U.S. Department Of State
Office of the Spokesperson
For Immediate Release
December 11, 2018
MS THOMPSON: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you very much for joining us for today’s on-the-record briefing on the rollout of the religious freedom designations. Leading our discussion today will be the State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Ambassador Sam Brownback. Ambassador Brownback will start us off with brief remarks, and then we’ll take a few questions from you.
Ambassador Brownback, I’ll go ahead and turn it over to you.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thanks, Nicole. Appreciate that. And thank you all for joining us on this line. Religious freedom is a key foreign policy initiative and issue for the Trump administration. We are serious about it. We hosted the first-ever ministerial on religious freedom earlier this year. We will do another one this next year. We’re working with a series of countries around the world to push religious freedom issues in regional meetings as well.
Earlier today, the Secretary – Secretary Pompeo – publicly announced his designation of Countries of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act. Countries of Particular Concern are those nations that have allowed or conducted severe, ongoing, egregious, systematic violations of religious freedom. The list this year includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The Secretary also placed Comoros, Russia, and Uzbekistan on a special Watch List for governments that have engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
It’s worth nothing that for the first time since 2006, Uzbekistan is not a Country of Particular Concern.
Those countries placed on the special Watch List is a category where we are basically telling nations if they don’t change their course of action, they could well end up on the Country of Particular Concern list.
Finally, the Secretary designated al-Nusrah Front, al-Qaida, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, ISIS, ISIS-Khorasan, and the Taliban as Entities of Particular Concern, as provided for, again, under the International Religious Freedom Act. These designations are a tool and key part of our effort to advance religious freedom. There have been a number of people involved in this process to put these designations out and forward.
Religious freedom needs to move forward in the world. Unfortunately, 80 percent of the world’s population lives in a country where there’s some type of religious freedom restrictions, in some cases very significant. The ones – the countries we’ve listed today are the most egregious violators of religious freedom around the world.
It’s also important to note that most countries have signed on to the UN Charter Declaration of Human Rights, which turns 70 this year. And in that charter, it provides for religious freedom, and the countries that signed onto that charter signed on to guarantee religious freedom. And yet most people in the world live in countries where there’s significant religious freedom restrictions.
We cite the worst violators today. We are hopeful that people around the world, governments around the world, will work more aggressively to provide religious freedom for their people, and we are committed as the Trump administration to see this on through.
OPERATOR: Next we’ll go the line of Abigail Williams with NBC News. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, Ambassador. Thanks so much for doing the call.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Sure.
QUESTION: Could you speak a little more about what it – what the significance is of placing Russia on the Watch List, and what consequences exist for them because of it?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Russia has engaged in and tolerated really severe violations of religious freedoms. The widespread suppression of religious expression following their 2016 law criminalizing illegal missionary activity, they’ve included 156 cases reported by NGOs targeting groups as wide-ranging as the Salvation Army, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Lutherans, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Ukrainian Reformed Orthodox Church. They’re prosecuting members of certain Muslim groups. They’ve got 145 current prisoners jailed for religious beliefs, and 106 of those are Muslims. They really have targeted and stepped up their oppression.
The significance of it is that we’re saying to Russia that if you don’t change this trajectory, it’s bad for you as a country, but then it may well be that it will make you a Country of Particular Concern, which can involve then sanctions involved in nations where they are deemed or determined to be Countries of Particular Concern.
I’d also, Abigail, if I could say this as a bit of a sidebar, but this report we put out there as telling people these are the worst actors, countries in the world. On the other side of it, if you will engage in religious freedom, our studies are showing you’re going to have less terrorism long-term and you’re going to have more economic growth. A freer society is one less prone and moved and pushed really towards terrorism and one more open to economic reform. That’s why Uzbekistan, for the first time since 2006, is off the list. They’ve made substantial changes, and they’re doing it because they want to grow their nation. They want to see less terrorism, and they see this as a key route to really improving the livelihood of people throughout their nation, which we agree with, and we’re working with them.