Remarks at the Rollout of the 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Press Briefing Room
Washington, DC
July 28, 2014

SECRETARY KERRY: Good morning, everybody. How are you?

AUDIENCE: Morning.

SECRETARY KERRY: Is everybody good? So I’m going to make – David, I want you out here with me, if you would. Tom, why don’t you come out here on the other side. Thank you, sir. I’m going to make a statement, and then I need to rush out of here because I have a phone call literally in about 10 minutes. And I’ll leave Tom Malinowski and David here with you. David is a nominee, and therefore not going to be able to say anything at this point in time, but I wanted to have a chance to introduce him to all of you as we release the International Religious Freedom Report, which we believe is a very important statement that underscores a major challenge around the world. It is also a pleasure for me to introduce President Obama’s nominee to serve as our Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. And he, when confirmed and if confirmed by the United States Senate, is going to lead our efforts to make progress on these issues of religious freedom across the globe, and that is Rabbi David Saperstein.

Before we begin, I just want to say a very few words quickly about the events in Gaza and what is happening and what we’re trying to do. As you all know, I just returned from the Middle East and from Paris, where I had a series of discussions aimed at de-escalating the conflict, ending the rocket and tunnel attacks against Israeli civilians, and easing the suffering of innocent people everywhere – in Gaza, in Israel, in the West Bank. Today, we are continuing to work toward establishing an unconditional humanitarian cease-fire, one that could honor Eid, which begins now, and that will stop the fighting, allow desperately needed food and medicine and other supplies into Gaza, and enable Israel to address the threat which we fully understand and which is real – the threat posed by tunnel attacks – and to be able to do so without having to resort to combat. That is what could come from a cease-fire.

We believe the momentum generated by a humanitarian cease-fire is the best way to be able to begin to negotiate and find out if you can put in place a sustainable cease-fire, one that addresses all of the concerns – the long-term concerns as well; begin to talk about the underlying causes of the conflict in Gaza, though those obviously will not all be resolved in the context of a cease-fire, sustainable cease-fire discussion. But it is important to try to build, to begin, and to move in a process, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve. That is the only way, ultimately, this conflict is going to be resolved.

Hopefully, if we can make some progress, the people in this region, who deserve peace, can take one step towards that elusive goal by stopping the violence which catches innocents on all sides in the crossfire, and begin to try to build a sustainable way forward.

We also believe that any process to resolve the crisis in Gaza in a lasting and meaningful way must lead to the disarmament of Hamas and all terrorist groups. And we will work closely with Israel and regional partners and the international community in support of this goal.

So we continue to have these discussions. Our discussions over there succeeded in putting a 12-hour humanitarian cease-fire in place. Then, as the rollover time for that occurred, regrettably there were misunderstandings about 12 hours versus 24, 4 hours versus 24. And so we’re trying to work hard to see if these issues can be clarified in a way that allow the party – that allow Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian factions, the other countries involved, working through the Egyptian initiative, to be able to find a way to silence the weapons long enough to be able to begin to negotiate.

Now, the cause of peace and understanding is what brings us here today. Sixteen 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 this annual State Department report in order to shine a light on the obstacles that so many people face as they seek nothing more than the ability to be able to worship as they wish. And the release of this report 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 at the core of who we are as Americans. It’s been at the center of our very identify since the pilgrims fled religious persecution and landed in my home state of Massachusetts. And many settled in the city of Salem, which takes its name from the words “salam,” “shalom,” meaning peace.

But we’re reminded that before long, even there – even there in Salem, newly founded in order to get away from religious strife, unfortunately religious persecution arrived on the scene. Women were accused of witchcraft, and some were burned at the stake. Emerging differences between religious leaders in Massachusetts and some congregations were led, as a result of that, to break away and to found new settlements. Rhode Island was founded by people who wandered through the woods leaving Massachusetts and wandered for an entire winter until they broke out on this expanse of water, and they named it Providence, for obvious reasons.

