Telephonic Press Briefing with Ambassador David Saperstein on the 2015 International Religious Freedom Report

August 11, 2016

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Operator: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by and welcome to the International Religious Freedom Report. At this time all participants are in a listen-only mode. Later we will conduct a question-and-answer session. Instructions will be given at that time. [Operator instructions] As a reminder, this conference is being recorded.

I would now like to turn the conference over to our host, Cynthia Gire from the Office of International Media Engagement with the State Department. Please go ahead, ma’am.

Cynthia: Thank you, and greetings to everyone from the US Departments of State’s Office of International Media Engagement. I would like to welcome our journalists who have dialed in from throughout the Asia-Pacific. Today we are joined by David Saperstein, US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. He is speaking to you today from Washington, D.C. about the release of the 2015 International Religious Freedom Report.

Now, for the ground rules. This call is on the record, and questions should directly relate to the International Religious Freedom Report. In addition, the entire contents of the call are embargoed until the conclusion of the call. We will begin with opening remarks and then open it up to your questions.

With that I will turn it over to Ambassador Saperstein.

Amb. Saperstein: Well thank you very much. This is David Saperstein. I’m honored to serve as the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. For those of you who are not familiar with our structure, an Ambassador-at-Large’s global responsibilities from the law that created my position designates me as a key advisor to the President and Secretary of State on issues of religious freedom. We, every year, issue an annual report looking at some of the challenges to religious freedom in 199 countries and territories, and we issued that report yesterday.

We have lifted up several themes. One is the continuation of the newest threat in the last several years to religious freedom, that of the non-state actors, extremist groups who are willing to use violence to impose their views, including their religious views on others, often in the name of religion, so ISIL and Boko Haram, and Al Shabaab would fit to that category. Obviously the devastation that these groups have brought to long-standing traditional communities in the countries that they have been able to ensconce their authority has seen efforts at ethnic cleansing, at genocidal activity aimed at particular groups, at crimes against humanity, and systematic abridgement of the religious freedom of people.

Secondly, we listed up the issue of blasphemy laws and apostasy laws—laws punishing people for converting, and laws that punish through criminal means the defamation of religion, people who say things critically about a particular religion. All of these laws seem to the United States to be a clear violation of the fundamental promise of international covenants that guarantee freedom of speech, guarantee freedom of expression, guarantee free exercise of religion, and the notion that people can be punished, sometimes with horrific penalties under some criminal codes for expressing their conscientious views about religion is deeply problematic. It has resulted in numerous people and countries across the globe being sent to prison, sometimes for life, sometimes with a death penalty, sometimes given lashes and beatings for the crime that they’ve been charged with, and this to us is, again, a source of deep concern.

It is particularly true because it inculcates an atmosphere in which vigilantism often takes place. People use false accusations and blasphemy to settle business disputes or personal disputes, mobs will sometimes form because of the emotions over this kind of issue and attack civilians and innocent people, and when the governments of countries do not respond affirmatively to stop such activity, to hold people who engage in it accountable and to create a climate in their own country that respects differences of religion, it divides the country along religious lines, it makes people second-class citizens based on their religious identity and belief, and we have been strongly engaged with countries across the world to try and get them to change such laws.

Finally, I would point out that despite the widespread abridgement that does exist of religious freedom across the globe, and here I would point out that the Pew Foundation’s poll that is widely regarded as one of the most accurate polls taking the kind of data that we produce and cataloging it by different patterns, they have argued that approximately 25% of the countries in the world have serious restrictions of religious freedom, but amongst those countries are some of the most populous in the world, so that’s 75% of the world’s population lives in countries that have serious restrictions of religious freedom, whether those serious freedoms come from governmental laws, rules, regulations, or societal threats, sectarian violence that endangers groups’ ability to live out their lives peacefully in accordance with their religious conscious. That is a large segment of the world.

[Audio skipping] that, as I’ve traveled across the globe in this job, I continue to see in all kinds of houses of worship, in Hebrew temples, in Buddhist pagodas, and synagogues, in churches of all kinds, in mosques of all kinds, wherever people get together that religion does play, as the surveys tell us, a major role in the lives of the overwhelming majority of people in the world. Those houses of worship, even in the most repressive atmospheres are often filled with people who are worshipping sometimes at risk of arrest, harassment, beatings, but will gather together and live out their lives as fully as they can in following their own religious conscience. And where religion is able to function freely, then we see religious communities greatly strengthening the social capital of the countries in which they are found, and that is an encouraging sign that religion continues to flourish the way it does across the globe and people are able to exercise their fundamental right.

