Briefing on the Release of the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report

Special Briefing
Suzan Johnson Cook
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom 
Washington, DC
July 30, 2012

MS. NULAND: Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for joining us a little early. Today, as you know, we have our annual release of our International Religious Freedom Report. And here to present that to you and answer your questions is our Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook.


AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Thank you, Ms. Nuland. Good morning. Good afternoon, now. Today, we are releasing the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report, which, for the first time, covers the calendar year and uses new technology to improve searchability. This congressionally mandated report reviews the status of religious freedom in 199 countries and territories.

Throughout the year, our Office of International Religious Freedom, embassies, and consulates work with governments and civil society to produce a report that is comprehensive, detailed, and accurate. Later today, Secretary Clinton will give remarks on the importance of international religious freedom and its centrality as a fundamental human right.

But let me just reiterate now that religious freedom is a universal human right and is essential for a stable, peaceful, and thriving society. As President Obama has said, we stand with all who would deny the ability to choose and express or live their faith freely, and we remain dedicated to protecting this universal human right and the vital role it plays in ensuring peace and stability for all nations.

Freedom of religion is not just an American right but the right of all people. It goes hand in hand with freedom of expression, freedom of speech and assembly, and when religious freedom is restricted, all these rights are at risk. And for this reason, religious freedom is often the bellwether for other human rights. It’s the canary in the coalmine.

Unfortunately, in too many places, these rights are not respected. This report details increasing intolerance against a range of religious communities. As you read it, several themes will strike you. You’ll read about the eight countries that the Secretary has designated last August as Countries of Particular Concern – or CPCs as we refer to them – including places such as North Korea, where genuine religious freedom does not exist, and Iran, where religious freedom deteriorated from an already horrible situation. And you’ll see that in countries around the world, anti-Semitism was on the rise, evidenced by attacks on adults and children and the desecration of cemeteries.

Let me share with you some other troubling trends. In a number of countries, individuals were detained or imprisoned because of their religious beliefs. In Iran, Pastor Nadarkhani faces a death sentence just for his faith. The government continues to detain over 100 Baha’i, including the seven Baha’i leaders whose sentences for espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities, and propaganda against the system have been re-extended to the original 20-year penalty.

In other countries, increasing using – increasingly they’re using blasphemy and apostasy and dissent laws to curb religious freedom. In Saudi Arabia, blasphemy against the Wahabi – the interpretation of Sunni Islam – continues to be punishable by death. This February, a young blogger Hamza Kashgari, was arrested for questioning his faith on Twitter, and he still remains in jail without charge. In Pakistan, authorities continue to invoke these abusive laws where hundreds of Muslims and non-Muslims were convicted of blasphemy. Asia Bibi, a Christian, remains in prison awaiting an appeal of her 2010 death sentence for blasphemy. Some of those who publicly criticize the blasphemy laws have already paid in their lives.

Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, Minister of Ministry Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, have already paid with their lives. And nearly half of the world’s countries, governments either abuse religious minorities or did not intervene in cases of societal abuse. In Egypt, the former regime routinely discriminated against religious minorities, particularly Coptic Christians and Baha’is, and failed the curb rising violence against Coptic Christians and their places of worship. These patterns have continued during the post-revolutionary transition.

Last October, security forces attacked demonstrators in front of the Egyptian radio and television stations in Cairo. Twenty-five people were killed and hundreds were injured, most of whom were Coptic Christians. And, to date, no government official has been held accountable in this attack.

In Burma, long simmering tensions recently erupted in widespread violence against the marginalized Rohingya community. And in other countries, governments misuse laws to restrict freedom of religion, expression, and assembly. China restricted the practices of many groups, including unregistered Christian churches, Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners. The self-immolation of over 40 Tibetans to protest Chinese policies continue to demonstrate their desperation.

Russia and Uzbekistan invoked national security as a pretext for restricting the rights of some peaceful religious groups. Other governments used registration laws to restrict the rights of religious communities. A number of countries, including Belarus, Hungary, and several in Central Asia, have rigid laws that make legal registration for religious communities difficult, which often meant unregistered groups were ineligible for state financial support or tax benefits and were unable to own property.