One hundred years after the pilgrims set sail for religious freedom, a Catholic woman was executed on the Boston Common for the crime of praying her rosary. So we approach this issue – I certainly do – very mindful of our past and of how as Americans we have at times had to push and work and struggle to live up fully to the promise of our own founding.

John Winthrop, 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 ever since then, and they are today.

And though we are obviously far from perfect and we know that, no place has ever welcomed so many different faiths to worship as freely as here in the United States of America. It’s something that we are 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 it’s engrained in every human heart. The freedom to profess and practice one’s faith is the birthright of every human being, and that’s what we believe. These rights are properly 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 I 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 shine a light in a way that makes some countries – even some of our friends – uncomfortable. But it does so in order to try to make progress.

Today of all days, we acknowledge a basic truth: Religious freedom is human freedom. And that’s why I’m especially proud to be joined today by President Obama’s newly minted nominee as our next Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rabbi David Saperstein. When it comes to the work of protecting religious freedom, it is safe to say that David Saperstein represents the gold standard. Think about the progress of the last 20 years in elevating this fight, and David has been at the lead every step of the way – serving as the first chair of the U.S. International Religious Freedom Commission, Director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, and as a member of the White House Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

But David’s resume is not just a list of titles or positions. That’s why he pushed for the U.S. Government to engage in partnerships with communities that work across faith lines. That’s why he’s worked to forge deeper partnerships with women of faith networks to advance peace and development. And that’s why he’s worked to engage American Muslim communities and their groups on global Muslim engagement affairs. And that’s why he made it his mission to promote tolerance and mutual understanding in Sudan.

I have witnessed his exceptional skill, his patience, his ability to listen, his sense of humor, and his tenacity as an advocate over the course of my years on Capitol Hill. He is simply one of America’s most compelling and committed voices on religion in public life. And I could not be more grateful for his willingness to now serve on the front lines of our global push to expand religious freedom, and I look forward, I hope, to his rapid confirmation by the United States Senate.

One thing is for sure: Rabbi Saperstein is joining an important effort at a very important time. When countries undermine or attack religious freedom, they not only unjustly threaten the people that they target; they also threaten their country’s own stability. That’s why we, today, add Turkmenistan to the list of Countries of Particular Concern. We have seen reports that people in Turkmenistan are detained, beaten, and tortured because of their religious beliefs. The Government of Turkmenistan has passed religious laws that prohibit people from wearing religious attire in public places or that impose fines for distributing religious literature. And the authorities continue to arrest and imprison Jehovah’s Witnesses who are conscientious objectors to military service.

I want to emphasize: This effort isn’t about naming countries to lists in order to make us feel somehow that we’ve spoken the truth. I want our CPC designations to be grounded in plans, action that help to change the reality on the ground and actually help people. That’s why we are committed to working with governments as partners to help them ensure full respect for the human rights of all of their citizens.

And when 75 percent of the world’s population still lives in countries that don’t respect religious freedoms, let me tell you, we have a long journey ahead of us. We have a long way to go when governments kill, detain, or torture people based on a religious belief.

North Korea stands out again in this year’s report for its absolute and brutal repression of religious activity. Members of religious minorities are ripped from their families and isolated in political prison camps. They’re arrested and beaten, tortured, and killed. And we’ve seen reports that individuals have been arrested for doing nothing more than carrying a Bible.

And North Korea is not alone. Earlier this month, Chinese officials sentenced Christian pastor Zhang Shaojie to 12 years in prison for peaceful advocacy on behalf of his church community. And just last week, I welcomed the release of Meriam Ishag, a mother of two young children who had been imprisoned on charges of apostasy in Sudan. From South Asia to Sahel, governments have silenced members of religious groups with oppressive laws, harsh punishments, and brutal tactics that have no place in the 21st century.

