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Ambassador Brownback on the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report

MODERATOR: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for waiting. My name is Benjamin Weber. I’m the director of the Foreign Press Centers. And today we are very, very pleased to welcome
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Brownback to come and brief us on
the International Religious Freedom Report. You have a copy of his bio in the announcement. I’ll say only that this is the third phase
of a long and distinguished public career, first in the Congress, and then as a governor. We’re pleased that he’s now taken on these
duties. And with that, I’ll turn it over to him
to make an opening statement. AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thank you very much. I’m delighted to have you here. This morning we rolled out the International
Religious Freedom Report. It’s the 20th year of the International
Religious Freedom Office and the report being put forward. It details the situation of religious freedom
around the world. It doesn’t analyze; it reports. And you’ll find in it people being killed
for practicing their faith. You’ll find people being put in prison or
not allowed to practice their faith at all. And you’ll find more subtle forms of religious
persecution taking place as well, all detailed in the report. Off of that, the Countries of Particular Concern,
or the lead provocateurs of religious persecution around the world, will be cited and enumerated
within 90 days is what the statue requires. And so we’ll put forward that at a later
date. But this is the detailed report. I think you can say safely that the state
of religious freedom has improved over the past 20 years, but the situation remains dire
for way too many people around the world, whether it’s the Rohingya in Burma being
pushed out, a religious or an ethnic group with – but their faith is a big part of
why they’re being pushed out. The Kachin now are being pushed out in the
north in Burma. Whether in China it’s people practicing
their faith of Christians or Muslims, Buddhists, Falun Gong – all experiencing substantial
persecution there. Pakistan – 50 people with life sentences,
17 on death row for blasphemy and apostasy. Russia with what they do to the Jehovah’s
Witnesses and many other religious minority groups. You can travel around the world, unfortunately,
and find a lot of persecution. One of the other things that the Secretary
announced this morning that I’m very excited about is a ministerial on the topic of religious
freedom. This will be the first-ever ministerial done
on religious freedom. It’ll be July 25th and 26th here in Washington,
D.C. Foreign ministers from around the world will
be invited here to discuss what can take place and what do we need to do and next steps on
pursuing religious freedom for all. As I mentioned, first-ever ministerial. We hope to gather together likeminded countries
and those aspiring to be more free for religion. Two of the main objectives, goals of the Trump
administration are less terrorism and more economic growth. With religious freedom you get both. Religious freedom helps an economy to grow
and it produces less terrorism. And this is now in the academic data, on top
of the basic issue that it is a fundamental human right. It’s in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It’s in our First Amendment. It’s in documents supporting human rights
around the world. We intend to push it. This administration will be aggressive and
pursue actions to pursue religious freedom and fundamental human rights. And those will be discussed and what we can
do to move forward and next steps at the ministerial July 25th and 26th. Invitations will be going out soon to countries,
to religious leaders, and NGO and the civil community – all three of which will be invited
to participate in this first-ever ministerial on religious freedom. With that, I’d be happy to take questions
that individuals have. MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Mr. Ambassador. I think folks know our rules, but I’ll remind
you. Please wait for the microphone. And when you do get the microphone, please
identify yourself by name and outlet. Please limit yourself to one question. Why don’t we start with Simon, please? QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Simon Ateba from Today News Africa. In the report, you talked about the religious
freedom in Nigeria, and you said it continues to experience significant challenges. For instance, the leader of the Shiite movement,
El-Zakzaky, remains in detention three years after he was arrested. What type of engagement do you have with the
Nigerian Government in the light of all the challenges that they continue to experience
in Nigeria? Thank you. AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yes, and thanks for
mentioning that. As you know, President Trump met with the
president of Nigeria within the past couple of weeks. And in their press avail afterwards, one of
