HomeUnited StatesBriefing with Senior Official Daniel Nadel, Office of International Religious Freedom on...

Briefing with Senior Official Daniel Nadel, Office of International Religious Freedom on Release of the 2020 International Religious Freedom Report

MR NADEL:  Good morning, and Eid Mubarak to all of our Muslim friends celebrating the end of Ramadan.  Thank you, Secretary Blinken, for those clear and forceful remarks underscoring our unyielding commitment to promote and defend – excuse me – let me take this off so you can hear me – to promote and defend freedom of religion or belief for all.  I am also very pleased to recognize our reports coordinator Bob Boehme and his extraordinary editing team for their efforts to make this year’s report – all 2,397 pages – a reality.

Today, we release the State Department’s 23rd Report on International Religious Freedom.  Over the course of more than two decades, we are proud to say these reports have become an indispensable resource to governments, legislatures, activists, academics, civil society organizations and religious communities the world over who value and seek to ensure this fundamental freedom.

Our guiding principle in preparing the report is to present all relevant information as objectively, thoroughly and fairly as possible.  And though couched in dry and at times bureaucratic‑sounding language, what you see as you delve into the country chapters is a rich fabric of individual stories; stories that help us understand the experiences of individuals, of communities, sometimes entire societies.  These reports include the personal costs, horrifying stories of discrimination, abuse, torture, disappearance, even death of someone’s parent, someone’s sibling, someone’s son or daughter for simply trying to organize their lives in accordance with their most basic values and beliefs.

You will also see stories of those fighting back, challenging repressive regimes, countering extremist violence and building coalitions across religious and ethnic divides to combat discrimination, demand rights, and promote shared values of human dignity, mutual respect and peace.

So what do we do with this trove of information?  For the United States Government, and for the Office of International Religious Freedom, we use it as a starting point for advocacy efforts that span the entire year and beyond.  We use it as a baseline to understand whether and how things are getting better or worse in a place, whether past engagement has proven effective or should be recalibrated and whether the case of a particular individual or community has been resolved or requires further attention.

But some might ask, “Doesn’t this take a lot of resources?  What does the United States actually get out of this investment?”  First, the moral imperative is clear:  We as a nation benefit immeasurably from the protections granted by our First Amendment, and it is only natural to want others to share in the wealth of that experience.  Our efforts to advance international religious freedom are also firmly rooted in this knowledge:  Countries that effectively safeguard this and other human rights are more peaceful, stable, prosperous and more reliable partners of the United States than those that do not.  Nations can never achieve their fullest potential when some are excluded from education, healthcare, jobs and other essentials on account of their innermost beliefs or how they choose to manifest those beliefs.  So it has long been recognized that promoting religious freedom is vital to America’s national security interests.

Let me touch briefly on a few key themes that emerge in this year’s report.  First, efforts to criminalize forms of speech and expression are an ineffective – and in fact counterproductive – tool to promote religious harmony or combat intolerance.  While blasphemy laws are particularly pernicious, we are also concerned about laws that aim to regulate a person’s ability to wear or not wear religious attire or symbols, or laws that criminalize proselytization or limit parent’s ability to provide religious education for their children.

Second, excessive and onerous government regulation of religion and religious life alienates citizens from their governments and increases the likelihood of individuals resorting to violence to defend their beliefs.  Authorities in many countries continue to constrain religious expression through registration laws or restrictions on religious materials.  We now increasingly see governments using the same tactic on the internet, where officials closely monitor and heavily censor religious expression online and arrest or harass those involved in online discourse on religion or belief.  We strongly encourage governments to engage religious communities and faith leaders as partners and consult with these communities when contemplating changes to laws or policies that may impact religion or belief.

Third, no society – including our own – is immune from the scourge of religious discrimination whether manifesting as anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred, xenophobia, or marginalization of Christians, atheists, or any others.  Education and youth-focused programs are vital to promote an understanding of the value and importance of pluralism and mutual respect for all.  We remain committed to working with government and civil society partners to tackle problems like hate crimes, discrimination and religiously motivated violence in ways that do not interfere with freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

And finally, we all must remain vigilant for early warnings of possible mass atrocities around the globe.  In a few short years, we have seen genocide perpetrated by ISIS against Yezidis, Christians, and other ethnic and religious minorities in northern Iraq and Syria.  We have seen mass atrocities, including ethnic cleansing, committed by the Burmese military against Rohingya.  It is certainly no coincidence that those behind the recent military coup are among the same people who have led the repression of Burma’s ethnic and religious minorities for decades.  As one activist recently noted, “They have turned those tools on all of us now.”

