Remarks on the Release of the International Religious Freedom Report

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
May 20, 2013

The video is available with closed captioning on YouTube.

MS. PSAKI: Good morning, everyone. So, thank you for joining us for the release of the 2012 International Religious Freedom Report. The Secretary will make some brief remarks, and then we will turn it over to Ambassador Johnson Cook, who will make remarks and also take some of your questions.

With that --

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you, Jen. Thank you very much. Good morning, everybody. How are you?

Well, thanks for being here today for the release of the 2012 International Religious Freedom Report. I am pleased to be here with our Ambassador-at-Large, Suzan Johnson Cook, and I want to thank her and her entire cohort here for their terrific work in helping to put this together. She is doing – they are doing a superb job of advancing religious freedom abroad.

I also want to acknowledge the hard work of a whole bunch of State Department employees both here in Washington and at a lot of posts around the world, because all of them collect the information and do a lot of work throughout the year in order to be able to put this report together. This is not a one- or two-week affair. It’s a long one-year process, ongoing.

Fifteen years ago, I was very proud to join my colleagues in the United States Congress in passing the International Religious Freedom Act, the law that mandates the preparation of this State Department report. This report, as many of you know, shines light on the challenges that people face as they seek nothing more than the basic religious freedom, the right to worship as they wish. And its release here today is a demonstration of the abiding commitment of the American people and the entire U.S. Government to the advancement of freedom of religion worldwide.

Freedom of religion is a core American value. It’s one that helped to create our country. It’s been at the center of our national consciousness since the 1600s, when the Pilgrims fled rebellious – religious persecution and landed in my home state of Massachusetts. And many of these folks settled in the city of Salem, which takes its name from the words “salaam” or “shalom,” meaning “peace.”

But before long, even there, religious strife visited their hometown. Women were accused of witchcraft, and some were burned at the stake. Emerging differences between religious leaders in Massachusetts led some congregations to break away and to found new settlements in what would become Connecticut and Rhode Island. Providence was founded by people who wandered through the woods the entire winter and came out on this expanse of water, and named it Providence for obvious reasons.

So we approach this issue – I certainly do – mindful of our past, and of how as Americans we have at times had to push and work and struggle to fully live up to the promise of our founding. John Winthrop, who happens also to be my granddad from 10 generations back, was born in England, but his passionate faith and his disagreements with the Anglican Church inspired him to lead a ship full of religious dissidents to come to America to seek freedom of worship. And on the deck of the Arabella, he famously said in a sermon that he delivered before they landed: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” And they have been, and they remain there. And through – though we are obviously far from perfect, no place has ever welcomed so many different faiths to worship so freely as here in the United States of America. It’s something we can be extraordinarily proud of.

But freedom of religion is not an American invention. It’s a universal value. And it’s enshrined in our Constitution and ingrained in every human heart. The freedom to profess and practice one’s faith, to believe or not to believe, or to change one’s beliefs, that is a birthright of every human being. And that’s what we believe. These rights are rightly recognized under international law. The promotion of international religious freedom is a priority for President Obama, and it is a priority for me as Secretary of State. I am making certain, and will continue to, that religious freedom remains an integral part of our global diplomatic engagement.

The release of this report is an important part of those efforts. This report is a clear-eyed, objective look at the state of religious freedom around the world. And when necessary, yes, it does directly call out some of our close friends, as well as some countries with whom we seek stronger ties. And it does so in order to try to make progress, even though we know that it may cause some discomfort.

But when countries undermine or attack religious freedom, they not only unjustly threaten those whom they target; they also threaten their country’s own stability. And we see that in so many places. Attacks on religious freedom are therefore both a moral and a strategic national security concern for the United States.

I also want to note that this report was informed by a broad spectrum of contributors: faith leaders, religious organizations, and journalists. Some of these individuals showed immense bravery in coming forward and sharing their observations. And their stories show that we as an international community have a lot of work to do.

The report chronicles discrimination and violence in countries ranging from established democracies to entrenched dictatorships. It documents that governments around the globe continue to detain, imprison, torture, and even kill people for their religious beliefs. In too many places, governments are also failing to protect minorities from social discrimination and violence. The report identifies global problems of discrimination and violence against religious groups, including Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs.

One troubling trend identified in the report is the potential rise of anti-Semitism. So today I would like to announce that I have named Ira Forman to the position of Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Ira has long been a champion of fair treatment for all, and he has worked extensively to combat intolerance. On top of that, he’s also a great guy, and I look forward to supporting him in this vitally important mission. So welcome aboard, Ira.

Lastly, another troubling trend is the increasing use of laws governing blasphemy and apostasy. These laws are frequently used to repress dissent, to harass political opponents, and to settle personal vendettas. Laws such as these violate fundamental freedoms of expression and religion, and we believe they ought to be repealed. And because we defend others’ rights of expression, we are also ensuring that we can express our own views and practice our own faith without fearing for our own safety or our own lives.

That is why, as I travel the world, I do press leaders to do more to safeguard freedom of belief and to promote religious tolerance. And that is why I urge all countries, especially those identified in this report, to take action now to safeguard this fundamental freedom.

While this report underscores the challenges to religious freedom, it is also true that it is harder than ever to restrict human freedom. It has never been easier in all of human history for people to share their views, to find information, to connect with others, even to send messages of desperation that ask for help or that shed light on abuses that are taking place, because of instant communication. So while serious challenges to religious freedom remain, I also could not be more optimistic about the prospects for freedom around the world, because there are great prospects for accountability around the world.

So I thank you very much. I want to turn the floor over to Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook, who will explain further what the elements of this report are. Thank you.

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PRN: 2013/0612