In Belarus and some Central Asian countries, unregistered groups were also frequently unable to gather for worship or practice their religion at all. And this type of favoritism by governments can empower societal abuse of religious minorities. In several countries, governments limited the right to wear or not to wear religious attire. This decision should be a personal choice.

And increasingly, some European countries enacted or drafted legislation to ban attire that covers the face, and these bans particularly affected Muslim women. And in other regions, some countries forced women to cover themselves entirely. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, and Somalia, for example, enforced modesty codes, dress codes, for women. And these challenges are daunting, and sometimes it’s easier to focus on the egregiously bad than the quietly good. But nevertheless, change is possible.

As Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, I’ve been privileged to meet with government officials and people from around the world. The ideas they share about new ways to come together and build hope for a better future are exciting and inspirational. For example, that the State Department has launched the 2012 Hours Against Hate Campaign to promote respect regardless of religion, culture, gender, disability or sexual orientation. Using social media, this campaign mobilized young people to volunteer time to work against intolerance and hate. And we’re partnering with – and how exciting it is to be part of the Summer Olympics – (inaudible) Hannah Rosenthal just returned from London – and to also be partnering with the Paralympics in London, NGOs, citizens everywhere part of this campaign.

And efforts like these change the story of hate and intolerance into one of acceptance and peace. It takes all of us – governments, faith communities, civil society working together to ensure that all people have the right to believe or not to believe. Each of us has a role to play in promoting religious freedom where it’s most vulnerable. So I’ve talked about several trends from 2011, but when I read the report, I think about the people. I think about the men and women whom I’ve met in Vietnam, in Nigeria, Uzbekistan, Morocco, Turkey, those I sat with on the day of Assisi at peace with the Vatican, people – men, women, youth – who are trying to practice their faith and raise their children and their families freely.

Most of all, I think about the people whose freedom has been taken away and whose lives might still be at risk – Pastor Nadarkhani, 1,000-days-plus incarcerated; Hamza Kashgari; Asia Bibi; and some whose names we cannot call. I think about the Tibetans who have self-immolated – more than three dozen. And to these and to the many others in jail and in danger, and to the family of those who have lost their loved ones because of their faith, we dedicate this report.

And we dedicate ourselves to continuing the fight for international religious freedom. Let me take this opportunity to wish our warmest wishes and regards to Muslims around the world as they observe this month of Ramadan. It is now my pleasure to receive your questions. Thank you.

MS. NULAND: Who would like to start today?

Jo, please.

QUESTION: With the – I realize this report is focusing back on 2011.


QUESTION: And so with – when we had the launch of the Arab Spring, do you have hope that in 2012 some of the criticisms that you have against those countries will be alleviated? Do you see that things are changing as the Arab Spring movement progresses in these countries?

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: This is a great question. You are correct. This report was on 2011. The Arab Spring continues to happen. In places like Egypt, they’re still in transition even though they’ve just had the elections of their President. Their President Morsi has declared that he’s going to be more inclusive in his cabinet. He’s declared that there will be a woman, there will be a Coptic Christian, there will be secular citizens. And so we’re looking, as they form new constitutions, it’s a wonderful opportunity to include religious opportunities and religious freedom. So we’re looking for them to hold accountable those who are perpetrating these violent acts. We’re looking at them to protect religious minorities and all citizens and adhere to the universal human rights. And we’re looking to them to where they can reform or repeal or change laws that discriminate to do that. So that is my answer to your question. They’re in transitions that are important, but we’re looking to them to honor what they said they will do.

MS. NULAND: Maria, can you identify yourself, please?

QUESTION: Yes. Maria with Efe News Service that’s in Washington. I was looking at the executive summary, and I was wondering if you could expand a little more on the comment on Cuba. On the one hand you’re saying there has been an improvement in respects – in respecting religious freedom. But on the other hand, you’re saying that there are still significant restrictions. So how do you reconciliate those two statements? I mean, can you elaborate on what’s going on now? And I realize the Pope’s visit was this year –


QUESTION: -- but I was wondering if maybe they were prepping up or gearing up to the visit, and that’s why the improvements were there. Or can you elaborate?

