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

Remarks
John Kerry
Secretary of State
Press Briefing Room
Washington, DC
October 14, 2015


SECRETARY KERRY: Well, today we present the department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2014.

And I particularly want to thank David Saperstein and his entire team for producing a report that reflects a vast amount of objective research and that will provide a uniquely valuable resource for anybody who cares about religious freedom in all of its aspects. And I am very grateful for David’s willingness to come on board. He has provided important new energy and focus on this, is building a terrific team, and I think you’re going to hear more and more from the Department with respect to our fight to protect people’s right to exercise religious freedom.

The message at the heart of this report is that countries benefit when their citizens fully enjoy the rights to which they are entitled. And this is not a hopeful theory; this is a proven reality. No nation can fulfill its potential if its people are denied the right to practice, to hold, to modify, to openly profess their innermost beliefs.

I should emphasize that the concept of religious freedom extends way beyond mere tolerance. It is a concept grounded in respect for the rights and beliefs of others. It is deeply connected to our DNA as Americans – to everything that we are and everything that we came from. It’s a concept that is based on respect, and respect, in turn, demands legal equality. It demands that the practitioners of one faith understand that they have no right to coerce others into submission, conversion, or silence, or to literally take their lives because of their beliefs.

The purpose of this annual report is to highlight the importance of religious freedom not by lecturing but through advocacy and through persuasion. Our primary goal is to help governments everywhere recognize that their societies will do better with religious liberty than without it. The world has learned through very hard experience that religious pluralism encourages and enables contributions from all; while religious discrimination is often the source of conflicts that endanger all.

By issuing this report, we hope to give governments an added incentive to honor the rights and the dignity of their citizens; but the report also has the benefit of equipping interested observers with an arsenal of facts.

And one of the more consequential facts of our era has been the convergence – really, the development of a sort of new phenomenon of non-state actors who, unlike the last century and the violence that we saw and persecution that we saw that emanated from states, are now the principal persecutors and preventers of religious tolerance and practice. Most prominent, and most harmful, obviously, has been the rise of international terrorist groups such as Daesh, al-Qaida, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram. And all have been guilty of vicious acts of unprovoked violence.

Under their control, captives have been given a choice between conversion or slavery or death. Children have been among the victims, and also among those forced to witness or participate in executions – sometimes even of their own family members. Entire populations of religious minority groups have been targeted for killing. Terrified young girls have been separated out by religion and sold into slavery.

The repugnance of these acts is only multiplied when the perpetrators seek to justify themselves by pointing a finger at God and claiming somehow that God licensed these acts. We are, and we will continue, to oppose these groups with far more than words of condemnation that are contained in this report.

We will also continue to help the survivors. In the Middle East, and in Africa, we are assisting local partners in responding to the needs – both physical and psychological – of women and girls who have escaped or been released after having been held captive by terrorist groups. Each victim, each nightmare, each wound is another reason to urgently address the root causes of violent extremism.

And before closing, I just want to make three general points.

First, as much as we oppose the actions of terrorists, we do not agree with governments that use those crimes as a pretext for prohibiting religious activities that are in fact nonviolent and legitimate. Those who misuse the terms “terrorist” and “extremist” are not fooling anybody, and trying to dictate an artificial conformity of religious expression is not a prescription for harmony. It is a prescription for frustration, anger, and rebellion. And we have learned time and again that if citizens are denied the rights to practice and express their beliefs peacefully, they are far more likely to explore other and more often than not dangerous alternatives.

Second, the right to religious freedom is not contingent on having a large number of followers. Religious minorities – including those who profess no faith – should have the same rights as religious majorities, and that is a fundamental belief. Sadly, the pages of this report that is being released today are filled with accounts of minorities being denied rights in countries like Burma, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, many others.

And finally, I want to emphasize the importance and urgency of the work that is being carried out by Ambassador Saperstein and his office, including the addition of a new special advisor on religious minorities. Among their initiatives is a groundbreaking effort to build a coalition of likeminded nations to uphold the international standard of religious freedom for all.

In that connection, I urge the release of men and women detained or imprisoned anywhere in the world for the peaceful expression and practice of their religious beliefs. This includes Mr. Zhang Kai, a Chinese Christian human rights lawyer who was detained in late August just prior to a scheduled meeting with Ambassador Saperstein, and whose present whereabouts are unknown.

In closing, I note that religious bigotry is present to a degree in every continent and every country, and sadly, even including our own. It may be expressed through anti-Semitism or prejudice against Muslims; through the persecution of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and others; or it may come in the guise of attacks against religion itself, as we saw so tragically in Oregon at the beginning of this month.

In response, we all have a responsibility to affirm our faith in the principles of religious freedom that the world community has endorsed so many times and that have helped to uplift America and define our country since the 17th century, when Roger Williams issued his call for soul liberty, and when, some years later, Seneca chief Red Jacket told a missionary delegation from Boston, “Brother, we do not wish to destroy your religion. We only want to enjoy our own.” That’s the fundamental principle of tolerance that guides us, and it is a value worth fighting for.

With that, I am pleased to yield the floor to Ambassador David Saperstein, who will give you a little more detail about the report. Thank you all.

Remarks by Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein »