Office of Press Relations
For Immediate Release
July 26, 2018
ADMINISTRATOR GREEN: Thank you, Sam. Good afternoon, everyone. It is an honor to be with all of you and it’s an even greater honor to be able to offer some thoughts on the importance of freedom of worship in today’s world. You know, I was thinking about it the other day. There was that great story I heard about a sign in a government building here in Washington. It read, “In case of nuclear attack, federal restrictions concerning prayer in this building shall be temporarily suspended.”
I want to thank Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Brownback for ensuring that we’re not waiting for just such a moment in order to talk about this important topic. I will say that some observers may wonder why it is that the U.S. is hosting this ministerial, why religious freedom is deserving of our time and attention. Well, from my point of view personally, and as the leader of USAID, there are many reasons. First and foremost, for us here in America, the freedom to worship our creator according to the tenets of our individual faith, traditions, well, it’s an essential part of our national self-identity.
The free exercise of religion, after all, is what brought those Pilgrims to our shores, having fled oppression in Europe. Once they arrived, they soon realized that freedom for faith hardly guaranteed an easy life. They faced hardships, they faced perils; but they persevered, and they survived. And, despite their losses and setbacks, their continuation in a new, free land meant so much to them that they bequeathed to us a great holiday: the holiday of Thanksgiving.
Many years later, one of our greatest presidents and, in many ways, modern times, quintessential American, Ronald Reagan often spoke of his belief that America should aspire to be a shining city on a hill, an example of liberty for the rest of the world. Of course, he was borrowing from one of those same pilgrims, John Winthrop, who, in turn, was borrowing from the New Testament Gospel according to Matthew.
Winthrop made that idea, that image of a city upon a hill, a central theme in his very first sermon after the pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts, again, all in the name of liberty and the freedom to worship as we each see fit. One hundred and fifty years after Winthrop, that same devotion to religious liberty was seen as so central to the character of a young America that our founders enshrined it as the first item in the Bill of Rights to our Constitution. It was, quite literally, the first line: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It has often been called, “America’s first liberty.”
And it is not merely because of its placement, but because it is the prerequisite for all of our other liberties, for all of those other freedoms that we hold so dear.
This declaration of the need for limitations on government’s power over the individual and his or her right to worship was the first of its kind and really is one of America’s greatest gifts to human civilization.
Now, a second reason that I think this ministerial is so important is that the discussion that we’re taking up of religious liberty goes so far beyond America’s shores, as you all know. Simply put, today, billions of souls around the world feel strongly that their spiritual beliefs give purpose and meaning to their lives. Recognizing that reality across faith traditions, that can bring mankind closer. And protecting each other’s right to worship really is protecting each other’s humanity.
At USAID, we see freedom of worship as an essential element in our pursuit of government that is citizen-centered and citizen-responsive. It is inseparable from freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and freedom from discrimination; yet a third reason why USAID believes this topic is so timely and important is a much more practical one. In order for us as an agency to be able to accomplish our core purposes, our core mission, whether it be in development assistance or in humanitarian relief, we need to reach corners in communities where governments cannot effectively go or where they have chosen not to go. We must be able to touch people who have been left behind, people who have been forgotten. In many settings, being able to partner with the community of faith, with faith-based organizations, enables us to do just that.
Faith-based partners are often uniquely trusted in those forgotten communities. They can harness networks and resources and insights that help us reach out in ways that we otherwise could not. Religious liberty matters because it enables faith-based groups to work with USAID and others without surrendering their essential faith character.
A fourth reason, and perhaps the most pointed reason today, this Ministerial matters is because intolerance has all too often driven violence and oppression, and that we have to remember as we gather here in this beautiful city. Leaders throughout history, from Cyrus the Great to Thomas Jefferson, they have warned us over and over again that the need for vigilance in pushing back on religious intolerance is itself essential to the survival of liberty.
In an area of weaponization of information technology and social media, the perils of such intolerance have never been greater, have never been more important. It’s this last reason that I have seen, quite frankly, most vividly on display in some of the recent travels to which Ambassador Brownback pointed. As he mentioned last month, he and I and others, at Vice President Pence’s direction, went on a delegation trip to Northern Iraq. Our mission was to better understand the suffering that so many have faced as a result of extreme intolerance. We visited some of the victims of ISIS: Christians, Yazidis, and other minority groups. The stories that we heard were heart-rending.
When the Islamic State captured the Iraqi town of Telskuf four years ago, terrorists desecrated the local Chaldean Catholic church and beheaded congregants right on the altar. And that slaughter was only one episode from the genocide that ISIS waged against Christians and other vulnerable religious groups across its so-called caliphate. Their terrible, inhuman attacks nearly exterminated some of the region’s most ancient faith communities. Nearly 90 percent of Christians have fled Iraq in the past 15 years, emptying entire villages that had stood for more than 1,000 years.
The Yazidi population’s adherence of another ancient faith were similarly reduced and attacked. Our delegation visited a heavily damaged church in Karemlash, where we saw desecrated graves of religious leaders. The bell tower — the church itself was heavily damaged, but the bell tower somehow, the bell remained intact, all during the evil occupation by ISIS. It actually rang while we were there, as if to say that religious liberty is not so easily destroyed. We also visited the Yazidi survivors, and I will never forget looking in the eyes of a mother in that IDP camp; she couldn’t tell us the fate of some of the members of her immediate family. And then she showed us photos as though somehow, some way, we could help her find them.
That’s what unchecked religious intolerance looks like.
It has been said that the truest measure of our commitment to religious liberty is the priority we place on protecting it for those of other faiths, by affirming the principle that an attack on one faith is, ultimately, an attack on all faiths. And that’s one of the reasons that so many of us here have been so shaken by the plight of Burma’s Rohingya community.
A few months back, I travelled to Burma and Bangladesh to visit with at least some of the 700,000 Muslim Rohingya who have desperately fled their homes in the Rakhine States for the relative safety of Cox’s Bazaar. As our State Department and other sources have judged, the Rohingya were victimized by nothing less than ethnic cleansing: extrajudicial killings, rapes, tortures, beatings, arbitrary arrests, displacement, destruction of property — all driven by intolerance and sectarian hatred.
I visited an IDP camp near Sittwe, in Burma, and I met with people who had been held there for as long as six years. They couldn’t return to their homes or travel elsewhere without specific, written government approval. They survived off food rations given by donors and had no access to speak of to health care. The single most disturbing moment of my tenure as USAID Administrator was looking into the eyes of a young, Muslim father in that camp as he said, in heartbreaking pain, that his son had only known life in that guarded settlement. He had no access to education, and the only food he had was given to him by strangers. He had no prospects for the future. I have never seen such deep despair in anyone’s eyes. Never. All because of his faith and ethnicity.
Attacks on religious liberty don’t always take an interfaith form. Sometimes they’re simply actions by an authoritarian regime to try to bend the community of faith to their will. To try to force the community to surrender its character and principles for political ends that the tyrant seeks. Just last week, I heard firsthand from local Nicaraguan community leaders as I passed through Miami, I heard of the brutality and ongoing violence occurring in Nicaragua right now as we speak. Over 350 people have been killed, with the death toll rising every day. The church and the clergy, who believe their faith calls them to try to bring peace and to try to mediate, are now under attack for those very same activities. Because priests were unwilling to simply stand by during the atrocities of that regime, Daniel Ortega has called the Roman Catholic Church itself “coup-mongers.”
Nicaraguans in Miami also told me how Ortega’s paramilitary forces have stormed the parish of Reverend Gutierrez. Amid the hail of bullets, Father Gutierrez called a local radio station, and before breaking down in tears, he said, “They are defiling the churches. The government is killing us.” In a recent tweet by Nicaraguan Bishop Baez, he stated, quoting, “The government of Nicaragua crosses the limit of what is — which is inhuman and immoral. Criminal repression against civilians, mostly students, is condemnable from every point of view. The international community cannot be indifferent.” He’s right. We cannot be indifferent, and we must not be indifferent, particularly because we are believers in religious liberty.
