening there.


QUESTION: Madam, thank you. Burma’s President is here today in the White House, and so in Pakistan new Prime Minister will be there tomorrow. My question is on these two countries before I will one question. That – do you see any change in Burma? Or what message you think this report will have for the President of Burma today while he in U.S.? And also, as far as Pakistan is concerned, as I said, the new Prime Minister Mr. Nawaz Sharif, who is very close to the religious people in Pakistan, do you see any change under his administration since he will be the third-time prime minister of Pakistan?

AMBASSADOR COOK: Okay. Let me just say again, the report is for 2012. On Burma, we didn’t see any improvement in religious freedom. And as long as there’s no improvement of religious freedom, the sanctions will still remain in terms of religious freedom.

In terms of Pakistan, there’s a new government, there’s a new leadership, and I think it remains to be seen how people handle it. As to the question previously, blasphemy is very important to us, and there are many who are being held in prisons still – Asia Bibi and others – about 20 others who are in prison because of their belief. So we have to see what this new government will do. We certainly encourage him and will urge him to again hold accountable the perpetrators of violence and to make sure that there’s protection of religious minorities. And so that’s going to be very important. Human rights is a very high priority for this Administration.

QUESTION: And finally, Madam, on India, how much advice have you taken, as far as this report is concerned, from the international freedom religious commission of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom? Because this commission has again – once again – addressed and also is urging the State Department that visas should not be issued to Mr. Narendra Modi, who is the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, who is seeking to come to the U.S. But some of these groups here, including this commission, are still against his arrival in the U.S.

AMBASSADOR COOK: Thank you for your question. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, to whom you referred, is an independent commission, also mandated by Congress but they’re an independent commission. So that their references and suggestions are certainly taken into account when we do our reports, but in terms of what they designate, I refer you to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF.

MR. HENSMAN: Let’s do one last question.

QUESTION: If I could follow-up on Burma, please? The report mentions that there have been these political changes, this sort of opening up of society and the political system somewhat, and yet you see no improvement in the religious restrictions there. And on the contrary, you’ve actually seen a sort of spike of religious violence targeting various groups in that country. And this question might even apply to other countries, in Egypt and so forth, where there have been political transitions that seem to have led to increased religious tension or violence. Is that your sense, and why would that be?

AMBASSADOR COOK: Well, it’s not for me to determine what my sense is. I guess what you’re asking is, why does this continue to happen in these countries? As we said, in Burma particularly, we see societal and economic – some reform there. But as religious freedom, we haven’t seen much reform. At high levels, again, our Secretary went, and our Assistant Secretary and others went there. We continue to try to engage the government on religious freedom, but at this particular time there has not been an improvement there.

We want to look at – I think the immediate cause is looking at what are the root causes, the systemic causes of this, and we will continue as an office to do that for all 199 countries and watch the trends. Again, we take our information from many sources, but we will monitor the situation closely and where possible, where there’s diplomatic engagement possibilities, we will certainly engage.

MR. HENSMAN: Thank you, everyone.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador.


PRN: 2013/0616