So with that let’s stop and open it up to the questions of our journalistic colleagues and I will do my best to try and respond to the questions.

Cynthia: Thank you. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s event. [Operator instructions]

We’ll start with our first question from Cambodia. Please go ahead.

Reporter: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. I’m [indiscernible], and I would like to ask you a question regarding the religious freedom. Actually I would like to know how do you see Cambodia in freedom of religion? Is there any discrimination again in any minority group? Because Cambodia, with the state and this country are 90% of people are Buddhists. Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.

Amb. Saperstein: As you said, in Cambodia, Buddhism is officially the state religion in Cambodia and in the main, most people are able to live freely and exercise their religious beliefs freely in the country. For some of the Muslim Cham groups there is some societal harassment and some barriers to their being able to live securely. There have been some attacks on some of the Vietnamese temples and shrines that represent some of the traditional religions of Vietnam ancestor worship and other practices in the country, but in the main, most people are able to live in accordance with their conscience in Cambodia.

Cynthia: Thank you. [Operator instructions]

Our next question is from Sin Chew Daily in Malaysia.

Reporter: Hi. Good morning.

Amb. Saperstein: Good morning.

Reporter: Yes, this is Loo from Sin Chew Daily in Malaysia. I would like to ask a general question. Mr. Ambassador, Malaysia has been listed as a Tier 2 in this report. So I would like to know in more basic knowledge, what’s the impact as a country being listed as a tier two? Yes, [audio disruption] question.

Amb. Saperstein: I think to answer the question, if I heard it correctly, it is possible that you are conflating two different reports, both of which are important reports, but let me just spend a moment to explain what the two reports are. The law that created my office as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, the one that oversees the annual State Department report also created an independent watchdog commission to offer their independent views to the government about how we can do our work on behalf of religious freedoms more successfully and more effectively; that is called the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

They break down the countries into different tiers, such as Tier 1 and Tier 2 for countries that have very serious concerns and countries that have serious concerns, but not quite of the nature of the most pervasive countries. That is a different entity than ours. Our report does not break down the countries by different tiers. We have only one category for countries that engage in systemic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, and there are only ten countries now that are on that list and Malaysia is not one of those countries.

In our annual report, we do lift up some of the concerns that we have that the country, the government promotes Sunni Islam above all other religious groups, other forms of Islam are illegal and subject to action by authorities backed by the governments. There’s also in some of the areas, in Malaysia, sharia law functions as the law of the land, and therefore people exercising their religious practices that differ with the ruling interpretations of Islam can find themselves facing limitations and interference. The government bars Muslims from converting to another religion.

So there are a number of different concerns that we have raised, but it is not a tier system. Malaysia is not one of the most serious countries in terms of violations of religious freedom, so we hope to continue to engage with Malaysia as we do with each of the countries that are represented by the media outlets on this call and to engage to improve these things even more, but Malaysia is not one of the countries of particular concern.

Cynthia: Thank you. Our next question comes from Santi Dewi in Malaysia with Rappler.

Reporter: Hello. Good morning, Ambassador.

Amb. Saperstein: Good morning.

Reporter: My name is Santi. I’m working for Rappler Indonesia. I read your report regarding on the religious freedom in Indonesia, I think it was last year, 2014 or 2015. Do you see by the report of this year some recommendations that you’ve recommended before, by the US government, has been complied or making any progress? Because, for instance, like protecting the human rights of minorities groups, we here in Indonesia think didn’t look any progress on that because the minority group followers still face the discrimination treatment and also violence by the intolerant groups. Thank you very much, Ambassador.

Amb. Saperstein: First of all, I hope to visit Indonesia in the not-too-distant future and to be able there to see for myself what life is like for people. So Indonesia in general tends to be fairly tolerable of diverse religions in the country, but depending where we’re talking about in different areas of the country, there have been more systematic steps taken that are repressive to minority religions in the country, and we’ve urged the government to be more assertive in terms of protecting minority religion and minority religious practices throughout the entire country and to ensure that the standards the federal government has tried to impose become the norm throughout the country.

There are blasphemy laws in Indonesia. They’re not as frequently enforced as they are in other countries, but we have encouraged them to certainly not enforce the blasphemy laws and reconsider the existence of the blasphemy laws and think about repealing them in areas like Aceh province, where Sharia law has become the governing law. We urge that the government ensure that the application of any legal system, whatever its source is, is done in a manner that is [audio disruption] in agreement with the fundamental guarantees in international law of the human rights of all, including the right of freedom of religion for all the groups whether they are minority groups or majority groups.

Cynthia: Thank you. [Operator instructions]

Our next question comes from Feliz Solomon in Burma with the Irrawaddy.

Reporter: Hi, thanks for being here today. As you know there’s new government in Burma, which has no Muslim representation and has also inherited a dismal situation in Rakhine State where there are almost a million stateless Rohingya Muslims. Are you satisfied with Suu Kyi’s current attempts to address these issues or what would you consider a satisfactory solution?

Amb. Saperstein: Well we’ve long held that the Muslims in Rakhine State are entitled to be treated by due process of law in terms of protections of international human rights laws. We’ve expressed grave concern that large numbers of them have had citizenship stripped from them, unable to easily access the benefits of their society, often in camps where they can’t return to their home communities, can’t re-establish their mosques in their own communities. We have been encouraged by the fact that there is the beginning of a citizenship verification process that has begun. We hope it will become more robust and expanded in its application, but that is an encouraging sign.

I’ll point out in Burma there are a series of other issues that are the source of concern for as well -- the four race and religion laws dealing with issues like polygamy and requiring a spacing of children who are born and the status of people convert or are intermarried. So we have expressed great concern that those laws would be applied in a way that would be harmful to minority religions, the Muslim community, the Catholic community, and others. We really hope that those laws will be reconsidered insofar that they remain on the books, but the rules and regulations applying them will be sure it meets international standards that does not justify the application of laws in a way that is discriminatory against other groups.

Of course, over the last number of years there have been problems in societal violence against some of the minority groups, the violence that took place in Mandalay and Meiktila, and we equally hope that this government standing as it does for human rights and democracy on one fundamental principle of democracy is that one’s rights as a citizen should never depend on one’s religious identity practices or beliefs, that this new government will help model for the country in the way that it interacts with the minority communities and help bring the spirit of reconciliation and comity amongst all the different groups of society.

We’re very encouraged by the overall commitment of the government for expanding democracy and human rights, but in Rakhine there’s a long way to go, there’s terrible human suffering, and we’re glad to see the beginning of an approach on that, but believe that it has to remain a key priority to fundamentally change things there. I hope that’s responsive to your question.

Reporter: Thank you.

Cynthia: Thank you. Our next question comes from Boram Park with Yonhap News Agency in South Korea.

Reporter: Good morning, Ambassador. Boram Park from Yonhap News Agency in South Korea. As far as I know this report has designated North Korea as a country of particular concern for the past 15 years since 2001. So my question is how or whether this report can be used in any way in the future to bring charges, human rights violation charges against North Korea?

Amb. Saperstein: You’re correct that, I think from the very beginning of the report, from ’99, Korea has been a country of particular concern. It is hard to find a country anywhere on the face of the earth that is more violate of fundamental human rights and the fundamental religious freedom than is North Korea.

One of the things that the report does and this bears speaking for a minute about some of the ways that the report has an impact. First, it puts a human face on the suffering of people who often would be voiceless or not seen, not heard on the international community, and we do everything we can in the report to lift up those who are the victims of religious persecution and religious discrimination. So we hope in lifting up the plight of the people of North Korea it helps mobilize the attention of the international community, both nations and nongovernmental entities to focus on those countries, particularly those that are the countries that are those of particular concern.

Secondly, our report is often used by other countries in terms of providing their own staff people and embassies around the world with information about the situation of religious freedom, and I hope in doing so it will again draw attention at a governmental level to the plight of the people of North Korea.

I should also mention that is as part of our work at the office, working with our colleagues in the Canadian office that deals with religious freedom, we’ve put together an international contact group of countries who share our commitment to religious freedom to try and find ways to work together to be more effective. At the same time, a group of parliamentarians have put together a group of about 56 countries, delegations from parliaments from 56 countries to begin to work on it. All of our conversations that I’ve been a part of, North Korea is often talked about as a key example of the most repressive country and one that we have an obligation to try and work together to do what we can.

Obviously with such an insular and repressive regime, it’s not easy to find traction, but all of us continue to do what is possible to do and to the extent that this report shines a light on those who suffer because of the cruelty and repressiveness and tyrannical behavior of the government of North Korea, we hope it is of both support for the North Koreans who know about our report to know that their story is being told, but also as a way to put the conscience to be even more assertive on behalf of the people in North Korea.

