Remarks at the Release of the 2014 Report on International Religious Freedom

David N. Saperstein
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom 
Washington, DC
October 14, 2015

AMBASSADOR SAPERSTEIN: I want to thank the Secretary, not just for his remarks; he made a number of commitments of support for this work when I came on, and he has more than fulfilled those commitments.

The Annual International Religious Freedom Report provides an important opportunity for the United States to highlight an issue that continues to be a foreign policy priority for the Administration, documenting how, where, and when the universal right of freedom of religion or belief was violated or protected in every corner of the world.

Through the immense effort of countless State Department officials, particularly our knowledgeable and tireless staff of the International Religious Freedom Office and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in Washington, as well as dedicated staff in each one of our embassies across the globe, the 2014 report maintains the high standards of objectivity and accuracy for which we strive.

A little over a year ago, I stood at a podium next to Secretary Kerry here in this room when he announced my nomination for the position of Ambassador-at-Large, and during my 10-month tenure I have been gratified by the support from both the Secretary and the President in implementing so many of the priorities I identified in my confirmation hearing and my swearing-in speech. We have since increased the number of staff in my office, allowing us to expand our country monitoring work and better address a variety of issues – from the importance of religious freedom and countering violent extremism to the terrible global impact of blasphemy laws. Simultaneously, we have expanded foreign assistance programs that strengthen religious freedom.

I’m also deeply appreciative of President Obama’s and Secretary Kerry’s support for the appointment of Knox Thames as special advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia; I’m delighted that he’s able to be with us today. Knox will build upon our already intense efforts on behalf of these minorities over the past year, including our work to protect Yezidis in those early days and weeks on Mount Sinjar in Iraq and the Assyrian Christian communities of the Khabur River area of Syria. Knox will help guide the U.S. Government-wide efforts to promote conditions in these countries that will allow members of displaced minority communities to be able to return home.

Since January, I’ve also worked to build deeper partnerships with foreign governments to advance religious freedom as these global challenges require a global response. Thanks to the leadership of my Canadian counterpart, Ambassador Andrew Bennett, we have forged an intergovernmental contact group bringing together likeminded nations to devise common strategies to promote and protect religious freedom for all.

Now, during my tenure I’ve noticed certain enduring truths. In many countries, religious freedoms flourish; people are free to choose their faith, change their faith, speak about their faith to others, teach their faith to their children, dissent from religion, build places of worship, worship alone or in fellowship with others. In such societies, denominations and faith groups organize as their leaders and members see fit. Interfaith cooperation flourishes, religious communities contribute significantly to the social welfare and serve as a moral compass to their nations.

Yet in far too many countries people face daunting, alarming, growing challenges on account of their beliefs. In countries where once proud traditions of multi-faith cooperation, positive coexistence was the norm, we have witnessed growing numbers of religious minorities being driven out of their historic homelands. And in too many countries, prisoners of conscience suffer cruel punishment for their religious beliefs and practices. This report gives a voice to all those around the world who are seeking to peacefully live their lives in accordance with their conscience or religious beliefs.

In the pages of this report, we strive to put a human face on this incredibly important human right that touches so many people across the globe and remains central to the identity of the American people.

A number of trend lines stood out in this year’s report. The first one, the Secretary has already mentioned, is the single greatest challenge to religious freedom worldwide, or certainly the single greatest emerging challenge, and that is the abhorrent acts of terror committed by those who falsely claim the mantle of religion to justify their wanton destruction.

In both Iraq and Syria, Daesh has sought to eliminate anyone daring to deviate from its own violent and destructive interpretation of Islam. Targets include non-Muslims, Shia, Sunnis alike. It has displaced individuals from their homes based on their religions or ethnicity. Similarly, Boko Haram has killed thousands in both indiscriminate violence and deliberate attacks on Christians and Muslims who oppose its radical ideology. It has subjected the peoples of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, to unspeakable acts of terror, sexual violence, abductions, and fatal attacks on places of worship.

Secondly, the impact of blasphemy laws and apostasy laws in countries including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, and in a number of others – as well as laws that purport to protect religious sentiments from offense. The United States uniformly opposes such laws which are used to oppress those whose religious beliefs happen to offend the majority. Such laws are inconsistent with international human rights and fundamental freedoms, and we will continue to call for their universal repeal. The existence of such laws has been used in some countries as pretext to justify violence in the name of religion to create an atmosphere of impunity for those resorting to violence and/or leads to false claims of blasphemy.