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Well, again, this report is about 2011, but currently there’s both/and. There are places where the government restricts religion, and there are places that there are pragmatic openings. The U.S. Government is encouraging those religious groups to be able to travel there and be able to have an opportunity post-the Pope’s visit to be able to engage with communities of faith there. So it’s both/and situation, and we’re hopeful that they will continue to open the door and work on their religious freedom issues.

MS. NULAND: Please, here.

QUESTION: I’m Chi-dong Lee. I’m with South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. Like you said, this report covers situations in 2011. But North Korea had their leadership change at the end of last year. So do you see any sign of change in situations in North Korea since then? And what’s the expectations for North Korea next?

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Well, North Korea continues to be on our countries of particular concern list. The situation is really deplorable. Where we can, we have multilateral relationships, and we try to continue to press and urge the government to improve their situation. But it is still deplorable, and there’s not a real strong religious freedom going for – they’re not really focused on religious freedom at all. So we’re asking them to really work on all of their universal human rights, including religious freedom.

MS. NULAND: Nicole.

QUESTION: The report is from 2011. I want to ask a question about Russia and religious freedom there and whether you’ve seen any reduction in it in the last six to eight months.

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Well, that’s a great question. Russia continues to misuse the extremism laws, and that’s something that we’re focusing on continually. On a whole-of-government approach, we’re urging the government, certainly, to not misuse those laws and to certainly adhere again to the Universal Human Rights Declaration and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. So they still have the issue of the misuse of extremism laws, and we will continue to monitor the situation. We’re certainly concerned about the people who are affected, but we will continue to monitor the situation and press the government.

QUESTION: A question on Iran. You said, and the report says, that religious freedom deteriorated further from an already egregious situation, but at least in the executive summary some of the issues that you mention – the restoration of the 20-year sentences for the Baha’is, for the seven Baha’is and the continued incarceration of the Christian pastor, in a sense that doesn’t suggest that it’s even worse than it was before. What else is significantly worse?

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Well, the turn with Iran, it’s also a country of particular concern, and it continues to be stagnant. It hasn’t improved or deteriorated. We are concerned certainly with Pastor Nadarkhani, which is not only our concern, Congress is concerned, civil society’s concerned. On July 8th, which was his thousandth day in incarceration, the State Department issued a statement for his release to Iran. We work multilaterally with Iran. There are sanctions that are – been imposed on them. Fourteen organizations, religious freedom organizations, and four individuals have had sanctions imposed on them. So we continue again to assess the situation and we repeatedly tried to monitor that situation.

QUESTION: But you see, here, it says it’s deteriorated further from an already egregious situation, but you just said it was stagnant, neither better nor worse. What --

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Deteriorated from 2011, actually, but the situation is bad. I mean, it’s not really improved is really what I should say, but it’s not just Pastor Nadarkhani, but it’s also the Baha’is; there are other religious minorities that are being detained. And so we’re looking at that situation very closely, but it continues to be a country of particular concern, and the sanctions are used.

MS. NULAND: We have another question here. Please identify yourself.

QUESTION: Sorry, (inaudible) from (inaudible) Times. At a congressional hearing last week, Representative Chris Smith said the United States should be taking a stronger approach on human rights and religious freedom with China, and mentioned sanctions which can be imposed as part of the CPC. Taken that the situation has deteriorated further for religious freedom in China, the persecution against Falun Gong practitioners has intensified, as it has for Tibetans, house Christians and Uighurs, what sort of pressure is the State Department considering against China to see some improvement for this year?

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Thank you for your question. Just this past week, the Chinese Human Rights Dialogue was held here, and I participated in that and I raised the religious freedom issues. I mean, it’s a complicated situation where there are many conversations going on. But we raised the religious freedom issue. It’s not just about the house churches which you mentioned, but the Uighurs, the Falun Gong, the Tibetan immolations.

When you have more than three dozen, that’s a sign of the desperation that the people are under, and so we continue to press with that government for – there are also unregistered churches beyond the house churches that don’t have a chance to express their faith and their belief. So we continue to press the government in terms of freedom of expression and freedom of religion and also just universal human rights. That’s a continuing conversation and we will not let up.

MS. NULAND: (Inaudible.)


QUESTION: Could you just tell us what kind of response you got in those meetings when you raised the issues during the Strategic Dialogue?

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Well, there was discussion, and the discussion will continue. And as the Department is ready to release the report in terms of what the results of those discussions were, I will be doing that. Thank you.

MS. NULAND: Michel.

QUESTION: Thank you. Are – the CPC for this report are still the same? And what do you consider what’s happening in Syria?

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: In Syria, I mean, there – it’s a tough situation. We’re seeing much in the media, as you see each day. We’re looking to a post-Assad Syria, and the President has called for his removal. We’re looking for a government that will be inclusive of all minorities and religions and all citizens, that they have to deal with human rights in general but religious freedom specifically. So we’re looking for a post-Assad inclusive regime.

QUESTION: And what about the CPC? Are they still the same in this report as last year?

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: In 2011, I refer you to the report is where they are, yes.

QUESTION: Does that mean they are the same 2010 to 2011, or was there a change?


AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: There really has not been a – I mean, it’s really deteriorating. Until there’s a post-Assad regime, we will not be able to tell you in terms of how they’ve moved forward. 2011 and 2010 pretty much deteriorating – the trend was deteriorating.

MS. NULAND: We have time for two more. Elise.

QUESTION: I think actually he meant are the countries that are CPCs --



QUESTION: -- in 2011 the same countries? Did you add or subtract it? Are there --

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Okay. In terms of designation, yeah, my opening – they are the same countries that were there, the same eight countries.


QUESTION: On Egypt --

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: I wasn’t clear on that (inaudible).

QUESTION: -- obviously, the situation with the Copts – Coptic Christians was a factor in Secretary Clinton’s visit to Egypt. I’m wondering what assurances you’ve been given from President Morsi that he’s going – because in the report, obviously, the interim government did not – in fact, took actions against Coptic Christians. So what assurances have you been given by President Morsi that he’s going to look at the situation? And to what extent could you use aid as a lever to make sure that the government --

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: That’s a great question. You are correct; the Secretary was just recently there. She invited a number of groups, including religious groups and religious minorities, including the Coptic Christians, to meet with her. I also, along with Assistant Secretary Posner, have met with Coptic Christians both here – more than 15 meetings. So we’re very concerned about the Coptic Christian community. President Morsi has said publicly that in his new government, he will include Coptic Christians, secular citizens, and a woman*. So we are looking for him to follow through on what his promise was.

MS. NULAND: I apologize. We only have time for one more. Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook has to move on, and if you have questions that are not answered, we can take them and handle them later.

Please, right here.

QUESTION: Yes, another question about China, because earlier this year, in the State Department’s Human Reports on Countries, it included about the organ harvesting of Falun Gong in this year’s report for the first time. I’m wondering, in your Religious Freedom Report, did you also cover this issue? And how will you take measures to take any steps to push China on this?

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: As I said – yeah, as I said previously, I think, as I answered another question, we’re concerned not only with the Tibetans and with the Uighurs; we’re also concerned with Falun Gong as well, the house churches, and the unregistered faith groups. So we’re concerned that people of all faiths have an opportunity to express their faith, so we certainly have raised Falun Gong. Thank you.

QUESTION: Yeah, but besides raising the questions, did you – will you take any concrete measurements to help improve the situation there?

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Well, as we move forward, we urge the government to not only focus on Falun Gong, but also all the groups that I stated previously. And so we’re looking for all religious minorities and all people of all faiths to be able to have the opportunity to express that. Religious freedom is for people to believe or not to believe, and so we want people to have that opportunity, including Falun Gong.

MS. NULAND: I apologize that we didn’t have a chance to get to everybody. As you know, the Secretary is going to speak on this issue and also take questions at about 2:00 later today at the Carnegie Endowment. And if you have things that were not addressed here, we can take them and get back to you.

Thank you very much.

AMBASSADOR JOHNSON COOK: Thank you. Thank you.

PRN: 2012/1239