U.S. Department of State
Office of the Spokesperson
For Immediate Release
September 23, 2019
New York, New York
MODERATOR: Everybody, we’re fortunate enough to be joined by our Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback. This briefing is provided on the record. We’ve got about 25 minutes, I think, for this. We believe we’ll be joined by survivors of religious persecution who were in the event from earlier today, so we’re leaving the front seats open for them, however they will not take questions here. Okay, all right.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thank you, appreciate that. Thanks for being out today. I’m ecstatic with what the President did today on his announcements and work here on religious freedom, first time ever a country has hosted an event on religious freedom at the UN General Assembly. He put forward a very strong statement. We’ll have several of the survivors that are here that I may ask to say something.
One of them is here with us right now, Meriam Ibrahim. Meriam was put in jail in Sudan for being a Christian, death penalty, and – but they didn’t kill her because she was pregnant at the time and they thought that was, I guess, a bridge too far. And so world opinion galvanized around her and she was able to get out and is now in the United States.
But it points to a situation that happens all too often in the world, and that is that people are persecuted for their faith. It’s generally a minority faith. It happens to over 80 percent of the world’s population that they don’t have freedom of religion, and it’s time somebody did something about it.
So the President took this up today. The big ask that we put forward was this joining of our alliance – the alliance, not our alliance – an alliance for international religious freedom. The Secretary of State announced this at the ministerial we did earlier this year, Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. He announced the creation of an International Religious Freedom Alliance, and this is us inviting other nations to join us in a concerted effort to push against religious persecution all around the world.
So I’ve been out approaching countries. The Secretary put forward a clear call here. The President did as well. And we will ask other nations to join this alliance. The alliance will be an effort of likeminded nations to push forward the issues of religious freedom, to push against religious persecution, to advocate for people like Meriam Ibrahim, but to do more than that: to push governments to change their policies so that there isn’t persecution, that there is freedom. And we just haven’t had this take place.
The Secretary pointed out this will be the most significant new human rights organization in a generation. Human rights have been deteriorating around the world, and we hope to really see the effort on religious freedom push forward and expand human rights. This is one of those foundational rights that, if you get it right, other rights tend to grow from it; if you get it wrong, other rights tend to diminish with it. And so as religious freedom has diminished in places, we have seen a deterioration of human rights in many places around the world. So this is a very strong push of ours. We hope to announce some members of the alliance the first part of next year and that we would start taking on issues and push on the matter.
The President also announced a $25 million fund on protection of religious sites and religious heritage artifacts and sites. This is an effort to protect the institutions themselves, some of which have been attacked, and you know some that have been happened in this country – synagogues in Pennsylvania, San Diego. In two weeks I’ll be hosting, one of the cohosts in Morocco of a religious heritage site event where we’ll be working with other countries. USAID is sponsoring the event to renew, renovate, and protect religious heritage sites. So this is a slice of what the President announced or something along the line of what the President announced today.
So there’s some things going on, and with that, I’d be happy to try to answer your questions.
QUESTION: Ambassador, David Brunnstrom from Reuters. I wanted to ask about the event scheduled tomorrow on the Uighurs. Can you give us an idea of which countries, how many countries are going to attend, and whether or not there has been any evidence of any pressure on countries not to take part both in that event and perhaps today’s event?
And I was curious – the President spoke in very broad terms today. He made no mention – I don’t think he’s ever made any mention of the Uighur issue. Is that something that’s tied up with other issues – for instance, his efforts to get a trade agreement with the Chinese? And is he – is that the reason for his caution?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Good questions all. I don’t know of any pressure today from the Chinese not to participate in the event. I do know at the ministerial that we put on earlier this year that there was direct pressure from the Chinese Government for countries not to participate in it, and several did not participate. And that we have some cables that they sent to countries, some that did come but that they were pressured by the Chinese not to attend that event.
You well note that one of the speakers today at the event was a Uighur whose father is an intellectual, Uighur intellectual that’s still in prison, and she does not know the condition of her father.
The President didn’t speak about it, but I would not read that – the way I – the way this is going and what is happening is you’ve got concerns that the United States has with China on multiple fronts: one of them is in trade; there’s others in security; and there’s clearly one in religious freedom space. These – I think the President is – clearly he’s trying to get a trade deal and he’s trying to hold those trade issues but not limit the other issues. I’ve been out there speaking aggressively. The Vice President has. The President’s talking about religious freedom in broader terms.
