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Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel D. Brownback
Briefing on Rollout of U.S. Actions Against Religious Freedom Violators
December 8, 2020

MR BROWN:  Thank you, Moderator, and thanks to everyone who’s joined the call.  This is an on-the-record briefing on the rollout of U.S. designations against religious freedom violators, including Country of Particular Concern, Special Watch List, and Entity of Particular Concern designations.  Sam Brownback, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, will be our briefer today.  The ambassador will start off with brief remarks and then take your questions.  As a reminder, the contents of the call are embargoed until the end.  And for the sake of efficiency, if you’d like to go ahead and get into the question queue, just dial 1 and then 0.

And with that, I’ll go ahead and turn it over to Ambassador Brownback.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Thank you very much.  Appreciate it.  Thanks to everybody for joining us on this call.  International religious freedom is a key U.S. foreign policy priority.  The Department of State promotes global respect for and combats violations and abuses of this fundamental human right.

December 2nd, the Secretary of State, Secretary Pompeo, designated his Countries of Particular Concern and Special Watch List Countries and Entities of Particular Concern.  The Secretary re-designated Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern.  He also designated Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern.

Secretary Pompeo again placed Comoros, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Russia on a Special Watch List for governments that have engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.  While Sudan and Uzbekistan were previously placed on the Special Watch List and had been in the past Countries of Particular Concern, he did not place them in either the Special Watch List or Countries of Particular Concern this year due to significant and impressive steps taken by each of these governments to improve religious freedom.

I spoke to the foreign minister of Uzbekistan and the prime minister of Sudan yesterday and congratulated both of them for the strong movement that each of those countries has taken to open up the religious freedom space in their nation.  It’s been impressive.  Indeed, Sudan is the first country in modern times that have repealed an apostacy law, and we’re asking all countries around the world to repeal these apostacy and blasphemy laws.  There are even 10 countries that still give the death penalty for apostacy or blasphemy, and we’re pushing back in our Religious Freedom Alliance on these apostacy and blasphemy laws.

The Secretary also designated a series of countries that – or excuse me – that’s Entities of Particular Concern and took two entities off that list because they no longer qualified for the designation because they no longer controlled territory and therefore didn’t meet the statutory requirement.  They still are terrorist groups, but they have to control territory to qualify, and two of them lost territory – which is a good thing that that took place.

The Secretary announced the designation of specific sanctions, dual-hatted sanctions for Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, and North Korea, satisfying the International Religious Freedom Act’s presidential action requirement.  And then for Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, the Secretary issued a waiver for the presidential action requirement, determining that there were important national interests of the United States requiring the exercise of the waiver authority.

And just on a final note before opening up for questions, there is – this is – we, as I noted, congratulate the two nations for getting off the list but added Nigeria because of tolerating egregious acts taking place in that nation.  And the Secretary and really the world has great concern about what’s taking place in Nigeria at this time, and a number of terrorist groups are organizing and pushing into the country.  We’re seeing a lot of religious-tinged violence taking place in that country and indeed in West Africa.  It’s an area of growing concern about what’s happening, in particular the tension that’s taking place there between religious groups.  And it’s often the religious affiliation is used to try to recruit and inspire violent acts.

We are seeing on the good side a number of religious groups and theologians – Christians, Muslims, and Jews in particular – stepping up to push back against the use of religion for violent purposes and saying no, our faith is a peaceful faith and using theological arguments.  And I’m very hopeful that as these things move forward that we’ll see more peaceful theologians step forward and say that our faith is for the use of peace, not war.  And I’m encouraged about that trend.  I was just on a call yesterday with a peace summit of Christians, Muslims, and Jews at a very high level of theologians saying and pushing this purpose, and we really need that.  We cannot concede the theological ground to those who would push for violent use of religion.

With that, let me open up for your questions.

OPERATOR:  Ladies and gentlemen on the phone lines, if you wish to ask a question today, please press 1 followed by the 0.  Now, you’re going to hear an acknowledgement you’ve been placed in queue, and you can take yourself out of that queue at any time by simply pressing the 1-0 command again.  So again, for questions please press 1-0 at this time.

MR BROWN:  Great.  For our first question, let’s go to the line of Shaun Tandon.

QUESTION:  Thanks, Ambassador, for doing this.  Could I follow up a little bit on Nigeria?  You mentioned the concerns about terrorist groups.  Are there concerns about the government’s response with President Buhari or other things that you think that could be done that aren’t happening now?  What’s your wish list for government action?