the first things the President cited was the persecution – the killing – of a number
of Christians in Nigeria. And there’s a lot of violence that’s taking
place in that country. My plan is to travel to Nigeria next month
to talk with leaders, government leaders, religious leaders, Christian and Muslim leaders,
to talk about what we can do to move forward, to reduce the level of violence, to open the
way for religious freedom taking place in that country. And I’ve been meeting with a number of different
Nigerian leaders, and it’s been a very difficult – I met with three leaders, Christian leaders,
last week. And they said to me they used to – Sunday
used to be the day they hated to see coming the most, because that’s when most of the
attacks would take place, would be on a Sunday, but that it had gotten better in recent times,
and they were appreciative of that. But just much progress needs to take place
for the government to secure the right of religious freedom. And remember, our effort is for religious
freedom for everybody, regardless of faith, or even if you’re a person without faith,
but that you are free to do with your own conscience whatever you choose and that no
government has the right to interfere with that. But the government has the right and the responsibility
to protect that religious freedom right, and that’s what we’d be pushing with Nigeria. MODERATOR: Okay. We’re going to go here, then to New York,
and then back here. That’s you, sir. QUESTION: My name is Abdelrahman Youssef. I’m from Egypt but I’m here for Al-Modon Lebanese. And my question is about Egypt. Does the U.S. State Department believe that
al-Sisi in Egypt achieved the goals of religious reform that he referred more than three years,
and why? And second question is you mentioned now that
religious freedom help to counter terrorism or, like, defeating terrorism. Do you believe that Egypt has enough freedom
in religious to defeat it or, like, to counter terrorism? Because, as we know, Egypt – like, now we
have, like, a fighting against terrorism in Egypt. Thank you. AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, let me start with
the last of those questions and try to work backward. Every country in the world is fighting against
terrorism. The United States is fighting against terrorism,
and it’s – we’re deploying a great deal of resources in this fight. In my home state of Kansas, we had two guys
that were arrested that had terrorist plots to blow up a military base and a airport hangar. And these were people that had self-radicalized
in their own faith and were going to attack. But just because you’re fighting terrorism
doesn’t mean you limit religious freedom, nor that you should. As a matter of fact, the best route forward
is to allow people to have a broad base of religious freedom so that they don’t fight
you, and the one – then you can target in on the ones that radicalize, and that’s
what we do here and that’s what we’re saying to governments around the world. Because many of them will put the question
the same way as you: “We’re fighting terrorism and we can’t do both of these.” And the actual right answer is no, you have
to do both of these or you’re going to spawn more religious terrorism because people will
fight you if they don’t believe they’ve been given their own right to pursue their
own faith the way they see fit. But if a person radicalizes, if they start
to spawn terroristic ideas and actions, the government is fully responsible and needs
to get on top of that and deal with that particular person’s situation. Now, in the case of Egypt, I think there’s
– and the report will state that there is much work yet to be done. I’ve been meeting with the Egyptian ambassador. They have a great deal of interest and effort
put forward to do more religious freedom for majority and minority faith people in Egypt,
and I’m going to continue those engagements, and my hope is that the Sisi government will
continue with those as well but also see that religious freedom isn’t something you give
up on just to fight terrorism. The opposite is true. You get more religious freedom to get less
terrorism. MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go to New York now, please. QUESTION: Good afternoon, Mr. Ambassador. This is Deepak Arora from
from India, New Delhi. Mr. Ambassador, you mentioned about the ministerial
meeting in July. Have you invited India for the meeting? And my second question is that you mentioned
about Burma, Pakistan, China, so many incidents take place, and of course, in India. But do you have – do you pass any judgment
on this, or do you give any directives to the governments in these countries so that
the situation improves? AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: We’re not stating
today the countries that have been invited. Invitations will go out soon to different
nations around the world, so I’m not – we’ve not stated today who it is or what countries
will be invited. There will be nations from all over the world,
from every region of the world, that will be invited. As far as what we do with governments and
countries, what we try to put forward is a series of recommendations, and in Countries
of Particular Concern, these are ones there are actual sanctions that we will put forward. Sometimes, in many cases, those have been
waived, but my hope is in the future that there’ll be less of those waivings taking
place. If a country is going to persecute based upon
religion, then there are consequences that should be paid in the international world,
and the United States should put those forward and we’re going to work with like-minded
countries to pursue those as well. So we try to work with various governments,
the Indian Government as well. There have been, unfortunately, a lot of religious
violence that’s taken place in various communities that I get reports from directly from individuals
coming from India of violence that they’ve experienced because of who they are in their
faith, and that’s wrong. We ask – and ask the Indian Government to
pursue more safety, to see justice taking place in these cases where this arises, and
we’ll continue to pursue that with the Indian Government as well as with all governments
around the world. QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. Kitty Wang with NTD TV. A question about China. We know that about 20 years ago, United States
delinked this human rights issue with trade issue when dealing with China. So right now, it’s another important moment
for U.S.-China trade. Do you think it’s all right, it’s important
to maybe relink these issues together or use a more holistic methodology to – in dealing
with this human rights issues and push back on the religious persecution? AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah. It’s a great question and it’s a great
thought that you’re putting forward. When we had the annual debate previously on
normal trade relations with China, it was normally – it was an annual vote that took
place in the Congress, and each year there’d be a discussion of human rights, along with
economic issues, as that vote would come up. And then permanent normal trade relations
were voted on and given to China, and so we don’t have that annual discussion. But there are many people that want this discussion
to take place and to pursue this more and more, because you see the situation, whether
it’s with the Uighurs – that’s a number of people in reeducation camps now, and the
stories I’m hearing about during Ramadan of what’s taking place to Uighur practitioners. The Christian community has experienced a
great deal of difficulty in many parts of China. The Buddhists – the Dalai Lama situation,
the case is well known and documented over years. Falun Gong practitioners and what has happened
to them. So I think these need to be robustly discussed
and put forward. The administration has a number of agenda
items with China now, and one of those agenda items is human rights and religious freedom. MODERATOR: Sir. QUESTION: Good morning, Mr. Ambassador. This is Sari al-Khalili from Al Jazeera. My question is on Saudi Arabia. Until this very moment, the Saudis still label
Christians and Jews as unbelievers in their curriculums. So to what scale is the U.S. Government working with the Saudis to change
that fact? AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Working a lot. And this has been a topic for a number of
years. First, I want to start off by saying that
I’m very pleased to hear what the crown prince is talking about and changes in Saudi
Arabia. Saudi Arabia has been a Country of Particular
Concern for years, maybe, I think, really from the outset of the report. But now he’s talking about major changes,
and we’re working aggressively with the Saudi Government to see those actualized,
those words put into action. And I’m very hopeful for this season. But as I cited – we cite in the report,
the situation continues on the ground, very difficult. You can’t openly practice another faith
outside of the one identified by the government. And I think we’ve just got to continue to
press them. So I’m hopeful of the situation there, but
we’ve got to see the actions follow. MODERATOR: One, two, three, and then come
back up front. Here first, please, and then we will get you,
sir. We have time for everybody. QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. Soojin Park, Korea Economic Daily. My question is on North Korea. As you describe, North Korea in the worst
situation in the world in terms of human right and religious freedom. As you may know, there will be unprecedented
summit between the United States and North Korea in June 12. Do you think the – are there – many expect
that the denuclearization issue may well be the main topic of the summit, but many insist
that human right and the religious freedom can be, should be the topic of the agenda
of the summit. Do you believe the issue can be the – should
be the summit – agenda of the summit? And do you – any plan to advise your Mr.