The effort today was really focused on standing up this alliance of nations. We have a global religious persecution problem, and we’re trying to get a global solution to it, and that’s through this alliance. So the Secretary appealed to people at the end of it – Secretary Pompeo – saying if you’re a like-minded nation, come join us. If you want to see religious freedom flourish, join us. But I wouldn’t read that the President’s separating or not concerned about one or another topic. I think he’s trying to get a trade deal, but is continuing to have these other issues move forward as well.
QUESTION: Sir, just to follow up, the event tomorrow, do you know how many countries will take part in it?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I don’t have the latest data on that. We have several that are co-sponsoring it, but let me – let us get an actual number to you of nations.
QUESTION: When you took this job, I’m just curious on a personal level, if you thought about the fact – because two of the biggest issues that we talk about are Rohingya and Uighurs, and I’m wondering if you knew you would be advocating for so many different faiths and that’s something that you knew when you took the job and that’s something that you like, you don’t like, it’s part of the game. Like I’m just curious as to how that goes, and if it’s all all denominations equal and if that’s a part of the policy.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah. My faith is very important to me. I follow Jesus. But the beauty of it is God gave us free will. And the beauty for me in this job is that I can look at this and say this is a loving God that gave us free will and that was one of his toughest decisions, but he did. So I’ve got free will, and everybody should have free will, and no government should stand in anybody’s way for being willing and able to do with their own soul what they see fit. Now I may not agree personally that they made a right choice or a wrong choice, but that’s not my choice. And as somebody that’s been involved in government a long time, I am offended about governments interfering with people’s rights to do with their own soul – this is the most valuable thing you have, and you should be free to choose with it what you choose to do.
So if it’s – to me, it’s any and all faiths and it’s all times, and it’s everywhere. And it is a God-given right. It isn’t a government-given right. Now we happen to be the instrument, the United States Government, to push on this the most aggressively, but we’re probably the one that deep down cares about it the most because it’s just so much in our founding. It’s – you can go to so many places around this country and this is a core piece of the history. So that’s where we are, and that’s who we are, and I’m delighted to advocate for all faiths, and I’ve – I do find myself in places where I kind of wake up in the morning going, “Boy, what am I doing here,” from just a personal – but then I get this great sense of joy about I’m here fighting for people’s freedom. And I could be sitting on a tractor somewhere on the farm enjoying a second cup of coffee, but instead I get to fight for somebody’s freedom, and what a great job to have.
Sorry to go on so long, but I think about that often actually.
QUESTION: Hello. Thanks for speaking on this, Ambassador. Just on tomorrow’s event, can you say what it is that you’re hoping as a response from the international community here during UNGA week regarding what is happening in China to the Uighur population?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: What we’re hoping to get out of it?
QUESTION: What we’re hoping – you’re hoping from the international community, what you would like people to step up and do?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: To condemn what’s taking place to the Uighurs, to speak out. I’m very disappointed that a number of nations have signed a letter saying that what the Chinese are doing with the Uighurs is fine. I’m stunned, because you’ve got a million people in concentration camps in 2019 and you’re not concerned about this?
And I’m concerned about a number of Islamic countries in particular that wouldn’t stand up and speak out about this. And I went to a head of one – well, somebody that’s in some leadership in a major Islamic group, and I looked at him one time and I just said, “I think sometimes I care more about these people than you do.” And he’s the head of a major Islamic group. And his point was just, “Well, the Chinese play rougher than you guys do.” Well, that’s not a very satisfying answer, but I – what we hope is really to push back.
And by the way, The New York Times had another great piece yesterday on the expanding persecution of Muslims in China that’s taking place now. China is at war with faith. It’s all of them. They will not win this war.
QUESTION: Would you be able to expand on which Islamic country leaders you would expect to be meeting and speaking out against the treatment of the Uighurs in China, particular leaders of other countries?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, no, we’ll have – there will be a list of countries that will co-sponsor the event that will be – they will be listed at least tomorrow, if we don’t have them for you this afternoon. I know we were getting several countries to sign on with it, if that’s what you’re asking about.
QUESTION: Sir, I meant the ones that haven’t spoken out or have refused to speak out. Would you be able to specify which Muslim countries you’re disappointed in having not spoken out?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I’m not going to go there. I am happy that Turkey has spoken out against the treatment of the Uighurs, and I am pleased they’ve done that. I hoped they would do more. It was one of the countries that signed the letter supporting what China is doing and then pulled off of the letter. Qatar pulled off, and we’ve sent a letter congratulating and thanking them for doing that.
I would hope there would be more Islamic-majority countries that would pull off of that letter, particularly after some of the weekend’s articles reporting what expanded activity is taking place against Muslims in China. I would hope there would be more of the countries that would have great pause.