Cynthia: Thank you. Our next question comes from Luke Hunt in Cambodia. Please go ahead.

Reporter: Yes, hi. I just wanted to ask about these new laws that are expected to pass in Vietnam towards the end of this year in regards to religious freedom. What do you make of them and what do you think will be the potential impact, particularly on people who live in the more rural, far-flung areas of the country?

Amb. Saperstein: Very important question to us, so let me just walk through that for people who may not be aware of what has been transpiring in Vietnam. Vietnam, having passed recently a new constitution, has been passing a number of basic laws dealing with the fundamental rights in Vietnam, and amongst those is its first comprehensive law on religion and religious freedom.

We have long had concerns about Vietnam. Vietnam is a country that was a country of particular concern and by easing a number of its restrictions on some of the unregistered groups in 2005 and releasing a number of political religious prisoners of conscience, they were brought off of the country of particular concern, but in each one of our reports we expressed a number of concerns on this issues that are not unique to Vietnam and as I describe them you can hear a number of other countries that we have concerns about with the same kind of patterns.

First, it is a very onerous registration system. It is complicated to meet the requirements of it. The government can be inconsistent and harsh in terms of applying the rules of the registration system.

Secondly, in order to run their activities, they have to submit reports every year they have to be approved by the government, so to observe their holidays, their Sabbath, teach their kids, to do what is central to their formal activities of houses of worship they need government approval. If people are going to go to seminary, it requires government approval. If they are going to be ordained, it requires government approval. If they’re going to be hired at a house of worship, a monk at pagoda, a priest at a church, an imam at a mosque, it requires government approval. So you can feel the kind of pervasive aspect of this.

In the beginning, step by step in each draft of the new omnibus law there have been significant improvements in the law, and this is extraordinary encouraging. Vietnam is such an influential country in the region; for it to make the kind of changes that we’re seeing in the drafts, assuming when it is voted on that it holds, this would be a very encouraging sign and make life a lot easier. In the last few years some of the restrictions, particularly in cities, you were right to ask about the rural area, particularly in cities, restrictions even on unregistered churches have continued to ease. Certainly on the registered entities they tell us that there’s been noticeable improvement in the ongoing life of the religious institutions.

In the rural areas, that message from the federal government is not being felt in the same way, and the authorities in some of the rural areas—I was able to visit, some of those on my last trip there—they feel a harder hand of the government, and that of course interferes with their ability to enjoy some of the opportunities that those in the larger cities or those who are in the more established religions as opposed to those in some of the newer religions in the country are able to enjoy.

So a lot depends on how this law ends up. We really want to encourage the government of Vietnam to continue to ease restrictions in the different drafts of the law, and we hope when its voted on it really will set a model for many other countries in the region there – that it’s possible for Vietnam to meet its security needs and to meet its other needs in a way that it offers more freedom and allows the religious communities to contribute more to the wellbeing of the people of Vietnam at the same time.

Cynthia: Thank you, Ambassador Saperstein. I would like to thank you again for taking the time to speak with us today. Unfortunately we are out of time, but I would like to ask you if you have any final words before we close the call.

Amb. Saperstein: I guess the final one is over and over again what we find, just picking up the last one I was making, is that many countries across the globe face very serious and very real security threats from extremist voices who are willing to use violence to impose their views on others who disagree with them, often doing so in the name of religion. What we have found is that very often in trying to protecting themselves from the threat of violent extremism, countries will be overbroad in their restrictions targeting an entire religious group, rather than those who are the ones who are the perpetrators of violence, and when they do, all they end up doing is driving religious life underground, having less transparency about the very things that they worry about, dividing the country along sectarian divides, and making those who can’t live openly and freely feel like second-class citizens and end up destabilizing the country.

This is a place where protecting the fundamental rights of all of those who are willing to live peacefully, whether you agree with their religious views or not really is to the benefit of countries across the globe who have these concerns, lead to more stable countries, more transparent populations, and to the greater, I believe, economic and social and democratic growth of countries.

So this is a message that we share with every country with whom we are working to combat violent extremism, and it is a place where the particular issue of religious freedom and the more global issue of stability and wellbeing go hand and hand.

Cynthia: Thank you very much, and thank you to all of our callers for participating in today’s briefing. If you have any questions about the call, please contact me at That concludes today’s call. I will turn it back over to the operator.

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