Release of the 2015 Annual Report on International Freedom (IRF)

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
Press Briefing Room
Washington, DC
August 10, 2016

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Morning, everyone. It is my pleasure today to join you to present the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2015. I especially want to thank Ambassador Saperstein and his entire team for their hard work to produce this report, and their focus on international religious freedom every single day of the year. Their commitment underscores a fact that no one should ever have to doubt: Support for religious liberty guides the United States and our foreign policy every single day.

This core principle is written into the founding DNA of the United States, renewing and strengthening our nation with every generation. It’s the first freedom enshrined before all others in our bill of rights. And it’s become a centerpiece of global human rights conventions and law.

Our abiding commitment is affirmed by the priority we’ve given to defending and championing international religious freedom everywhere, but especially where it is under threat. We’ve grown the Religious Freedom Office steadily over the last several years. We’ve created a new Religion and Global Affairs Office under the outstanding leadership of Shaun Casey. Put that together and that makes 50 full-time State Department personnel focused entirely on religious freedom and the role of religion in foreign affairs, working closely with 199 Foreign Service officers in our embassies and consulates across the globe to produce the report that we’re putting out today.

As Secretary Kerry has said, the purpose of this annual report is not to lecture; it is to inform, to encourage, and ultimately, to persuade. Bigotry and intolerance can be found in every part of the world, including the United States. But every country has an obligation to respect religious liberty and freedom of conscience; we encourage every country to do so. This report, which is based on a wealth of objective research, is one of many ways we give life to that advocacy.

Our message is simple: Societies tend to be stronger, wealthier, safer, and more stable when their citizens fully enjoy the rights to which they are entitled. When a government denies religious liberty, it turns citizens who have done nothing wrong into criminals, igniting tension that breeds contempt, hopelessness, alienation. Far from a vulnerability or weakness, religious pluralism shows respect for the beliefs of every citizen and gives each a tangible reason to contribute to the success of the entire society. That’s why no nation can fulfil its potential if its people are denied the right to freely choose and openly practice their faith.

Now, it used to be that our annual reports focused almost exclusively on the actions of states. But we’ve also seen certain non-state actors – including terrorist organizations like Daesh, al-Qaida, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram – posing a major threat to religious freedom. There is, after all, no more egregious form of discrimination than separating out the followers of one religion from another – whether in a village, on a bus, in a classroom – with the intent of murdering or enslaving the members of a particular group.

This past March, Secretary Kerry made clear his judgment that Daesh is responsible for genocide against religious communities in areas under its control. Daesh kills Yezidis because they are Yezidi, Christians because they are Christian, Shia Muslim because they are Shia. Daesh is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups, and in some cases also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, other minorities. They’ve not only killed, they’ve sought to erase the memory of those they’ve killed, destroying centuries-old religious cultural sites.

Naming these crimes is important, but our goal is to stop them. That’s why President Obama has mobilized a coalition of more than 65 partners from every corner of the world to combat and ultimately defeat Daesh. Together we’re systematically cutting off Daesh’s financing, destroying its sanctuaries, stemming the flow of foreign fighters, combating its narrative on social media, liberating communities, allowing citizens to return home, and gutting the twisted foundation on which Daesh’s global ambitions rest. We eliminated tens of thousands of fighters, hundreds of senior leaders. We’ve destroyed thousands of pieces of equipment and weapons. We’ve deprived Daesh of 20 percent of the territory it once controlled in Syria and 50 percent in Iraq.

Now, we know that the fight to defeat Daesh on the ground is far from over. But as the noose closes around it, we’ve also seen Daesh try to adapt by encouraging indiscriminate attacks in as many places as possible – a market in Baghdad, a nightclub in Orlando, a promenade in Nice, a cafe in Dhaka, a square in central Istanbul. One of the best ways to deny these murderers their victory is by ensuring that those they have sought to destroy not only survive, but thrive. As the fight for the liberation of Mosul in Nineveh province draws near, we must work to ensure a future in which all Iraqis – be they Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Christian, or other – feel represented and protected by the nation that they call home.

Two weeks ago here at the State Department, we convened over 30 delegations and challenged the international community to do more to ensure ancient religious and ethnic communities can remain in their ancestral homelands, confident in their security and economic opportunity. Every government has an obligation to protect its citizens, and in responding to the threat posed by terrorism, this can be – and we all know it – an immensely challenging task. It requires sharing intelligence, identifying suspicious behavior, taking legitimate security precautions, countering efforts to radicalize young people. And since some violent extremist groups point to religious texts to encourage and justify horrendous crimes, we must partner with religious, civil society, and political leaders committed to defeat efforts to radicalize their communities and radicalize our youth.

But security concerns are not a defensible reason to suppress peaceful religious activities, deny fair treatment to religious groups, apply collective punishments, or deny freedoms that are essential to religious practice, including those of association, assembly, and expression. We stress this point not solely to defend the principle of religious freedom, but also because terrorists are quick to exploit evidence of discrimination in trying to rationalize their actions and attract new members. Whatever the intent, repression tends to fuel terrorism, not stop it, which means that the denial of religious liberty is not only wrong but profoundly misguided and self-defeating.

As a tool for learning and improvement, this report also holds up countries in which progress to religious freedom is being made, and let me just cite one example: Vietnam. Onerous registration and reporting requirements still limit the ability of both registered and unregistered religious communities to freely practice their faith. But that said, the government is currently drafting a new omnibus law on religion and belief scheduled to be considered by the national assembly this fall. The government has made some efforts to provide transparency to the drafting process; it’s relaxed some registration and approval requirements in the draft itself. I want to encourage our partners in Vietnam to continue to move in a direction that will ease restrictions on its religious communities.

At its heart, this report seeks to demonstrate all that is at stake. We believe so strongly in international religious freedom for all because it’s something we value very deeply for ourselves as Americans.

Fifty or a hundred years ago, if you asked an expert what constitutes the wealth of a nation, you’d probably hear that it’s the expanse of the nation’s landmass, the size of its population, the strength of its military, the abundance of its natural resources. And all those things still matter; they make a difference, and the United States happens to be blessed with many of them. But what we know now in the 21st century is that the true wealth of a nation can be found in the human resources of a country and their ability to freely build, invent, excel, and express themselves. Countries that fully unleash this potential, that invest in the health, prosperity, security, and diversity of their societies, will thrive in the 21st century no matter the abundance that they have or don’t have in traditional measures of wealth and strength. And religious freedom is a core component of maximizing that potential for people to express themselves freely to maximize their own potential.

I want to thank Ambassador Saperstein and everyone who contributed to this year’s report. It’s an extraordinary testament to their energy, their passion, their dedication. And now I’m pleased to yield the floor to Ambassador Saperstein for his remarks, and he will have the pleasure of answering any questions that you may have. Thank you very much.

Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein on the Release of the 2015 Annual Report on International Freedom (IRF)