U.S. Department of State
Office of the Spokesperson
For Immediate Release
September 23, 2019
New York City, New York
SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you all. I want to thank the many world leaders who are here today. Thank you, Vice President Pence, for your work on this issue. I especially want to thank President Trump for being a champion of people of faith all around the world. The Bible says that “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” And that’s what we are all doing here today.
As you heard, religious freedom is under threat all around the world, and I now want to invite three individuals to tell us about their struggles on behalf of this first freedom, this important and unalienable right. And so I first want to call on Dabrina Tamraz, whose father was imprisoned in Iran for his faith.
Dabrina, thank you.
MS BET-TAMRAZ: Thank you, Secretary Pompeo. I would also like to thank Mr. President for organizing this important event and allowing me the opportunity to share my story.
My name is Dabrina Bet-Tamraz. I’m an Assyrian from Iran. My family has been a target of continuous harassment by the Iranian authorities for as long as I can remember. Today, my close relatives and friends are unjustly imprisoned or awaiting trials.
On 26th of December, 2014, security officers raided my family’s home during a Christmas celebration, arresting all attendees. The authorities separated men from women, conducting strip searches, seizing all the bibles, and confiscating all personal items such as cell phones, laptops, and identification documents. My father was imprisoned immediately. They shaved his head to humiliate him, treated him like a terrorist, a criminal. He was kept in solitary confinement for 65 days and was charged with conducting evangelism and illegal house church activities, among other false charges that amounted to acting against national security.
Today, my father, Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, is appealing a 10-year prison sentence. Following his arrest, my brother Ramiel and four other Christians were arrested at a picnic in Tehran. Today, he is appealing four months in prison.
Finally, in 2017, my mother, Shamiram Issavi, was arrested and interrogated by the intelligence and national security officers for hours. She was forced to provide informations about our church and was sentenced to five years in prison.
When I was in Iran, I endured similar experiences. I was detained and held in men’s detention center without the presence of any female officers. I was forced to provide names of our church leaders and information of their activities. I managed to escape, but I can’t forget those I left behind: my family and the innocent people serving harsh sentences for the peaceful practice of their faith.
Since 2018, more than 200 Christians have been arrested and are serving harsh sentences. They are either now in prison serving lengthy prison sentences or awaiting trials. Christians in Iran are no politicians or activists of some sort, including my family. They’re simply believers attending prayer and worship gathering. In addition to Christians, other faiths including Baha’is, Sunni Muslims, and Sufis also face discrimination and severe restriction to the freedom of religion. I implore the international community gathered here to hold Iran accountable for its mistreatment of religious freedom and prioritize religious freedom as a foundational human right for all. Every person has a right to live out their faith in safety, peace, and dignity.
Thank you. Thank you, Secretary. (Applause.)
SECRETARY POMPEO: Dabrina, thank you. Thank you for that powerful story. Now we’ll hear from Rabbi Faiz Algaradi, who fled Yemen because of persecution.
RABBI ALGARADI: Hi, good afternoon, everyone. Please accept my sincere thanks for giving me this important opportunity to share my story. If we stay silent, our struggles will be lost.
My name is Faiz Algaradi, a Yemeni Jewish rabbi, teacher, and a human rights activist. In Yemen I held rabbinical and government positions and served as the director of education and chief leader of Yemeni Jewry for more than 10 years.
Yemeni Jewish culture and history, while once flourishing, is facing extinction. Jewish synagogues, houses, and cemeteries have been destroyed and remains taken away. Jewish arts, architecture, and (inaudible) have been stripped of their Jewish heritage. Torah scrolls and the first handwritten books were stolen and sold around the world.
My community also faced severe restrictions, false suspicions, and extreme insecurity. Although the Yemeni officials tried to help us, however we were blamed for social and economic ills. The Jewish community in Yemen has been systematically driven out by repressive policies and persecutions.