And today we also cannot look away from the ongoing crimes against humanity and genocide the Chinese Government is perpetrating against Muslim Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.  This can be seen as the culmination of decades of repression of religious adherents, from Tibetan Buddhists to Christians to Falun Gong practitioners.

We persist in this work because of the unfortunate truth that many of the challenges to religious freedom we see in the world today are structural, systemic, and deeply entrenched.  They cannot be solved by quick fixes or breezy slogans.  But we must not give up.  These challenges demand sustained commitment from all of us who are unwilling to accept hatred, intolerance, and persecution as the status quo.  The United States is committed to using all available tools, both positive and punitive, to advance this universal right.  For the many people and communities around the world whose stories fill this report, our message today is clear:  We see you, we hear you, and we will not rest until you are free to live your lives in dignity and in peace.

Thank you very much, and I’ll be pleased to take your questions.

MR PRICE:  Said.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Thank you, sir.  Sir, I mean, you talk about religious freedom of all.  I mean, a stark example is what is happening in al-Aqsa Mosque.  I think your response, at best tepid thus far, has in a way encouraged the Israeli security forces and so on to keep storming the mosque time and time and time again.  Will you call on them not to do that anymore, and to allow Palestinian worshippers to go ahead and worship on this, this last day of Ramadan, and tomorrow being the Eid?

MR NADEL:  Well, thank you very much for your question.  And the United States has long supported the status quo agreements around the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount area.  The Secretary spoke at length about this issue, and so from a religious freedom perspective, I think there’s only one thing that is worth me adding.  The only way over the long term to ensure respect for religious freedom for all Jews, Muslims, Christians, Baha’is, all people in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, is to achieve a just and lasting peace.  And you can’t have respect for human rights when there continues to be conflict.  That is always going to be a challenge and always going to be a tension.  And so we remain committed to working with all of the parties in the region to get there together.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

QUESTION:  Oh, yes.  At the United Nations today there was a bit of a side event – I don’t know exactly what the terminology is – about the situation in Xinjiang, China, which Secretary Blinken just mentioned.  Were you disappointed that there weren’t more majority-Muslim nations participating in that call?  And do you think – how do you think the Chinese Government would – do you think they’ll get the message, and if so, how, about whether to change their actions or behavior in that region?

MR NADEL:  Well, thank you.  Thank you very much for the question.  And obviously, the situation in Xinjiang just shocks the conscience.  And we do these events, we arrange these activities, to ensure that people understand the full scope and scale of the atrocities being committed there.  But it’s not a popularity contest, at the end of the day.  It’s not about how many countries line up on one side of an issue or the other.  That’s an effort on the part of the Chinese Government to try and demonstrate that there are people who agree with their world view.

But the facts speak for themselves.  The facts of situation, not the views of the United States Government, are what will ultimately carry the day.  And what I’m talking about is open-source satellite information that’s been published in many of your publications.  What I’m talking about is the testimony of survivors who have escaped from the camps, that again have been published by many of you.  All of that information is out there.  It’s available.  We’re also talking about documents of the Chinese Government, the PRC authorities’ own documents, sharing information about how they intend to build these camps, how they intend to manage these populations.  All of this is out there for everyone to see.

So at the end of the day, it is absolutely clear what horrors are taking place in Xinjiang, being perpetrated by the PRC Government.  And we will continue to speak out because we must.  We will continue to work with partners where we can on issues of sanctions, issues of ensuring accountability and justice for the victims, but at the end of the day, it’s not how many people show up in a – at an event.  It’s us getting at that long-term effort to stop these terrible actions and put people in a better place.

MR PRICE:  Humeyra.

QUESTION:  Can I follow up on China?

MR PRICE:  Do you have a China question or should we —

QUESTION:  I do, yeah.