President to this topic? Thank you. AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, thank you. Thank you for the question. And in many respects, religious freedom and
human rights has already been discussed with the three people that the Secretary brought
back that were let out of prison. And I want to start off too by saying how
much I appreciate the Trump administration really focusing on North Korea. I’ve worked – I carried the North Korean
Human Rights Bill when I was in the Senate, and couldn’t get administrations to address
it because it was just too difficult of a topic. Well, this administration has jumped into,
has jumped into it aggressively, and I’m glad they have, and it needs to be addressed. The human rights situation is deplorable. The gulags that exist with thousands, hundreds
of thousands of people, North Korean citizens in them. It sounds like a Soviet-era statement and
situation. So it’s my hope that this can really – the
situation can move forward. The administration has its agenda that it’s
going to put forward, but it’s already freed three people, and I look for them to have
a number of topics that will come out of these discussions. And I’m glad the engagement’s happening,
and it’s already producing some fruit. QUESTION: And so do you have any advice for
the President? MODERATOR: No, sir, just — AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: He has a number of people
running it. If there are things that I can provide, I
will. MODERATOR: This gentleman. QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Haykaram Nahapetyan with the Armenian
TV. The de-Christianization of the Middle East
and Near East is in process, and the exodus of Christians is in process. And due to some estimates, if the tendency
remains in place, at some point there will be no Christian in the lands that – where
Christianity technically was born historically. So to what extent this issue is on agenda,
and what the administration is taking – what steps the administration takes in order to
prevent the de-Christianization of Middle East and Near East, and will the ministerial
meeting that will take place in July also handle this situation? Thank you. AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, it’ll be there,
because that’s the – it’s the basis of religious freedom is. you have a right to choose, wherever you are,
whoever you are, your faith and your faith’s trajectory. And that’s going to be a part of the discussion
of what takes place with Middle Eastern countries. We’ve seen what’s taken place with Christians
and Yezidis in northern Iraq, in the Nineveh Plains, and this administration has stepped
in to address that with the fight against ISIS. ISIS virtually removed now out of Iraq, and
they had 30 percent of the terrain when this administration started, and now with rebuilding
funds going into that Nineveh Plains area to help Christians and Yezidis resettle back
in that region that they were driven out of. Now, those funds have been slow to get there. The Vice President announced that effort to
do it, but it’s moving forward, and it will proceed on forward. I think we’ve got a lot of work to do in
the Middle East for religious freedom, and this has been unfortunately a very difficult
spot for minority faiths for decades now. And you’ve seen these numbers of minority
population, particularly Christians, have shrunk for decades. I held hearings on this when I was in the
Senate 10, 15 years ago, and you were seeing the trend lines at that time. But we’re going to push aggressively on
the topic of religious freedom, and this will involve also pressing in the Middle East for
religious freedom. And part of that too is that you would be
secure in your own faith wherever you are and that the government is responsible to
secure your protection even if you’re a minority faith person. That that’s part of the government’s role
is that protection of your right. And we’ll push that on countries in the
Middle East too. MODERATOR: So we’ll get the gentleman in
the back and then to Mr. Huang and then to Laurie. QUESTION: Thank you, sir. So this is Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV,
Pakistan. Sir, this is about religious freedom in South
Asia, especially in Pakistan and India. You just mentioned Pakistan as a CPC country. AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: No, it’s on a special
watch list, Pakistan. Pakistan. QUESTION: In the special watch, not in the
CPC. So, sir, if we talk about Pakistan, India,
in Pakistan during the last five years there are so much legislations to protect the minorities
and governments trying to stop the misuse of blasphemies law, as you just noted. So while, if we talk about India, they even
did not allow the U.S. commission on human right – on religious freedom to visit India
to monitor the situation. I hope you are well aware about it. So, sir, is there – I mean, are you advising
to put these countries on the CPC list or not, or just on the special watch list? AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, I’m not announcing
the position I’ll take on any of those or that our office will. That’ll be an internal discussion that we’ll
work, and as I noted at the outset, the report’s put out today, and then that starts a clock
ticking that the Countries of Particular Concern, entities of particular concern are announced
within 90 days of when the report’s put out. So that will come out within the next three
months on those countries and on others. I note that recently Pakistan was put on this
special watch list, which is a new category that the Frank Wolf law created. We didn’t have these sort of – the special
watch list category, but that was created in the 2016 amendments to this law, and Pakistan
was put on – is the only country to date that’s been put on that special watch list. And then I noted earlier the deep concern
of the – what’s happening to a lot of people in India today, but those recommendations
and those determinations done by the Secretary will come out in the next 90 days. QUESTION: Hi, Ambassador. Paul Huang from The Epoch Times. Follow-up question regarding China and the
reeducation camps in Xinjiang that imprison the Uighurs. Has the commission established a number, how
many people are in these camps, and the condition in these camps? And the second question: There have been growing,