And then some of the video footage that’s gotten out into the public space on this is highly disturbing of what’s – and this is footage you would expect to see from the 1940s maybe, not in 2019.
QUESTION: Do you think the reticence from those countries to – or other countries to be harder on China is just because they’re afraid of China either economically or whatever, they’re just afraid to push back against China and piss them off in some way?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yes. It’s not a profile in courage, but I mean, that’s – it’s not – it doesn’t get us anywhere to – I don’t think necessarily, to push and condemn those nations that won’t join us. What I hope will get us somewhere is to point out factually what’s taking place and to spread that as much as we can around the world to people in various countries that they would see this is what’s happening, that they would hear the stories from Uighurs. That’s why we put up Uighur activists so many different places so that people can hear these different stories. Ilham has spoken at the ministerial and here and did a passionate, beautiful job. Her dad’s locked up; doesn’t know where he is, doesn’t know how he is. That’s – and that’s going on in the world today. This isn’t five years ago.
MODERATOR: In the back. You had your hand up earlier.
QUESTION: Oh I did, yes. You mentioned those countries taking more actions. Do you think this is a good opportunity for the United States to be used through sanctions and to encourage other countries to implement sanctions on China for these gross, like, human rights violations against Uighurs?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: We don’t preview sanctions, but they are more effective if it’s a unified or if it’s a broad coalition of countries imposing sanctions. Sanctions from the United States can be and in many cases are very effective, and they can have a major impact. It’s still more effective if there are more nations in it, and so we would hope in an alliance on religious freedom that we would get a group of nations that would step forward and would have an impact.
QUESTION: So just on that point, is that what you’re proposing with this alliance is to get countries together to impose sanctions?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: No, then I’m – you shouldn’t hear me to say that. This is an alliance of nations to try to get joint actions, but we’re not doing it just specifically for sanctions. This would be – and really, we’re talking about rudimentary levels of religious freedom initially. Just you can’t lock people up for simply being of a certain faith. If they are peaceful practitioners of their faith, you can’t lock them up. You can’t give them the death penalty. We’re just – we’re talking about really basic levels of religious freedom that we would hope nations would join together.
The problem has been – here is this universal human right that’s recognized with the UN Declaration of Human Rights that most nations have signed onto, and nobody has stood up to try to push for it. We push in various fields for economic issues, that there be a fair, level playing field, and then there can be sanctions if you don’t play by the rules. We do this in other scientific fields. But in religious freedom, this very broad right, there’s just kind of nobody that’s stood up to fight for it, and that’s what we’re trying to get this group of nations to. But it’s not a sanctioning body per se. Sanctions could be a piece of it if the cases get egregious. I would hope that would be open, but I’m not calling for this to be a sanction-making body, but that that would be a tool.
MODERATOR: Anyone else? One more?
QUESTION: Yes, just a quick follow-up. Yesterday a senior State Department official had mentioned China as a malign actor and I wasn’t sure if this would just be tied in as you could possibly just ramp up efforts towards China just to hold it accountable for these violations. You say the United States is leading, but for forming groups they’re not taking actions, so what is your comment on that?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, who’s doing any more than the United States? This President has been the first president to take on the Chinese in any regard, and he’s done it specifically initially on the trade field, and I’m deeply appreciative that he’s been willing to take them on. They’ve been doing a number of things in the trade field wrong for a long period of time, but nobody took them on. This President has been willing to. And now we’re pressing on this issue, where millions of people are persecuted for their faith. As we’ve mentioned, the Uighurs, the Chinese house churches are being shut down. The Tibetan Buddhists cannot practice their faith. The Dalai Lama can’t even go to his ancestral home. The Chinese are threatening to appoint the next Dalai Lama that – and this is a right that belongs to the Tibetan Buddhists to appoint who is, by their procedures, by their religious procedures, of who’s the next person. This doesn’t belong to the Chinese Government. We’ve got a huge issue of organ harvesting of Falun Gong members that the Chinese Government has not come clean on. You’ve got a raft of issues here that need serious addressing, and here’s by a government that in its constitution says that you have religious freedom. It certainly isn’t practiced there.
MODERATOR: Anyone else? All right.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: There’s several people here. Meriam is from Sudan, persecuted for – Ilham is – her father is a Uighur that’s in jail and is here. Iranian – if some of you want to try to catch a few of them afterwards – the Rabbi here is from Yemen and was kicked out of the nation. So we’ve got multiple faiths and people that have – they’re here to support this cause because they have been persecuted or their family has been persecuted and they feel very strongly about it. So if you want to catch any of them afterwards, I hope they could visit with you. Thank you.