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Briefing On COVID-19 Impact on Religious Minorities (April 2)
April 2, 2020


MS ORTAGUS:  Thank you very much.  Good afternoon, everyone.  Thank you so much for joining us on another briefing call.  We have someone that is not a stranger to our State Department bullpen, Ambassador Sam Brownback, who is going to talk to all of us today, give us a brief on what is happening with religious minorities during the COVID-19 pandemic.  This call will be on the record and it also is going to be embargoed until the end of the call, please.  We will, as you heard, have our normal Q&A session.  You press 1 and then 0.

So I’m going to turn it over to the ambassador now, who’s going to give some brief opening remarks, and then we’ll jump right into Q&A.  Sam.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Yes.  Thanks, Morgan.  I appreciate that, and thanks, all of you, for being on the line and interest.  I want to stay focused on one particular topic if at all possible, and that’s the position right now and what’s happening to religious prisoners around the world.

In this time of pandemic, religious prisoners should be released.  We call on all governments around the world to do so.  It’s a good public health move for their nations and it’s morally obviously the right thing to do.  We unfortunately have a number of religious prisoners around the world in various countries that are being held, and I just wanted to cite a few of those that are taking place right now.

Iran, the Iranian regime:  Now, recently – and I was pleased to see this – it furloughed some 100,000 prisoners of conscience to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 to this high-risk group.  Any group that’s being held in a prison, this is inherently a very tight space of an easy-to-spread situation there.  But they need to – they have not released a number of high-profile religious prisoners in Iran and we call on them to release all of them.

China continues to have a number of people imprisoned for their faith.  We know that as far as the situation in Xinjiang, but we also know it happens and it continues to take place with Protestant and Catholic churches, house church and even officially recognized church, and then the Falun Gong members and Tibetan Buddhists have – a number of them are in prison.  And again, those should all be released in this time of pandemic.

Vietnam has 128 prisoners of conscience that are in prison right now, and we call on them to release those prisoners.

Russia has nearly around 240 prisoners of conscience, including 34 Jehovah Witnesses.

Eritrea has 40 prisoners of conscience, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Indonesia has over 150 prisoners of conscience – well, excuse me, let me back up on that.  Indonesia has over 150 that are in jail now for blasphemy law violations.  And we believe that all of these should be released by any country that’s holding religious prisoners at this point in time.

We have been pushing this with our alliance members.  We have 29 countries and the – our International Religious Freedom Alliance had a telephonic call yesterday with that group, brought this topic up, and I believe we will see a number of other nations join the call for the release of religious prisoners at this point in time.

This is a – something that we have worked on, I have worked on personally, and we as an office have worked on for years to get religious prisoners released.  These are people that should not be in jail in the first place.  They are simply in jail for peacefully practicing their faith, and yet various regimes put these peaceful prisoners in jail.  This is an important time to pursue this objective of getting them completely released from prisons that they’re in for obvious reasons.

I thank you all.  I do believe that the religious community – you’re going to continue to see a strong response from it in the COVID virus environment to try to be as helpful as possible through this pandemic, but I particularly wanted to focus on this issue of religious prisoners being released and calling on governments to do so now.

Morgan, I’d be happy to stand for questions later on this.

MS ORTAGUS:  Okay, great.  I think all of you have the instructions for how to do it, and Ruben, hold on one second.  I don’t think I have the list yet.  I’m being slow.  Ruben, why don’t you go ahead and start the Q&A if you have the list.

MR HARUTUNIAN:  The first question is from Kim Dozier.

OPERATOR:  One moment, please.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) this call.  We had noticed that there’s been a hashtag trending in India, #CoronaJihad, hinting or intimating that somehow (inaudible) coronavirus has been spread by the Muslim community.  Are you tracking how the coronavirus has exacerbated any anti-Muslim activity like this?  And also, is Kashmir getting the aid it needs at this time?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  We are tracking the blaming of religious minorities for COVID virus, and unfortunately, it is – it’s happening in various places.  This is wrong by governments to do this.  It is – the governments really should put this down and state very clearly that this is not the source of the coronavirus.  It’s not the religious minority communities.  And they should go out there in open messaging and say no, this is not what happened.  We know where this virus originated.  We know it’s a pandemic the whole world is being subjected to and it’s not a – it’s not something from religious minorities.  But unfortunately, we are seeing that sort of blame game getting started up in different places around the world, and we hope it gets pushed back aggressively by those host governments.

I don’t have specific knowledge on Kashmir, whether or not it’s getting the type of aid it needs.  We do call on governments to work with their religious minorities in this time of pandemic and make sure they are getting the needed resources and aid.  We’ve seen a situation in several countries where oftentimes a religious minority is excluded from the public health need and distribution in nations, and we’re calling on all nations to distribute this at this time of pandemic to all communities regardless of religious affiliation or otherwise.

QUESTION:  And sir, have you had any specific conversations with Indian officials about this yet?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  I have not with Indian officials yet.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MS ORTAGUS:  Okay.  Just a reminder to everybody that you have to dial 1 and 0 to get in the queue for questions.  Ruben, do we have anybody else lined up yet?