unconfirmed reports about Uighur women being pressured, in some cases coerced, into marrying
Han Chinese men in return for the release of their families from these reeducation camps. Has the commission received such report and
is it something that’s being investigated? Thank you. AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, I don’t have
a direct comment to make on those two specific statements of what you have. I can say that the – I met with a number
of Uighur representatives. I met – I was just at a roundtable, our
religious freedom roundtable, and we had a Uighur representative there. They have all been noting to me the increasing
problematic situation, the reeducation camps, the collection of DNA samples from a broad
cross-section of individuals, the leadership – Communist Party leadership over the region;
was a Communist Party leader that was over the Tibetan region and they had experienced
a great deal of religious persecution there. And I’m receiving other reports of people
not being allowed to practice Ramadan as they would normally be allowed to do, all of which
too makes me question why? What is wrong with allowing people to practice
their faith as they have and their people and their families have for generations? And part of it is not why – the need to
do this limitation, and there is not a need. And if the idea is, we’re doing this so
that there’ll be fewer terrorists, this is counterproductive. You’re producing more terrorists by doing
this, and that’s in the academic data now. So I would ask the Chinese Government, look
at – your practices are counterproductive if this is about addressing the issues of
terrorism. And then we’re going to keep tracking this
and I hope more of the international community shines a light, particularly what’s taken
place to the Uighurs, because it seems to be stepping up in a more aggressive and perilous
fashion for them. QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador, for doing
this. Laurie Mylroie, Kurdistan 24. I have a question about Iraq. Your report says that in many regions, except
for the Kurdistan region, minority groups of any religious adherence said they continued
to experience violence and harassment from the majority. Would you provide some detail on that statement? AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: The – what – the
report is what provides that. I – and I don’t have additional ones that
I can give to you right here, but there has been that reported a great deal, but I don’t
have specific examples to put for you to back that up in front of you now. We can go through the report more and try
to get you the actual statements or pieces of factual evidence that state that. QUESTION: (Off-mike.) AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Now, there be – there
may be – what happens in some of the report is that we can’t identify the sourcing for
it because it puts them in grave danger, and we’ve had people in our office with prior
ambassadors that worked with individuals that as soon as they go home or as soon as he leaves,
they get arrested or beaten. And so you get a number of people that will
tell you what’s taking place, but will not allow you to report them because it puts them
in grave danger, and that happens unfortunately a great deal and that’s why some of these
are put forward in more broad, generic statements rather than specifics. QUESTION: Right. That would explain the large number of Christians
who live in the – that would explain the large number of Christians living in the Kurdistan
region now? AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, I think in part
– you look at these things of trend lines of population. The gentleman asked the de-population, de-Christianization
throughout the Middle East, and you have seen these numbers over a period of 30 decades
dwindle substantially in almost every – in maybe every Middle Eastern country. So you look at that and you start asking yourself
questions. If they – if de-population happens rapidly,
you ask, well, why are so many people of this particular faith leaving? And you can look at the Rohingya situation
in Burma, where you’ve just got virtually an entire ethnic group pushed out of the country
and – because they’re – because they’re Rohingya but also because they’re Muslim. And now the Kachin, who are primarily Christians,
are getting pushed out of the North. So these are certainly indicators of people
not being allowed to freely practice their faith — MODERATOR: Time for one more. AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: — or being safe in
practicing their faith. QUESTION: Thank you. Boris Makarov, Russian news agency TASS. So I was wondering if you have conversations,
some contact with Russian officials regarding these concerns which you raised in the most
recent report. Thank you. AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I haven’t had any
yet with – directly with Russian officials that have been raised in this most recent
report. The initial – what we do with the report,
we lay it out there, we ask our embassy post in those countries to take the report to their
counterparts in the host country’s government, go over the report, note to them that this
report is a report. It’s not an analysis. It’s not a judgment call. This is what we have collected. And we lay it out in front of them and then
we ask them to start addressing some of these issues. Some governments, I think, try to respond
factually, saying, “Well, we agree with this, we don’t agree with that, here is
why,” and it starts a conversation. We hope at the end of the conversation we
end up with more religious freedom, that if a country is not protecting that religious
freedom, that they will step up their efforts to do that. I heard in the President’s meeting with
the president of Nigeria, after this issue came up, the president of Nigeria went home
and dispatched troops to some of the more prosecuted – persecuted areas and the situation
got better. So you – that’s what you hope takes place,
that there’s individual actions to guarantee this fundamental human right, and that’s
what we’ll pursue with the Russians as well. Thank you all very much. Appreciate it. MODERATOR: Thank you very much for coming.

Otis Rodgers