In Iran, U.S. Iranian citizen Pastor Saeed Abedini remains imprisoned. The Iranian authorities sentenced him to eight years behind bars simply because of his religious beliefs. We will continue to call for his release and we will continue to work for it. And make no mistake: We will continue to stand up for religious minority communities under assault and in danger around the world, from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Baha’is to Ahmadi Muslims.

So we have a long way to go to safeguard these rights. We also have a long way to go when governments use national security as an excuse to repress members of minority religious groups.

In Russia, the government has used a succession of ever more punitive laws against what they call extremism to justify crude measures against people of faith. In China, authorities harass Christians. They arrest Tibetan Buddhists simply for possessing the Dalai Lama’s photograph. And they prevent Uighur Muslims from providing religious education to their children or fasting during Ramadan. And in Uzbekistan, the government continues to imprison its citizens, raid religious gatherings, and confiscate and destroy religious literature. These tactics continue to pose an incredible test. But make no mistake: These tactics will fail the test of history.

One of the troubling trends identified in this year’s report is how sectarian violence continues to displace families and devastate communities. Thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been displaced in Burma in the wake of sectarian violence, and tens of thousands more are living in squalid camps without adequate medical care.

In Pakistan, militants killed more than 500 Shia Muslims in sectarian bloodletting and brutally murdered 80 Christians in a single church bombing last year. The Pakistani Government has yet to take adequate steps to bring those responsible to justice.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram has killed more than 1,000 people over the last year alone, and that includes Christian and Muslim religious leaders, individuals who were near – near – churches and mosques, worshipers, and bystanders alike. And we have all seen the savagery and incredible brutality of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – the wholesale slaughter of Shia Muslims, the forced conversions of Christians in Mosul, the rape, executions, and use of women and children as human shields.

All of these acts of barbarism underscore the stakes. Just the other week, ISIL declared that any remaining Christians in Mosul must convert, pay a tax, or be executed on the spot. Around the world, repressive governments and extremist groups have been crystal clear about what they stand against. So we have to be equally clear about what we must stand for. We stand for greater freedom, greater tolerance, greater respect for rights of freedom of expression and freedom of conscience.

With this report, I emphasize we are not arrogantly telling people what to believe. We’re not telling people how they have to live every day. We’re asking for the universal value of tolerance, of the ability of people to have a respect for their own individuality and their own choices. We are asserting a universal principle for tolerance. The Abrahamic faiths – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – have to find new meaning in the old notion of our shared descent. What really is our common inheritance? What does it mean to be brothers and sisters and to express our beliefs in mutual tolerance and understanding? Answering those questions is our mission today. Edmund Burke once famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This report is the work of good men and women who are doing something profound in the face of bigotry and injustice.

And let me share with, you around the world, some of today’s greatest advocates in this cause are doing their part every day, some of them at great risk and in great danger. They are doing it in order to force light into darkness. In Pakistan, following the militant attacks I just mentioned, members of the Muslim community formed human chains around churches to demonstrate solidarity against senseless sectarian violence. In Egypt, Muslim men stood in front of a Catholic church to protect the congregation from attacks. And in London, an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood watch team helped Muslim leaders protect their mosque and prevent future attacks.

There are many, many, many examples of people standing up for this universal value of tolerance and doing so for themselves at great risk. There are many whose names and communities and watch teams we will never know. But they will not receive prizes; they may not ever receive recognition. Their courage goes unremarked, but that makes it all the more remarkable, because they put their lives on the line in face of beatings and imprisonment and even death, in the near certainty that their sacrifice will be anonymous. Believe me, that’s the definition of courage.

So while serious challenges to religious freedom remain, I know that the power of the human spirit can and will triumph over them. It is not just up to the rabbis, the bishops, and the imams. It’s up to all of us to find the common ground and draw on what must be our common resolve to put our universal commitments into action.

Tom Malinowski will speak further, be prepared to answer any questions, and I’m very grateful to you all for being here for this important report and for allowing me to introduce you to the President’s nominee. Thank you.