MR HARUTUNIAN:  Matt Lee has the next question.


QUESTION:  Hey.  Thanks a lot, ambassador.  Appreciate it.  Hey, Morgan, I had sent some other questions not on this topic to PA press duty earlier, but – basically on the amount of money that was paid for the aid from Russia yesterday, whether or not our aid to foreign countries has actually been suspended, and also asking for reaction on the Pakistan – the overturning of the murder charge in the Danny Pearl case.  Can someone get back to all of us, maybe, on those three questions?

And for the ambassador, do you have – thank you for your – for the highlighting of those specific countries, but do you have an estimate or a good handle on the number of people worldwide who are imprisoned for religious reasons that you would like to see – that should be released?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  We track it country by country, and so we could come up with that number.  What I cited to you were some of the countries that have some of the most religious prisoners in it, but they’re – they exist in unfortunately too many countries.  We could take a run at that, and we’ll do that.  We’ll see if we can come up with a rough estimate of what we have in our reporting to put forward.  The ones I put forward in front of you were the – some of the bigger total numbers.

QUESTION:  Right, okay, but I mean, it’s obviously in the tens of thousands?  I mean, you say Iran has – that Iran furloughed a hundred thousand, but I mean, are we talking tens of thousands, thousands, hundreds of thousands?  Do you have any idea?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Yeah.  Unfortunately, we’re talking millions, and that’s just China, honestly.  I mean, you’ve got – in the Uighur situation, you’ve got a million Muslims being held in those detention facilities.

Now, I don’t want to exclusively focus on that.  Iran, as I mentioned, furloughed a hundred thousand, and in some of these places we really don’t have a good grasp of the total number and the amount.  Those two nations, though, just in and of themselves – North Korea has a very high number, and we don’t know how many are in their gulag system that they have, and they would be under exceeding exposure to COVID.  And unfortunately in some of these prison situations too they allow their prisoners to be kept in very crowded, unsanitary conditions and they die there, and that’s just allowed by the government rather than being concerned at all for the health and safety of these – of their citizens, even though they may not agree with their religious practices.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MR HARUTUNIAN:  Next question is from Michele Kelemen.

QUESTION:  Request to have PA respond to things like how much we paid for the aid to Russia.  But I do have some questions for —

MS ORTAGUS:  Yeah, we’re not going to.  We’re not going to respond to that.  We have nothing to say beyond the statement that went out last night.

QUESTION:  Okay.  Are you – Ambassador Brownback, are you offering any help to Afghan Sikhs following last week’s ISIS attack?  There are some groups that are calling for resettlement, for instance.

And I also have a question about aid delivery to religious minorities in Iraq.  Is that continuing, or has that been affected either by the outbreak or the scaling back of the U.S. consulate in Erbil for security reasons?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  We’ve been meeting – our office has been meeting with representatives of the Sikh community about that horrific attack that took place in Kabul and discussing this issue.  That would be in other areas and obviously would involve multiple agencies with that, and I’ll be meeting directly with Sikh representatives – I’ll be meeting telephonically with Sikh representatives soon.  I don’t know about the aid delivery system in northern Iraq, whether that’s been disrupted.  I would think it probably has just because everything’s been disrupted, but I don’t have individual information on that.

MR HARUTUNIAN:  Can we go to the line of Rich Edson for the next question, please?

QUESTION:  Question on what we’re seeing from governments that are cracking down on their populations citing COVID.  Are you seeing much of that, or to what extent are you seeing it when it comes to cracking down on religious minorities, in other words, using the COVID crisis to single out and target religious minorities?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  I would say fortunately the reporting that we are seeing is that governments are, by and large, not doing that and in some cases being more lenient towards religious minorities, treating them like people instead of like something to desperately oppose and put down.  But that’s just anecdotal information.  A lot of our posts are limited on what they can get out and see and hear themselves, so this is sort of the reporting that I get back through informal networks of people.

This is – one of the good things going on now, if you can find good things, is that it has really brought a much more united humanity together in recognizing we are all in this together.  This is all of us.  It doesn’t matter what you believe.  Everybody is subjected to this attack on humanity.  And we’re actually starting to see more relaxing and opening up, and we’re calling for more of it.  It needs to take place.  You need these governments to work with these religious communities – majority or minority or otherwise – to help distribute aid and get information out.

A lot of times in developing countries the religious community is the most organized in the place to be able to distribute information and assistance, and we need to work through these communities, whether you agree with them or not.  And we’re starting to see some openness in various countries.  It varies from place to place, but we’re – I’m seeing a more encouraging trend.  And I am particularly hopeful we can get a number of these religious prisoners out of jail that I’ve been advocating for years, and usually it’s one at a time.  But none of them should be in jail, and they all should be allowed to be free to practice their faith peacefully, and I think this is a key time for governments to exercise that.