And if you’ll allow me just one sidenote, I was wondering – something that’s in the news quite a bit right now in France, President Macron’s actions targeting radical Islam.  It’s caused a lot of concern in the Muslim world.  Do you have any view on that?  Thanks.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Great questions.  Yes, that is – a major concern for us is the lack of adequate government response in Nigeria.  You’ve got expanded terrorist activities, you’ve got a lot of it associated around religious affiliations, and the government’s response has been minimal to not happening at all.  A number of cases – there have not been criminal cases brought forward by the government.  The terrorism continues to happen and grow, in some places unabated.

And we’re just very deeply concerned that there’s a completely inadequate response by the government taking place for the scale of what’s happening and the building up.  We don’t want this place to devolve into a very difficult, lawless terrain in places.  And the government really needs to act.  We stand ready to work with them.  I have traveled there, spent a week.  Key officials from State Department have been there and have been talking with the government and getting an inadequate response.

I’m concerned obviously for what’s taking place in France, and our view of it is that you’ve got – the government’s role is to protect religious freedom.  You cannot practice your faith violently, or, I mean, there’s going to be consequences to that.  But if you’re peacefully practicing your faith, you’re entitled to practice that faith as you see fit.  And we think countries do best when they work with religious leaders, identifying concerns, problem areas, and not get in disagreements with religious groups.  They have their fundamental religious freedom rights, and those need to be honored and protected by government.  I think there can be constructive engagements that can be helpful and not harmful.  When you get heavy-handed in situations, the situation can get worse.

MR BROWN:  Great.  For our next question, can we go to the line of Jonathan Landay.

QUESTION:  Mr. Ambassador, thank you for taking my – for doing this.  The recommendations for designations are made – correct me if I’m wrong – by the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom.  Is that correct?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Well, they make recommendations —


AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  — and the Secretary considers those, but they’re not binding.  And he also considers the factual report that we put forward and other sources of information.

QUESTION:  Understood.  They recommended that India be made a Country of Particular Concern this year because of the citizenship act enacted by the Modi government that discriminates against Muslim immigrants from – refugees as well from outside of India but not for other religions, members of other religions.  And it has been – there are documented cases of it being misused against Indian citizens who practice Islam.  I’m wondering why India was not put on or designated as a Country of Particular Concern by the Secretary, when in fact this was a recommendation made by the commission.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  There were several recommendations made by the commission that the Secretary did not follow, and this was one of them.  And we watch the situation in India very closely.  The Secretary’s traveled there multiple times.  These issues have been raised in private discussions at the government – high government level, and they will continue to get raised.  I can’t go into the decision-making process that the Secretary went through.  He’s well aware of a lot of the communal violence that’s happening in India; he’s well aware of the statute that has been enacted and the issues associated with the Modi government.  And as I said, he’s raised it at the highest levels, but just decided at this point in time not to place them on a CPC or a Special Watch List.

QUESTION:  And if I could follow up very quickly, he – the commission also recommended —

MR BROWN:  Jonathan, you’ve already got two, so we want to move on to other folks.


MR BROWN:  Appreciate it.  Okay.  Next question.  Let’s go to the line of Will Mauldin.

OPERATOR:  Could you please repeat that name?

MR BROWN:  Will Mauldin, Wall Street Journal.

OPERATOR:  Thank you so much.

QUESTION:  You mentioned sanctions or actions against China and some of the other ones highlighted in the report.  What kinds of actions could they be facing?  Thanks.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  There’s a broad range of sanctions that are possible.  What I was describing to you that we did was that the Secretary put dual-hatted sanctions on a series of country and then waived sanctions on a series of CPC countries as required under the act, either a path to sanction or list a presidential waiver, and he did both.  In these situations, the sanctions were dual-hatted, but it remains an open issue.  Once a CPC designation is put on, the Secretary at a future time could put further sanctions on once that designation is made, and those have a full – there’s a full range of sanctions that can be done under the presidential authority, where the authority for this would come.  Just at this time, what he did was he dual-hatted a series of them, but the full range remains available once a CPC designation is placed on a nation.

And as you tracked, and I’m sure you’ve seen, the U.S. has led the world in going at China about religious freedom violations.  I spoke in Hong Kong, when they still allowed me to travel to China.  They pulled my visa as retribution.  But when I spoke in Hong Kong, I stated that China is at war with faith, but it’s a war they will not win.  And they’ve continued to do that towards Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Falun Gong, really the full range of religious people.  And that has caused – that and a number of other issues have caused – a series of sanctions to be placed on China, whether it’s visas or products coming into the United States or exports from the United States being banned.  And we hope a number of other countries will join us in really pushing on China.

Guy, I was on a call on Tibet last week and the gentleman that heads the Central Tibetan Authority[1], Lobsang Sangay, stated either the world community will change China or China will change the world.  China needs to act like a normal nation and follow the rules, including religious freedom.  That’s a specific human right recognized by the UN and recognized in the Chinese constitution.  We’ve got to – the world community has got to put abundant pressure on China to change, or China will change the world.

MR BROWN:  Great.  Next question.  Let’s go to the line of Soyoung Kim with Radio Free Asia.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks for the briefing.  The persecution of religious freedom in North Korea is a longstanding problem, and as we can see, North Korea has been on this list for 19 years and nothing seems to change since the first year.  And as the awareness and the designation are still important, but I’m wondering, what are the practical actions the U.S. Government or – along with the international community can take to end or at least to improve it?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  I agree with you.  I carried, years ago when I was in the Senate, the North Korean Human Rights Act to put additional pressure on North Korea and to allow North Koreans to come to the United States once they’d left the country, because previously they weren’t allowed in the U.S., and now they are.  We just – we’ve got to continue to keep pressure on North Korea.  They completely deserve this designation.  They persecute people of faith.  They put them in gulags.  If they’re caught trying to escape the country, they’re put back into prisons, and the Christians are – receive some of the worst treatment.  And I’ve read and talked to people about horrific stories of how people of faith are treated.

But I think it’s just – at this point in time, it’s – we’ve got a very strong pressure campaign against North Korea.  We need the rest of the world to help us with this and – because it won’t happen by us alone.  And we need to China to help with pushing North Korea to – not treat people so horrifically.

I would note to you that something I think is very promising – Secretary Pompeo kicked it off this year – was this International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance.  It was launched in February of this year with 24 members, member countries.  It’s up to 32 now.  And I really think this can be an entity that can get countries to come together to push much more effectively to get action by other nations.

It’s one thing for the United States to sanction and to identify countries as a particular concern, other things.  It’s another matter if we could get 10, 15, 20 other nations to join us, and that’s starting to take shape, and joint actions by this alliance are starting to take shape.  It’s more of a network than an alliance, really, but it’s starting to happen, and this topic is growing – religious freedom – there’s a global movement pushing for it.  There’s an annual ministerial Poland just hosted a month ago, and Brazil’s going to host this next year, and a series of religious freedom roundtables in somewhere between 30 to 40 countries pushing grassroots for religious freedom.  So I look for more effective action to take place as this movement grows.

MR BROWN:  Great.  For the next question let’s go to Jennifer Hansler with CNN.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  I was wondering if you’d give any more detail on why these countries received waivers, particularly Saudi Arabia.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Yeah, it’s national interest.  In most of the statutes where we have – the U.S. Government has waiver authority – or excuse me, has sanction authority, there’s given a national interest waiver authority.  And this is always a big thing.  It’s debated in the Congress, because when the Congress passes these laws, they – if you violate the law, they want to see the punishment meted out.  But there’s presidential waiver authority and that’s usually for nations that we’ve got strategic interest with.  And Saudi Arabia is a country that the administration and prior administrations have deemed us having a strategic interest with, and we do.  It’s the major, obviously, Gulf state country.  It’s a major source of trade and working together that we have a great deal of frustration at times in what Saudi Arabia does, noted by us making them and declaring them a Country of Particular Concern – they hit the statutory requirement.  But there’s also a national interest here, and that’s something that you’ve always have to weigh back and forth in diplomacy.  And in this case, the Secretary weighed it that we needed to provide the national interest waiver.

MR BROWN:  Next question.  Let’s go to Jacob Fromer with the South China Morning Post.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks so much for doing this call.  Can you give us a sense, from what you’re hearing, what the situation on the ground is in Xinjiang in western China, just how serious it is?  And also, can you talk about what you think it’s going to take to stop what’s happening there? Thanks.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  The situation’s terrible on the ground.  You continue to have, we believe, somewhere north of a million people in detention facilities.  You continue to have a virtual police state for everybody else, with cameras and artificial intelligence and social credit score type systems that, if you are a religious adherent, you’re going to be either punished on – at a detention facility or not able to work in the economy or get an apartment or go to school.  It’s deplorable, and it’s done towards primarily Muslim religious adherents.  There was a system that Chen Quanguo, the party chairman there, put into place with massive amounts of money from the central government.  He had previously done it to the Tibetan Buddhists, put in similar type systems, and continues to do this.

What it’s going to take to stop them, I think, is the global community is going to need to step up and join the United States in pressuring China to be a civilized nation.  And we’re seeing more and more of that taking place.  You’re seeing more and more countries stepping up and saying we know China is a wealthy nation with lots of resources that it bullies people with, but it’s got to stop.  And we’re – that’s what I’m encouraged about, because I think the rest of the world community is finding its voice and willingness to stand up to the bully, and that’s growing.

MR BROWN:  Okay, next question.  Let’s go to the line of Cindy Saine.

QUESTION:  I have two quick questions, if I may, on Indonesia.  The State Department has put Indonesia on the list for many years, mainly because of blasphemy laws against religious minorities.  But the Indonesian Government also represses members of the Muslim majority that speak out against the government.  And why isn’t there more about that?  And the second question is about the U.S. strong statements about the Uyghurs, and the U.S. has also asked Indonesia to speak up about the Uyghurs, but it has not. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  We call on all governments to repeal blasphemy and apostasy laws.  We think these are inherently against people’s religious freedom rights, and particularly horrific is the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy that 10 nations have.  And so we call on all countries to do that.  We note in our report the things that happen in a nation – in the annual report that we put out – and we put out one that covers Indonesia as well.  So we’ll continue to point out oppressive or repressive actions that any government takes.

Now, we’ve worked as well with Indonesia.  Indonesia’s been quite helpful in working to get the Abrahamic faiths to cooperate peacefully, and that – the head of the largest Muslim organization in the world was just on a call that I was on as well, pushing for peace between particularly Christians and Muslims, but between the Abrahamic faiths in general.  And you’ve noted this administration has done a great deal pushing this notion of the Abrahamic entities working together and finding common ground, and it’s been incredible diplomatic breakthroughs between Israel and UAE and Bahrain and Sudan on these Abrahamic Accords.  So I’m very hopeful that this is going to be a very useful way for countries to start building relationships, is to recognize the common heritage in Abraham.

It’s – and I want to finish on this one thought, because people get very concerned about this:  We are not talking about a common theology, because we don’t agree.  There’s not agreement in their religious faiths on theology.  We’re talking about a common human right and a common dignity, and in the case of the Abrahamic faiths, we’re talking about a common progenitor in Abraham.  I still want to get the picture of top theologians of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity standing in front of Abraham’s tomb, pointing to – this is the starting point of our faith, this person.  And the – I think the world needs to see that, because we’re seeing so much division in the world, particularly between Christians and Muslims, but also Jews as well.  And it’s not healthy and it’s not good for the world.  What would be good is if we could see each other in this common backdrop, common person.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  Let’s take one last question, and let’s go to the line of Jahanzaib Ali with ARY News Pakistan.

QUESTION:  Thank you so much, sir.  Just wanted to follow up with India and Pakistan.  Pakistan is in the CPC country, and there’s no doubt that there are many things need to be corrected.  But at the same time, India not even allow the member of – the members of a U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom to visit India to check the ground situation, but also canceled their visas, and right now committing heinous crimes in Kashmir and also their own citizens against Sikhs and Muslims.  And India is not even a CPC country or not even in the watch list.  Do you think, sir – don’t you think it’s a double standard or favoritism, or do you think it’s a matter of national security?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  These are issues that people spend a great deal of time reviewing, and we’ve reviewed extensively the situation in Pakistan and India, and I’ve visited both countries in this role.  I’ve visited both countries previously multiple times, but in this role I’ve been in both countries.  And we note the problems that are taking place in our annual report in both Pakistan and India.  Pakistan – a lot of their actions are done by the government.  In India, some of them are done by the government and the law that was passed, and much of it’s communal violence.  And then when that takes place, we try to determine whether or not has there been effective – been police enforcement, judicial action after communal violence takes place.

But Pakistan has – half of the world’s people that are locked up for apostasy or blasphemy are in Pakistani jails.  And they – we just had really a difficult webinar this morning on forced brides into China, and one of the source places is Pakistan religious minorities, Christians and Hindu women being marketed as concubines or forced brides into China because there’s not effective support, and then there’s discrimination against the religious minorities that make them more vulnerable.

And that doesn’t mean that India doesn’t have problems.  The statute that you talked about or that was asked about earlier is a problem.  The violence is a problem.  We’ll continue to raise those issues, but those are some of the basis as to why Pakistan continues to be on the CPC list and India is not.

MR BROWN:  Thank you so much, Ambassador.  Appreciate you being with us today and briefing us on this action, and thanks to everyone else who joined the call.  Since this is the end of the call, the embargo on the contents is lifted.  Everyone, I wish you all a good afternoon.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Thanks, everybody.  Appreciate it.  Bye, now.