Third, repressive governments routinely subject their citizens to violence, detention, discrimination, undue surveillance, for simply exercising their faith or identifying with a religious community. We see this dramatized by the plight of countless numbers of prisoners of conscience. We remain deeply committed to seeing such individuals freed everywhere in the world.

In my travels to Vietnam, I saw firsthand how religious groups are forced to undergo onerous and arbitrary registration process to legally operate. As Vietnam considers amending its religion laws, we stand with the country’s religious communities in calling for the easing of such restrictions. And in Burma, Ambassador Bennett of Canada and I spoke out forcefully together against a series of discriminatory laws banning interfaith marriage and restricting conversion.

Many governments have used the guise of confronting terrorism or extremism to broadly repress religious groups for nonviolent religious activities, or by imposing broad restrictions on religious life. Russia continues to use vaguely formulated anti-extremism laws to justify arrests, raids on homes and places of worship, and the confiscation or banning of religious literature. Tajikistan bans people under age of 18 from participating in any public religious activities, supposedly on the ground that exposure to religion will lead youths to violence. Chinese officials have increased controls on Uighur Muslims’ peaceful religious expression and practice, including instances of banning beards and headscarves.

And a word about China: During my visit in August, I found that despite widespread, continuing government abuses and restriction, many places of worship were nonetheless full and flourishing. In areas of the country where the government’s hand was lighter, faith-based social service and welfare agencies operating homeless shelters, orphanages, soup kitchens, made highly positive contributions to the wellbeing of their society. We’ve urged the Chinese Government to use that as a model of what can work nationwide. But far more often restrictive policies still stifled religious life, preventing Chinese people from experiencing such benefits. This reality has only been exacerbated by the growing crackdown on human rights lawyers in China, including those seeking to work within China’s legal system to enhance religious freedom. And this does include Zhang Kai, a peaceful, respected, Christian human rights lawyer who was detained just prior to a meeting with me and whose whereabouts remain unknown.

A fourth trend is the role of societal violence and discrimination, that which emanates not from the government itself but from other societal groups. And the question is: What does the government do to try and ameliorate the conditions that lead to such violence, and what does it do to protect harassed minority communities? In Europe, many governments are struggling to cope with the aftermath of terror attacks such as those in France, Belgium and Denmark, along with increased anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim actions and sentiments. As hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and others have fled into Europe in recent weeks, we urge governments to uphold their obligations for humane treatment of refugees and ensuring that individuals do not face harassment or discrimination on account of their Muslim faith.

Now, despite these many challenges detailed in our report, we also see governments and individuals working to improve their communities and societies. Following the terror attacks in Copenhagen in February, thousands of people of different faiths formed in Denmark a human ring outside the synagogue where the murder occurred. In September of 2014, Kyrgyzstan’s constitutional court ruled part of the country’s problematic religion law unconstitutional, a decision we hope will ease registration requirements for minority religious groups and enable members to engage in peaceful religious activities more freely.

After years of growing religious tensions and violence in Sri Lanka generated by hardline ethnic Buddhist groups, a new government has taken office and staked out a much more tolerant view of religious diversity. Since that time, some of these tensions have noticeably eased.

In closing, while the challenges are daunting, we are deeply inspired by the work of countless religious communities, civil society organizations, and individuals around the world working alongside us to ensure that their governments live up to their international commitments to protect freedom of religious and belief. We dedicate our work to their struggle and continue to fight for a world in which every individual is free to live out the core of his or her conscience.

I’m now happy to answer any questions.

MR TONER: Any takers? Go ahead, David.

QUESTION: You’ve sketched out a number of things that are going badly and a few things that are going well. Is it possible to look at a global trend? Are things better than they were when you took office or worse, globally?

AMBASSADOR SAPERSTEIN: If you look at the Pew reports that I believe are a year behind our reports, over the last several years there’s been a steady increase in the percentage of people who live in countries that are – that have serious restrictions on religious freedom. And of course, as both the Secretary and I pointed out, the escalation of the violence perpetrated by non-state actors, often in the name of their interpretation of religion, is a new phenomenon that has really escalated in the last 18 months. So on that level, there are trends that are deeply troubling.

At the same time, if you look and for – just take one example in Europe, and you look at the acts of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim activity that took place, across Europe leaders of the different countries and civil society leaders and religious leaders have all spoken out condemning these acts, taking steps to help prevent these acts, standing in protection of minority communities with many governments deploying either police or militia to protect endangered minority communities. And we’ve seen enormous expansion of interfaith efforts on almost every continent to try and address the challenges.

