Remarks at the 31st Appeal of Conscience Seminar
Secretary of State
Good morning. It's a treat to be back at the beautiful Foreign Service Institute to see our training programs in action. I’d like to thank Director Ruth Whiteside for her tireless work to keep our training programs and our staff on the cutting edge of 21st century statecraft.
Thank you to all the ambassadors and spiritual leaders who are participating in the panels today. We are truly grateful that you have taken the time to help deepen our understanding of such a textured and personal issue. And it is a great honor to once again stand alongside my dear friend Rabbi Schneier, a guiding light to whom Americans have turned for more than four decades.
Having seen hatred and intolerance become manifest evil during the Holocaust, Rabbi Schneier has dedicated his life to defending religious freedom and promoting tolerance. I've had the good fortune of seeing the Rabbi in action several times, but I'll never forget our trip to Shanghai in 1998. Rabbi Schneier showed then Secretary Albright and me around the Ohel Rachel Temple, one of several synagogues built by the Jewish community in China during the 19th and 20th centuries. After the communists took power, China did not recognize Judaism as a religion, and many Jews fled the country. The Chinese Government then used Ohel Rachel as a warehouse for decades until Rabbi Schneier helped reclaim and restore it as a memorial to China’s Jewish community. I was deeply moved to be a witness when Rabbi Schneier returned a Torah to the temple's Ark.
Presidents, prime ministers, and popes rely on him for counsel, and we are truly blessed that he has also taken time each year to share his wisdom with students at the Foreign Service Institute. So I'd like to take a moment to recognize the lifetime of dedication Rabbi Schneier has given to the world, and the international community of peace and understanding he has helped build.
Unfortunately, the work of people like the Rabbi, and all the other distinguished panelists here today, is never finished. Humanity still struggles with intolerance and religious persecution. In every region of the world, people are denied their fundamental right to practice their faith according to their creed. People of every religion are targeted. Religious oppression can range from quiet intimidation to overt violence. And in many places it is getting worse, not better. More than 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries that have high restrictions on religious practices.
Young people of the Baha’i faith in Iran are barred from schools because of their religious identity. This being the digital age, the Baha’i attempted to work around this edict by creating an online institute of higher education. In homes across Iran, hundreds of Baha’i students pursued their passions using this system. Demand for courses outstripped the supply. Then last May, Iranian authorities arrested over 15 of the school's administrators and effectively ended its operation. Seven members of the school received 4-5 year prison sentences.
In Pakistan, a young Christian woman – a mother of five – got into an argument with her neighbor on the way to fetch water. Now she is sitting in jail, as she has for more than two years – accused on vague charges of speaking against Islam and the Prophet, convicted of violating Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. She has been sentenced to death by hanging, and protestors have threatened reprisals if she is given clemency.
In some countries, anti-Semitic lies are taught in school textbooks, alongside science and arithmetic. Swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans have been spray painted on Jewish memorials. Holocaust denial is growing in Europe, Asia, South America, and the Middle East, desecrating the memory of more than six million Jews who died. This is indefensible.
Across Europe, government restrictions on the free practice of Islam are on the rise. So is Islamophobia – an issue that we admittedly struggle with here in the United States as well. Religious discrimination can come from the people as well as the government. They are two sides of the same coin, and both are deeply dangerous. So the problem is extensive and indiscriminate. Whenever the right of any person to practice his religion – or to practice no religion – is threatened, it undermines the rights of all people.
Advancing religious freedom is a core element of our diplomacy around the world. It is a major priority for me personally, and for American foreign policy strategically. Tolerant societies are more stable, more secure, and more peaceful. And they are better able to tap the full breadth and diversity of their people’s talents. It is in all of our interests to promote greater interreligious understanding. What's more, it is our moral commitment to do so.
Soon many of you will be back out on the front lines of foreign policy, working at posts around the world. Some of you may even be the human rights officer at your embassies. Many more of you will have other duties. But wherever you serve, in whatever role, this is on the agenda. Promoting religious freedom and championing tolerance should be a personal commitment for every member of the State Department. We must all be vigilant and resourceful in combating intolerance. When laws are unjust, we must seek to change them. When people are targeted for their beliefs, we must provide succor and relief. We must never shrink from calling out persecution. Hatred must not go unanswered.
Now, we try to train you for this as best we can here at FSI. We offer several courses on religion and foreign policy. The area studies courses touch on the importance of religion to a country's history and identity. All of that is critically important. But it's also important to know what this actually looks like when you are working out in the field, because this is an area where one person taking small actions can truly make a difference.
For example, in Tajikistan, the government prohibits Muslim women from praying in mosques or wearing headscarves in places of higher education. A State Department visitor from Washington, who also chooses to wear a veil, met with a group of Muslim women whose next best option was to pray in a warehouse and outside in a muddy vacant lot. This was the first time many of the Tajik women had ever met an American, much less an American official interested in their plight. They told her how upset they were that the government restriction on headscarves kept them from attending high school and university, or from pursuing more than menial jobs. Embassy Dushanbe continues to press the Tajik Government to change its laws restricting religious freedom, but these women can’t wait. So, our embassy explored avenues to help them gain skills and access opportunities they would otherwise be denied. And as a bonus, those Tajik women have gotten to see a fellow woman of faith excel in her workplace without sacrificing her religion.
In Iraq, embassy staffers have shared many cups of tea with women from Yezidi, Shabak, Christian, and Arab communities discussing their frustrations and fears as religious minorities. By working local businesswomen in Ninewa province, our colleagues helped create the Ninewa Businesswomen’s Network. Over 5,000 women from different religious groups have used this network to help launch a new sewing business, or to open their own restaurant, or to offer professional beauty services. Those same women now get together over tea to share stories of feeling empowered and bringing in their own income.
This kind of work is happening at embassies and consulates, in temples and mosques and sanctuaries, around the world. We engage with spiritual and government leaders alike to promote respect for religious freedom and diversity across the whole of society. In fact, our Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook – herself a faith leader – has been in Nigeria for the past few days, meeting with government officials and civil society leaders to address the challenges and opportunities in that country. Her visit was another layer in the continuing good work the State Department staff is doing here in Washington and out at post to address these issues.
Much of our work comes down to creating room for empathy to take root and grow. Making good choices about what we say or do often takes teaching and learning. Sometimes this is because people have been told their whole lives that choices that can damage the fabric of society are righteous. We must work to counter those ways of thinking and strive to replace them with mutual respect and understanding.
Tolerance is a habit of the heart. We must nurture it in our homes and communities. Share it with our neighbors, congregations, and family members. And pass it down to our children.
We have learned over the course of the last 235 years how much hard work and continual tending democracy requires. We are still struggling to get it right. One thing we know for sure: a thriving democracy requires equal participation, and it requires a mind open to compromise. Yet compromise does not come easily to ideologues or extremists or anyone who believes they have a monopoly on the truth. And too often, religion is used as an excuse, the means to justify a political end. So it is the duty of every person of conscience to stand up and speak out when we believe religion is being threatened or perverted, misappropriated and exploited.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Raoul Wallenberg's birth. Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat serving during a moment of crisis in Nazi-occupied Hungary. He chose to act. Issuing passports and sheltering Jews in buildings considered Swedish territory, he saved 20,000 Jews in Budapest toward the end of World War II. The street that runs in front of the Holocaust Museum in Washington is named for him, and in 1981, we made him an honorary American citizen for his heroism. Following the war, Wallenberg was arrested by Soviet troops, and to this day, we are unsure of his fate, of when or how he died. But there is no doubting his conviction and his willingness to stand up in the face of great danger, to speak out for those who were vulnerable and persecuted. Wallenberg still lives as a reminder of our highest calling as diplomats.
I hope each of you will remember Wallenberg, and Rabbi Schneier, and each of the brave men and women who strive to protect religious freedom, no matter how hard the work or how long the odds. Keep them all firmly fixed in your heart as you go about your work and your life. They are your colleagues and your inspiration. We can offer you no better training than their example. Thank you.