The rise of Houthi rebels also forced most of the Jewish community into exile and involuntary immigration. In 2007, I was forced to flee Yemen because I advocated against discrimination, abuses, and kidnapping of my village’s community. In one province, Jews were given three choices: convert to Islam; leave Yemen; or face genocide. I was one of those who decided to leave. My wife, four children, and I left Yemen in 2007. In 2009 we were granted an immigration status to live here in the United States, and for this we are eternally grateful. Today it is my honor to speak to you as a proud citizen of the United States.
For those who gathered here today, there are millions of people around the world in need of same help as my community. Please make the world safer for present and future generations to live and flourish. Together we can shine light in every corner of the world. We must work together to stop discrimination, to stop persecution, and to stop hatred.
God bless you, God bless America, and He may bless all nations on Earth with peace, health, liberty, and prosperity. Thank you. (Applause.)
SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you, Rabbi. And finally, let’s hear from Jewher Ilham, whose father is serving a life sentence in China as a prisoner of conscience.
MS ILHAM: Thank you, Secretary Pompeo. My name is Jewher Ilham, and I am Uighur. I am grateful to the United States for the opportunity to speak for millions of Uighurs in western China who remain silenced. It has become a crime to be Uighur in China. My father, Ilham Tohti, is a well-known economist and scholar. He never advocated for separatism but is now serving life in prison because he chose to speak out about the right to believe what you choose to believe, the right to worship the way you want to worship, and the right to think what you want to think. The only thing he was guilty of was publicly calling for peaceful dialogue and reconciliation.
The Chinese Government targets religion to ensure that people of faith do not answer to any greater power than the Communist Party. In China, authorities have defaced or demolished churches, temples, and mosques throughout the country. Crosses and minarets have been replaced with hammers and sickles. Spiritual images have been removed in favor of photos of authoritarians. The Ten Commandments have been taken down to make room for government propaganda. Children are forbidden from attending religious services. We are witnessing the systematic eradication of ethnic and religious minority identities in China.
Beijing believes Islam is a sickness to be treated with an iron fist. Uighurs are detained for praying to God, fasting during Ramadan, wearing a beard, or simply saying as-salamu alaykum. Every day, millions of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China are being abused, drugged, and indoctrinated in the government’s concentration camps. Outside of these camps, they’re monitored and tracked using high-tech surveillance. Chinese officials conduct intrusive home stays, looking for signs of religious practice.
Beijing claims it is combating extremism. Praying to God is not extremism. Beijing claims it is training unskilled Uighurs to be productive workers. Medical doctors and university scholars, professors do not need vocational training. Beijing claims it is fighting separatism. Practicing religion and speaking native tongues is not separatism. Chinese authorities believe that religion and people of faith are a threat to peaceful societies. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Faith is an antidote to hatred, discrimination, and brutality, because faith breeds love, compassion, and tolerance.
America has shown me the true meaning of the universal rights and value enshrined in the UN Charter. These rights are worth fighting for in China and everywhere else in the world. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
SECRETARY POMPEO: Jewher, thank you. Thank you for telling us that powerful story, and to the other survivors persecuted for their beliefs who are in the audience today, we want to recognize your incredible courage as well.
As we close here today, I want to focus your attention on what President Trump mentioned earlier: the International Religious Freedom Alliance the State Department announced in July. It is the most ambitious human rights project launched in a generation. We aim to bring together likeminded countries, faith leaders, civil society groups, and international organizations around the world to promote religious freedom in a more consistent, organized, and powerful way. The foundation of the alliance is Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which begins, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.”
So if you’re a country that takes human rights seriously, understanding its many benefits for peace, security, and prosperity, please come join us. If you’re a country that stands for human dignity and for freedom of conscience, please come join us. And if you’re a leader simply moved by the stories you’ve heard from these brave survivors today, come join us. Turn your sympathy for them into freedom for others. Please reach out to our Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback. He’s ready to take your calls on all religious freedom issues.
The United Nations is only as strong as its sovereign members determine it will be. Our belief in our principles is only as strong as our confidence to express them. I ask – indeed, I pray – that you will help be a voice for the voiceless by joining the International Religious Freedom Alliance. May God bless the survivors who are here with us today, may God bless the United States of America, and may God bless the nations who have gathered with us here this morning. Thank you all. (Applause.)