MR PRICE:  Okay.  We’ll come to you right after.

QUESTION:  Yeah.  Last month, the incoming U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom basically urged the administration to not send officials to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing over the persecution of Uyghur Muslims.  Now State Department has its own report, and I know that it doesn’t talk about Olympics, but still, will you agree to the call for a diplomatic boycott?

And I just want to squeeze in something about Burma, because you mentioned it in your remarks.  We know that State Department has taken up several processes for an atrocity determination and they fell apart.  Given what’s happening now, is there a fresh effort to take this up and look into the events to declare a genocide, to make a genocide determination or crimes against humanity?

MR NADEL:  Sure.  Well, I’ll take your second question on Burma first.  The Secretary has committed to a comprehensive review of the atrocities committed against Rohingya in Rakhine State.  That process is – has begun and it is, in fact, ongoing.  The department will continue to work in the meantime to promote peace, security, and respect for the human rights of Rohingya as equal citizens of Burma.

On your first question about the Beijing Olympics, look, we can’t turn a blind eye to Beijing’s aberrant human rights record.  And it’s not just about Xinjiang, which we’ve spoken about.  It’s Tibet, it’s Hong Kong, it’s the whole host of things that happen on the mainland.  But – and we recognize that when it comes to the Olympics, our efforts will be most effective if we act alongside likeminded partners.  So at the moment, we’re reviewing options on policy and messaging related to the games that will advance U.S. priorities, which includes countering Beijing’s intent to use the games as a platform to somehow validate their governing model and paper over their gross human rights violations.  So we’re consulting with Congress, allies and partners, and other key stakeholders as we proceed.

MR PRICE:  Please.

QUESTION:  Yeah.  Sorry, just to follow up on China, the U.S. has taken a number of actions against China, including the Commerce Department adding several entities to their entity list, business advisories going out cautioning businesses against forced labor in Xinjiang, numerous officials getting visa restrictions – the Secretary just announced another designation today.  Is the State Department seeing any effect to these actions?  What more can the State Department do?  Is the answer just more officials getting sanctioned?

MR NADEL:  Well, we’re certainly looking at all available options and continuing to look at individual culpability of particular actors in China so we can apply sanctions to them where those sanctions are relevant.  In terms of overall changes or shifts in posture, I think what we’ve seen over the last year and a half or so is a dramatic shift in the Government of China’s posture towards this issue of human rights abuses generally.  You’ll recall that early on it was blanket denial when it came to Xinjiang; there’s nothing happening here, nothing to see, thanks for asking, sorry.  And what that ultimately shifted to was a realization that what was happening could not be denied, it could not be papered over, it was clear.  And so now it’s about justification.  It’s about oh, this is a terrorism issue; oh, this is a security issue.

And, of course, the world isn’t buying it.  We see quite clearly what it is.  What it is is an attempt to erase a people, a history, a culture from the Earth, and that’s unacceptable.  And so we continue to work and look at all the tools at our disposal, and those punitive tools have come in quite handy here, but we’re not going to sit back at a certain point and say okay, that’s enough of those.  And when we find perpetrators, when we find those responsible for activities – whether they’ve already been committed or if future activities are committed – we’re going to continue to hold them accountable under the structure that we’ve been given in U.S. law.

QUESTION:  But just to clarify, there’s been no change as far as people in China’s religious freedoms?  Those —

MR NADEL:  Well, the situation remains dire.  And one of the interesting things that has shifted a bit is at least early on, you saw a dramatic reliance on camps, people being warehoused, essentially, in camps for re-education, for forced labor, for other purposes.  What the government is now doing, it’s – they’ve basically turned Xinjiang into an open-air camp.  So people’s movements are closely tracked.  You have minders who have been assigned to live with Uyghurs to keep tabs on them.  You have people going to the market who have to check in every time they go to a different market stall.  So what the government has created – it’s quite an ambitious effort to essentially turn the entire region into an open-air prison.

MR PRICE:  (Inaudible.)

QUESTION:  So the Secretary said religious freedom is coequal with other human rights.  Religious freedom is not more or less important than other rights.  This seems to be a departure from the prior administration.  Do you view this as a departure from the prior administration?  If so, can you tell us what the thinking was?  And also, how much of this report is consistent with what the Trump administration was going to put out, and where are the biggest departures, do you feel, with Biden and the Trump administration on this report?

