Remarks at the Interfaith Iftar Reception

John Kerry
Secretary of State
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Special Envoy Angelina Jolie Pitt
ADAMS Center
Sterling, Virginia
June 20, 2016

MS JOLIE PITT: Secretary of State, ladies and gentlemen, scouts, good evening. It is such a pleasure to be with all of you, with people of different backgrounds, faiths, and beliefs all pulling in the same direction and sharing a common outlook of respect and tolerance. It reminds me how lucky we are to be living in a country that enables civil society to flourish, that provides for a rich tapestry of viewpoints and efforts. Civil society is one of the guardrails of democracy, and so I thank you for all the work that so many of you do on behalf of refugees in this country and around the world.

The principles we live by in a democracy are not new. They are not open to being reinterpreted or watered down, or even set aside because of new circumstances. As citizens, we do not only want freedom and human rights for every single person in our society, we want that for every person in the world – upholding the ideal that all people are born equal and deserve equal rights and dignity – and that is the essence of what it is to be a citizen of a democracy. It is how we treat the weakest or the most vulnerable among us that says the most about our commitment to human rights and equality and justice for all people.

And when we are most clearly seen to truly stand for those things in the world, that is when we are safest as a nation. That is when we are the most respected and admired. That is when our word counts most internationally, and that is how we inspire others to work with us. We don’t redefine ourselves as different people because we face new and daunting problems. We raise a fight within us to face down those challenges and we remain true to ourselves. Speaking as an American, the fact is there is not a country in the world that we are not connected to as a result of our unique history. We represent a global world. And when we are at our strongest it is when we draw on our diversity as a people to find unity based on our common values and our larger identity. We are not strong despite our diversity; we are strong because of it.

So it is time to reclaim for ourselves the idea of what strength is in democratic societies. I firmly believe that strength lies in the decency and common sense of regular citizens such as the people who turned out in the thousands after the tragedy in Orlando, supported by millions of likeminded people around the world from every race and religion. Strength lies in identifying how to address the very particular challenge from a small minority of people who choose the path of violent extremism or who abuse a religion without stigmatizing and isolating millions of people who share in that beautiful religion.

There is nothing strong about denigrating anyone on the basis of their religion, nationality, sexual orientation, gender, or on the basis of any characteristic or difference, real or imagined. When we discriminate, when we imply with our actions that some lives are worth more than others, or when we denigrate the faith, traditions, and cultures of any group of people, we weaken our strength in democratic societies. (Applause.)

What would it say about us as a country and an international community if we reach the point where we decided we were not prepared to stand up for our principles? The answer to addressing the global refugee crisis surely lies behind common courtesy and drawing strength from each other like we all feel in this room, in staying true to who we are, in showing that we have the fight in us to confront our generation’s test and emerge stronger for it.

That is my hope, and I believe I share it with all of you and millions of people beyond this room. I thank you so much for all that you do, for allowing me to be here with you. Thank you so much. (Applause.)

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SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you. Assalamu alaikum and Ramadan Kareem. I’m very honored to be with you. I’m holding this mike very close because I was in the Arctic the other day. You can hear my voice. I caught a cold. I think I got too close to the icebergs.

But it’s an honor for me to be here. Shaarik, thank you for a very generous introduction. More importantly, thank you for your wonderful service to the United States State Department. I think all of you can feel his energy and his enthusiasm, can’t you? And he is doing a terrific job for the State Department. (Applause.)

A wonderful good evening to you all. I want to express my appreciation to Imam Pastor Magid and also to Pastor Imam Roberts – (laughter) – very appreciative for their – very grateful for their wonderful words of faith, their words of an expression of our common ground that brings us here, and which more and more people really need to understand. And to all of the distinguished leaders of faith who are here, particularly if you don’t mind if I single out my old friend, His Eminence Cardinal McCarrick, who is such a wonderful leader here. (Applause.) I want to thank you all for hosting us here today. I’m looking out at this audience, and I want to know why there are more cameras focused on Angelina Jolie than me. What’s going on here, guys? (Laughter.)

But I am enormously appreciative of the wonderful work that is done here at the ADAMS Center. I know that this Interfaith Iftar is an annual event and it coincides this year with World Refugee Day, and it also coincides with the humanitarian crisis of mammoth proportions that we are facing today. Angelina and I were talking about it coming over here. Just place after place after place is presenting us with challenges. And many of you are all too familiar with the numbers, so I’m not going to recite all the numbers to you.

But the bottom line is that today, World Refugee Day, we need to understand that there are 65 million people who are displaced from their homes. If you put them all together in one place, one country, that would make up the 22nd largest country in the world. And this has created an enormous test of our international capacity, all of our communities’ capabilities, and of our compassion, which both the pastor and imam talked about: A requirement of all religions is compassion, the Golden Rule.

And each of us need to listen carefully to what the Special Envoy Angelina Jolie Pitt said about our responsibilities and think deep inside about what all of us can do. In the United States, no one has done more than nongovernmental organizations, including religious groups, to raise money, to advocate for and assist in the settlement of refugees. And I know that many of you here tonight have been very active in that effort, and we thank you for that.