So it’s hard to give you the sum between the dangerous and the encouraging parts of it. This report doesn’t make those kinds of judgment. It just states in facts what is happening in each and every country.

MR TONER: Barbara.

QUESTION: Just to follow up the China situation, have the Chinese Government responded in any way to your questions about the detention of this Zhang Kai, I think his name is? And also, what are the circumstances of the people who were detained around the same time? And sorry – finally, how do you explain that balance or that kind of mixed message between religious – a certain amount of religious freedom or expression, but on the other hand increasing restrictions, especially when you were actually there?

AMBASSADOR SAPERSTEIN: So let me clarify what the situation was. At the very end of our time in mainland China, these detentions took place. One was of somebody – someone with a human rights legal background who had met with us to give the analysis that that person brought to bear on the subject, who was detained the next day in house detention.

About 10 of the people from the community of Wenzhou – now that, I’m sure, many of you have read about. That’s a community where there’s been an escalation of efforts to take down crosses from a few hundred churches, to dismantle some churches in Wenzhou. And we wanted to meet with people there. We were denied permission to actually travel there, but we were allowed to go to the capital of that province. And that group of people – including three human rights lawyers, four pastors from the area, three or four other activists, a group of about 10 people – were all detained.

Several of them have been released. Several of them still face the possibility of charges. And with Zhang Kai, who really is one of the most respected human rights lawyers in China, someone who has argued over and over again that they have to work within the legal system of China in order to win these battles and has proved very skilled at doing that, representing a range of religious groups, he and I believe one or two or the others are still in locations where we’re not sure where they are. This is not an uncommon occurrence. And on – our human rights bureau has reached out in all their encounters. We’re trying to talk about these problems in a structural level. We have continued to ask questions. We will continue on this. And we hope that we will get answers.

Just on one foot – again, the report doesn’t make the judgments about why these disparity of experiences, these encouraging signs and these deeply discouraging signs, live side by side in the same country. It just sets out the facts and allows you folks to provide the interpretation.

MR TONER: Nicole.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this, Mr. Ambassador. The report talks about a wave of anti-Israel sentiment in Europe in 2014 that crossed the line into anti-Semitism. And I’m wondering if you could explain to us how you defined where that line was. What constituted anti-Israel action or sentiment versus anti-Semitic?

AMBASSADOR SAPERSTEIN: We actually have a very brief paper on that. If you’d like, we can provide that to you. But just very quickly here, criticism of the public policy of any nation – Israel, the United States, China, a European nation, African nation, Asian nation – no matter what the nation is, that’s appropriate. That’s part of the free marketplace of ideas and discourse.

Where it has often crossed the line is when groups try to argue that Israel is an inherently illegal state and doesn’t have a right to exist as a Jewish state here and takes actions to de-legitimize those fundamental rights. It comes – it’s right on the cusp of that line when it holds one country to different standards than it would hold any other country. Normally we think of that as the denial of rights to a person that are given to other similarly situated people, or the imposition of obligations on a person not applied to other people. We normally think of that as racism. And this, in the minds of many, feels that when it steps over that line, that it constitutes anti-Semitic activity and not just anti-legitimate discourse about Israel’s policies.

MR TONER: In the back. Michele.


QUESTION: Hi, how are you? When you look at what ISIS is doing in the Middle East, would you describe that as a war on Christians? What more could the U.S. do to protect communities like that or to help resettle people here? And then finally, what would you tell Russia about Bashar al-Assad’s record on protecting minorities in that country?

AMBASSADOR SAPERSTEIN: That’s a broad range of issues. Let me try to do this quickly, working backwards. The – Assad’s record is absolutely clear. We have made that clear to the world. I think there’s overwhelming consensus in the global community about the horrific abuses of human rights that the Assad regime has been engaged in. And so Russia’s intervention doesn’t change what our message on that has been.

In terms of bringing people here, the President has announced an expansion in the number of refugees that we will be taking in. It is presumed a number of those will include – of the expansion will include people from that – will include people from that region.

We have worked vigorously on the issue of protecting the minority communities. ISIL is certainly targeting the Christian community, but is also targeting the Mandaeans, the Shabak, certainly the Yezidis that explicitly said it wanted to wipe out here. So it is trying to decimate and eviscerate the presence of those very communities here. And we know that if there’s going to be a possibility to bring them home, we know what the ingredients are going to be. I’ve spoken on this publicly to a number of the major Christian groups who are concerned about this, but also the groups that are concerned about the – in meetings with the Yezidi, the Shia Muslim groups from the area who are affected by this as well.