MR NADEL:  Yeah.  So as somebody who has worked on this report now over three administrations, I can tell you the structure of the report and the content has changed virtually not at all since amendments to the Religious Freedom Act were passed back in 2016.

So the report itself documents the state of religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories.  It talks about government practices.  It talks about laws and policies that are relevant to the state of religious freedom.  It talks about societal actions impacting religious freedom.  And in the last section, it talks about U.S. Government actions to address the challenges that the rest of the report lays out.  So nothing has really changed in the religious freedom report from over the last three administrations; essentially, since the Wolf Act was passed in 2016.

When it comes to the conceptual framework for religious freedom, the Secretary has made clear that religious freedom is a nested human right.  It’s a human right that can – that exists in codependence with other human rights.  You can’t have religious freedom without freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of assembly.  You can’t have religious freedom without a system that guarantees the rule of law, because if people have problems, there’s no recourse without a rule of law system.

So what you have there is it’s not a departure, certainly, from any prior concept, but it’s a clarification, because Secretary Pompeo did express his view that there was perhaps a hierarchy of rights concept.  And that’s a view that this administration does depart from.  But that in no way is to indicate that religious freedom is any less important.  Religious freedom is in our First Amendment.  It’s been a part of our country, our culture, our history from the very, very beginning.  And it was, in fact, the reason many people came to this country because they were fleeing forms of religious persecution or discrimination overseas.  That was true in the 18th century.  It continues to be true in the 21st century.

So as a general matter, religious freedom is a fundamental freedom, it is a co-equal right, and it’s one that we will continue to stand up for.

MR PRICE:  Yes, please.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  I have two on India and one on South Asia.  What is the general assessment of the situation of religious freedom in India?  Your report on India does mention that U.S. officials last year discussed with the Indians two issues, CAA and FCRA.  What were you asking India to do on those two issues?  And finally, your report also mentioned about the religious persecution against Hindus.  Was – and Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.  What is your message to these three countries?  Thank you.

MR NADEL:  Sure.  Sure thing.  Well, with respect to India first, we do regularly engage with Indian Government officials at all levels, encouraging them to uphold human rights obligations and commitments, including the protection of minorities, in keeping with India’s long tradition of democratic values and its history of tolerance.  We also meet continuously with civil society organizations, local religious communities to hear their views and understand challenges and opportunities that they see.

When it comes to our overall encouragement to the Government of India, it is to engage these communities, these outside actors in direct discourse.  Because when laws are passed, when initiatives are undertaken that are done without effective consultation with these communities, it creates a sense of disempowerment; at times, of alienation.  And the best way to address that is to engage in that direct dialogue between government and civil society, including religious communities.

So with respect to India, I think there’s genuine opportunities there for the government to address some of the concerns they hear from Indian civil society through greater dialogue and engagement.

When it comes to the other countries you mentioned – I apologize.  You mentioned Bangladesh and?

QUESTION:  Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan.

MR NADEL:  Sure.  So the issues of respect for the rights of Hindu minorities and – in each of those three instances – Christian, sometimes Baha’i, other – Sikh – other religious minorities in all three of those countries are of significant interest to us.  They’re topics that we raise frequently with governments.  Sometimes we’re encouraging governments to do the same thing that I mentioned for India: engage in direct discourse with these communities, make sure you understand their needs, what opportunities exist to bring them into conversations, and empower them as co-equal citizens.

One of the broad principles that we encourage governments to think about is when you have minority populations that don’t have access to the same opportunities, jobs, education that members of the majority community do, you’re actually losing the potential for economic growth.  You’re actually losing out on empowering people to be contributing members of your society.  And so discrimination has an economic cost as well, and so that’s another feature that we always seek to incorporate into those conversations.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MR NADEL:  Thank you.

MR PRICE:  Any other questions?

QUESTION:  (No response.)

MR PRICE:  Okay.  We’ll have an opportunity to hear more from Dan later today, so we appreciate your time, everyone.

MR NADEL:  Thank you very much.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

QUESTION:  Thank you.


Stay Connected
Must Read
Related News