And so today’s question, and the real question for this ministerial, is how do we offer hope? How do we offer help? First, of course, is this Ministerial itself, the first of its kind. That so many of you are here from so far and so many faith traditions, that’s a powerful signal to the world. Religious freedom matters. Religious freedom is important. Religious freedom is a universal aspiration, and its supporters are awakening. The statements that this Ministerial produces and the declarations we issue, the messages that we each bring back home, they do offer hope to those communities who are suffering as we speak. Of course, hope is insufficient if it is left unaccompanied by action.
At USAID, because we really look at freedom of worship as a core human right, we’re supporting programs to address religious hate speech and interfaith conflict, to promote the strengthening and enforcement of laws that protect religious freedom, and to increase the capacity of civil society to advocate for it. That support is reflected in technical assistance and, yes, financial support for civil society.
Third, we are undertaking reforms to our partnership and procurement process to make it easier for organizations, including smaller NGOs and civil society groups — many of you — to partner with us in our work. We will consult with you earlier, consider your ideas more effectively, reduce the paperwork delays; we will find ways to harness your strength and capacities. In short, not only is the door open; the “welcome” sign is turned on.
Fourth, we need to do everything that we can to prevent the worst manifestations of religious intolerance before they rear their ugly heads, before they harm and destroy. It is too late once the damage is done. So, we’re also working to assemble metrics to measure capacity and commitment in the countries where we work. And some of these metrics look specifically at things like liberal democracy, the capacity of civil society, and the inclusiveness of government policies. And we think that they can serve as subtle signs and warnings when intolerance is on the rise. Authoritarian intrusions — well, we know they aren’t always predictable, or even preventable, but there is no excuse for us not to be vigilant.
And finally, at USAID, in partnership with others, we aim to reinforce and strengthen ethnic and religious pluralism where it has historically existed. It isn’t about the content of faith; it never has been. It’s about society’s tolerance for multiple faith traditions. We believe that religious pluralism, which is part of a cultural mosaic, we believe it is worth preserving as a matter of development, as well as an expression of our values.
And one of the clearest cases for this work is in Northern Iraq. So, most Iraqis refer to minority groups as “component groups.” And I didn’t understand what that meant; I didn’t understand the significance. And someone came to me and said, “Well, that has a very special and powerful meaning in Arabic. It implies that Iraqi society is incomplete without the Christian and Yazidi components of that national mosaic.”
So, Iraqi leaders recognize this. We should help them realize their vision for their country. After all, it was there before the evil of the ISIS reign. To this end, USAID has been working to move quickly in northern Iraq, addressing the challenges facing Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities, providing relief and support so they can return home and rebuild their lives and their communities.
Since October of 2017, the U.S. Government has redirected nearly $118 million in humanitarian and stabilization assistance to provide infrastructure support and lifesaving aid, rebuilding things like schools and hospitals, power stations, and wells — not to mention livelihoods. These funds cannot rebuild faith, of course, nor can they directly rebuild mosques or shrines or churches. But if we do it right, you and I working together, just maybe they can restore some hope.
More is on the way. Not just for northern Iraq, but elsewhere. We will respond to religious liberty under attack. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention right here that this is the area where those partnerships with faith-based organizations are irreplaceable. It is the only way this work will get done. It is the only way we’ll be effective.
As I draw to a close, and as we wind down today, let me again thank Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Brownback for hosting this truly historic ministerial. And let me thank Vice President Pence for being such a staunch advocate for this cause and for the work that we are trying to do. Ronald Reagan once said, “Freedom prospers when religion is vibrant.” Today we reaffirm that vision. Today, we reaffirm our role in protecting it.
I want to thank all of you for being here; I want to thank you for everything that you’ve done. More importantly, I want to thank you for everything that you’re going to do. This is simply another step on a journey we must all undertake. Failing to do so, as Thomas Jefferson warned us, as Cyrus the Great warned us, puts liberty at peril. Thank you.