But as a country, the United States proudly does lead the world in the more than $5 billion of assistance that we have provided to those who have been made homeless just by the fighting in Syria and in our annual contributions to refugees from other conflicts as well. We have almost 12 million people alone who are displaced in Syria – 4.5 million who are refugees and the other 8 million are just displaced people. And some of them are living in Lebanon not even in camps, some of them in Turkey in camps, some of them in Jordan in camps, many of them, as you’ve seen, struggling to cross to Greece and Europe to (inaudible) future rather than the terrible images of crisis of the loss of life on the seas or that horrible picture – moving, iconic picture of a young child listless in the arms of his father.

So we here in the United States, because of this, because of our sense of responsibility, have pledged to increase the number of refugees that we resettle annually from 70,000 last year to 85,000 this year, Fiscal 2016, and aiming for 100,000 in the year from now (inaudible). (Applause.)

Around the world, a huge effort is being made to respond to this crisis, but I have to tell you, my friends, all of our efforts still fall short of the need. Every nation, every sector, every individual has a responsibility to try to do more. As Secretary of State, I am particularly focused on not just writing checks every year but on dealing with the crisis at its roots. That means ending conflict, ending a war in Libya, ending a war in Yemen, ending a war in Syria. That is what (inaudible). (Applause.)

And as you know, every war and every conflict actually reflects the failure of diplomacy. Every time we prevent a war or bring an end to a conflict, we make it possible for people to live normally – not as a refugee but in their own communities, to be able to go home and live in the place that they (inaudible). (Applause.)

And that is why the pursuit of peace, the desire for peace, is so strong among people of every single faith. Our leaders have a solemn responsibility to protect the people who live within our borders, and that is precisely why our refugee screening process is so comprehensive and rigorous. It is also effective. And those who apply for refugee status have to demonstrate that they have a well-founded fear of persecution, as you know, and they will be turned down if they have a history of extremist or criminal behavior. It’s important for people to know that, because people shouldn’t fear a process which is as thorough and complete, as detailed, as the process is here in our country. And if people make false claims or they’re unwilling to answer hard questions, then, of course, they will not be allowed to come.

There is absolutely no evidence, my friends – zero evidence – that refugees who make it through this arduous process pose any greater threat to our society than the members of any other group (inaudible). (Applause.) Let me be very clear: Preventing any group from entering the United States solely because of their race or because of their nationality or because of a religious affiliation is directly contrary to the very ideals on which our country was based. (Applause.)

We believe in individual rights, not collective guilt. And we believe in judging people based on what they do, not the circumstances of their birth or their choice of sacred texts. Not only that, we need to remember that bigoted and hateful rhetoric towards Muslims plays right into the hands of the terrorist recruiters who propagate the lie – (applause) – who plays into the hands of people who propagate the lie that America is at war with Islam – when in fact there is no country on Earth where Muslims enjoy more freedom than in the United States of America. (Applause.)

My friends – as Angelina knows, and as many of you obviously know, and many of you from very personal experience – the refugee story, at its heart, is not about statistics. It’s about people.

It’s about families like the one from Damascus and now living in Indiana that spent more than three years in a refugee camp and sat through six five-hour interviews before getting a green light to come to the United States.

It’s about the young mother in Dearborn in Michigan whose brother was shot down right before her eyes by the Syrian Army. His crime? Taking a photograph of a peaceful protest.

It’s about the young man from Daraa who was about to be killed by soldiers only to be saved when an old woman came barreling into the street, pleading with the gunmen not to kill her son. And the man, who had never seen the woman before, lives now with his wife and daughter in Texas, works the night shift at Walmart, and is paying back the cost of their plane flights in monthly installments.

That’s the story of a refugee. (Applause.) The refugee story is about thousands and thousands of families who want their new neighbors to know that they are not the perpetrators of terror or violence, but rather people, people who yearn just like them only to live in security and peace.

Let me be clear: There is nothing ideological about coming to the aid of someone in need. In times of crisis, when the summons goes out, Americans have traditionally responded as one nation. Americans say, “Here we are. What can we do to help?” That’s who we are. That is America at its best. And that is the America that we must restore and preserve in the years and months to come.

And looking around this room and looking at all of you, with the excitement in your eyes about being here and being part of this journey, I am confident that together we are going to succeed. (Applause.)

I want to – we have about two minutes before we break the fast, so I will do what I learned how to do when I was in the United States Senate, which is filibuster. (Laughter and applause.) And I just want to tell you quickly for a minute, I want to thank the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. (Applause.) Thank you so much. (Applause.) I’ve done public speaking a lot and I learned a long time ago never speak after the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts do anything; they steal a show. (Laughter.) And the second danger tonight is Angelina Jolie Pitt. She is the show. (Applause.) So – but I want to express my gratitude to you. My mother was a Girl Scout leader for many, many, many years, and she was actually born at a time and born – and she was raised abroad, and she lived in England, and she actually met the founder of Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts, Lord Baden-Powell, so there was a little connection there to all of you for a long time. And I was a Cub Scout. I got a little ways. (Applause.)

So before the rabbi breaks the fast, I just want to say to all of you observing I wish you a very blessed and rewarding month of Ramadan. To all of you, thank you, good night, and God bless you all. Thank you. (Applause.)