That is, we need to sustain them where they are in place at a condition that they’re going to be willing to stay – mostly in Kurdistan – until ISIL’s presence is removed. And we clearly need to remove ISIL’s presence for them to return home. That means there have to be schools for their kids, there has to be better health care, there have to be job opportunities for their kids who are graduating school, et cetera. And the United States is the lead factor in providing that kind of humanitarian aid.

Secondly, there needs to be a security system when they return home in which they can trust, because a lot of that trust was breached when ISIL came in. And they need their own – the right to have their own effective defense forces that have to be integrated with the Iraqi and Peshmerga forces.

Third, there has to be a restorative justice, a transitional justice system. People go back to their communities; some of their former neighbors have taken over their businesses, their homes. There has to be a system that will fairly adjudicate that and hold people responsible who assisted ISIL.

Fourth, at a macro level in Iraq, there has to be a change in the governance structures that allow those minority groups to have a real role in shaping the future of the country. Prime Minister Abadi has made clear that that is his intent. We see some of that represented in appointments that he’s made, and the United States is working with the Iraqi Government on that day in and day out.

And finally, there has to be an internationally engaged plan on the economic rebuilding so that people will have a sense of hope for the future. We know what those ingredients are. The United States, often together with the UN or other nations, are working on planning in this. And that’s very important because if it were – we waited until ISIL was pushed out, it would leave a vacuum that chaos would potentially descend.

And so we know what needs to be done. We’re working on those things – and pushing very hard – that will benefit the Christian community. I mean, think about it. There’s been a Christian community there for 1600 years. Across the Nineveh plain, church bells have pealed for 1600 years. Today they are silent. And we are not going to rest until people have a right to live out their religious lives back in their home communities in accordance with their conscience.

MR TONER: A couple more questions.

QUESTION: Thank you. On North Korea and on religious freedom and human rights in North Korea, in North Korea they detained many of the religions and the pastors for past years, then they are still in prisons. So how – would you please tell us: How many U.S. citizens still in the North Korean prisons? Can you guess how many U.S. citizen pastors or religions or whatever citizens?

AMBASSADOR SAPERSTEIN: First, as you know, Korea remains a country of particular concern for us. It is one of the worst violators of human rights in the entire world. We have talked about that over and over again. The countries of particular concern who were this past year continue this year. I think everyone knows that list – Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan.

Secondly, we continue – we don’t have direct relations, so we continue through international partners and by mobilizing these international coalitions to put continuing pressure for North Korea to ease its restrictions on religious freedom and to let every one of those prisoners of conscience – and there are far, far too many, and they often face brutal conditions in the prisons – to go.

And finally, the United States Government is always working, day in and day out, to ensure that its citizens who are imprisoned unjustly without due process and for the exercise of fundamental internationally protected rights are allowed to go free, and/or encounter a judicial system that does provide due process and fairness. We do that as best we can through the international contacts with North Korea going on every day on an ongoing basis.

The question of how many, I actually don’t know the answer to. The specific cases we can’t comment on. American privacy laws protect us from – protect them from allowing us to talk about their situation, and they’re not in a position to give us authority and permission to do that. So we can’t comment on the individual cases.


QUESTION: In your outreach to countries to address religious freedom concerns, do you ever get pushback from governments who may view the idea of religious freedom as a Western concept?

AMBASSADOR SAPERSTEIN: We do, and it has been somewhat of a growing phenomenon. Here – we therefore make it clear over and over again we are not trying to impose the standards of Western countries, of countries of any particular majorities – religious majorities – here, or American, European standards on any of these countries. Almost all of these countries we’re dealing with are signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – Article 18 is quite clear about a robust application of religious freedom. We regard these as internationally protected rights, and it is within that guise that we deal with it.

Let me just point out, however, that we respect the varied traditions of people up to the point it violates those international norms. We try to engage with them on their terms to find ways to address what concerns they might have about defamation of religion, about attacks on religion, about the questions of what religiously would be – would constitute blasphemy by finding non-legal ways to deal with that. The passage of UN Resolution 1618 is a prime example of that. It enjoyed the support of the OIC in passing it. It looks at non-penal ways to address some of these questions.

And we have set up a very effective training program drawing on the Justice Department, the Homeland Security Department, and the State Department. Working with other experts around the world, we’re out in other countries doing training programs about this, and the countries – it’s been a handful of countries we’ve done a test run on, and now we’re going to be expanding this in a much more global reach. It’s one of the things that I’m focused on doing. And that’s where we engage people where they are and try and bring them in ways to address their concerns within international legal norms.

MR TONER: Really, last few questions. In the back there and then Nicole.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador, for your time. The Syria Catholic patriarch last week said that Christians in the Middle East feel like the West has abandoned them. How do you respond, and how can this report help in their crisis right now?

AMBASSADOR SAPERSTEIN: Sometimes there are competing truths – two things that are absolutely true here. There is a robust effort of the developed world – of the democratic world, excuse me – to help protect the Christian communities. They are – all of the efforts that we’re doing in terms of supporting the humanitarian needs of Syrian refugees, of Iraqi refugees; of working with the Government of Iraq in the lines – along the lines that I was talking about in the international community manifest that. Day in and day out there isn’t a single day that we are not doing more and more. The – bringing Knox Thames, such a respected advocate of religious freedom – for those of you who don’t know Knox, he had been the director of policy and research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, widely respected in the field – who hit the ground running when he came on just within the last couple of weeks, he’s going to be working side by side with me and with our international counterparts and with every arm of our government that is doing programs, working on defense training and work with countries in the area here (inaudible) the intelligence communities, all of the human rights work that we’re doing here, to help really strengthen the work on behalf of these minorities.

That’s one reality. I mean, I could talk for hours about what is being done, the programmatic work that’s being done – the relief and humanitarian work, et cetera. They’re in the middle of a horrific war situation. Every day their lives could be imperiled. There’s no magic button that can fix this. It is – as the President has said, it is going to be long, steady progress here until we can reach the kind of goals that we want. If you’re living there and you fear for the well being of your family every day, certainly you’re going to feel like the world isn’t doing enough about it. It’s a paradox. We recognize that reality. We do everything we can to ameliorate that, to offer greater protection and to meet the needs of these communities, and we won’t cease doing so until they really are able to live in freedom in accordance with their conscience.

MR TONER: Nicole, last question (inaudible) sorry.

QUESTION: Does the State Department consider efforts by Western countries to ban the Muslim headdress or the Muslim covering for women as a repression of religious freedom?

And second, very quick, if you can. Iran, Saudi Arabia – which one is more respectful of religious freedom? Thanks.

AMBASSADOR SAPERSTEIN: Both of them, as you heard, are on the list of the countries of particular concern here and continue to be on that list, Nicole. So we don’t make judgments about which are better and worse. Both of those countries have structural, systematic, egregious violations. Minority in Saudi Arabia – no one other than Muslim community can worship openly, can partake in their religious life openly. Even when they do it privately, often they’re harassed and interfered with. These are very serious challenges and problems. In Iran, we have very serious problems as well. Again, the Shia Muslim community – interpretation of Islam dominates the legal structure, the culture of the country. Other Muslims find themselves – Mahdi Muslims find themselves in trouble; in the Baha’i community, systematically oppressed. Almost every minority group faces restrictions and are discriminated against in one form or another.

So they are both – have very serious problems. Read the report; you would have to make the judgment yourself which is the worst here.

QUESTION: And the headdress issue?


QUESTION: The headdress issue?

AMBASSADOR SAPERSTEIN: Yeah – yes. We have taken a position in our approach to this that exercise of freedom of religion and belief allows people to make determinations about what their appropriate re0ligious garb would be. If women feel they have to have their heads covered, if Sikhs believe that they have to wear turbans, this is their right. If Jews believe they have to wear yarmulkes, kippot to cover their head, this should be the determination that each and every person makes. There may be circumstances in which there are compelling reasons – simply the need to identify someone or safety reasons – you can’t wear a turban working around equipment that could catch a turban. If you got to wear a safety helmet, you got to wear a safety helmet.

So accommodations should be made as far as possible. Those exceptions are really few and far between. We believe that people’s right to live in accordance with their conscience includes the right to use religious garb and religious dress. We’ve been critical of other democratic countries as well as nondemocratic countries that have put such restrictions, and we hope in the future things will ease enough that – and will be seen in a different perspective that this restriction of religious freedom will be allowed to fade away.

MR TONER: Thank you all, appreciate it. Thank you, Ambassador.