MR HARUTUNIAN:  The next questioner is Nick Wadhams.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much for the call.  Ambassador Brownback, I had a question about the fact that religious groups all around the world – in many cases – have been resisting social distancing guidelines and resisting the call to shut down large gatherings of people.  Do you have a take on whether religious groups should be holding services in these times?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Well, my take of it is that religious groups should practice social distancing.  That’s what we need to do.  I haven’t been to mass myself in several weeks, and it’s the longest period I’ve gone without going to mass, and I think people should be doing this to stop the spread of the virus.  And I think most religious communities are adhering to the global guidance on what needs to be done to stop this.  There are some that are not, but I think by and large most religious communities are being very responsible, and I think you’re going to see a number of them act to be helping people as this hits more in the developing world and you’re going to have more of a reliance on the religious community for distributing the aid and information.  There are some that I think are doing questionable things, but I think most are being quite responsible.

MR HARUTUNIAN:  Next question is from Joel Gehrke.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you for doing this.  I have two questions.  The first I think is probably related to Matt Lee’s question earlier, but do you have a sense of how many people are – how many religious prisoners are in particularly acute danger of catching the coronavirus, perhaps severely?  You alluded to North Korea, but are there any places, perhaps in Xinjiang or elsewhere, where you know there might be a particularly high risk of the virus reaching some of these detention centers or cases?

And then more – a little more broadly, with all the discussion about China’s candor about the coronavirus, for instance, I wonder, have you found that this is changing any minds in terms of the diplomatic conversation with third-party countries about whether – about what’s happening in Xinjiang?  I know there have been some – some countries work more closely with the U.S. than others in lobbying against that.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Good question.  The acute danger ones that immediately come to my mind are – is Iran, simply because it’s got hit big early and you’ve got a number of notorious prisons that are there that are quite overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, and we have that from eyewitnesses that have been held as religious prisoners and get out of those places.  North Korea is one just because, again, of individual reporting, the eyewitnesses of people that have gotten out and escaped North Korea of the horrific conditions in those areas.  But then just any of these, honestly, where you’ve got a tight crowded situation, we know how quickly and easily this virus spreads and how much you have to get on top of it if you’re a person that gets hit by very difficult symptoms with it.

For as far as the changing views on China and Xinjiang, I haven’t noticed anything different right now because everybody is just so focused on the pandemic, as well we should be, and that’s the cause at hand.  I do think people are recognizing the need for transparency and open reporting and a free press and the value of those things to have accurate information being put out to the entire world, and the world needs accurate information.

MR HARUTUNIAN:  The next question is from Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks.  I was wondering if you’d talk a little bit about the situation of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, as well as reports that the Burmese armed forces have resumed attacks, perhaps under the cover of COVID.  Have you had any discussions with Burmese officials about this, any warnings?  Thanks.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  We have not had – I have not had; now, there may be other places that have had – warnings from the Burmese officials about this.  The Rohingya situation is horrific.  I’ve been there.  When we talk about a crowded place, that if this – that if COVID got going there it would just spread like wildfire.

My heart is really – I mean, it’s been terrible what’s going on in the Western world.  We really, too, want to go out and our AID efforts into the developing world, that if these sorts of viruses start spreading there, just the ability to be able to react is so difficult and limited in many of these places.  There was a comment by a cardinal in Nigeria watching what was taking place in Europe and saying, gosh, if this hits Nigeria, we just don’t have the resource and capacity that exists in the Western world and asking for help.

But I don’t have anything further, new information on what – if the Burmese are picking these attacks back up at this point in time.  We do need a concerted global effort on the Rohingya to allow them to go back to their homeland and in safety, to be able to do that.

MS ORTAGUS:  Ruben, do we have – oh, do we have time for one more?  Okay.  We might have lost Ruben.  I think Said was next in the queue.  Said Arikat.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Yes.  Thank you, Morgan.  Thank you, ambassador, for doing this.  Sir, I know you mentioned many countries.  You also mentioned prisoners of conscience.  I have two questions.  I didn’t hear whether you mentioned Egypt and those who are in prison, being accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

I also wanted to ask you whether the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons fall under that category, especially there are some juveniles.  There are thousands, literally, that were slated to be released many years ago.  So I wonder if you have a comment on that.  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Yeah.  In Egypt – I want to scroll down to my information.  We do have – there are activists that are in jail in Egypt and that we would call on the government there to release them.  In a number of these situations, we get pushback from people saying, look, you call them religious prisoners, we call them political activists, and in some cases they call them terrorists.  And so we are often debating those issues with governments, and I don’t have portfolio outside of religious freedom.  I am looking at the side of this that when these are individuals that are peacefully practicing their faith – now, if the person is practicing their faith and they’re doing it by being a jihadist and attacking and trying to blow up buildings, I think governments have every right to lock them up.  And we do that ourselves in the U.S., and I have had that happen in my state when I was governor of Kansas.

So that – I’m not going to get in a dispute with people there.  I’m talking about individuals that are peacefully practicing their faith and are arrested because they are advocates for their faith that are peaceful about it.  Now, I’m not going to get in a debate about whether somebody is in another category.  If they have committed actual crimes in doing things, I think governments have a response that’s certainly legitimate to protect the broader community.  We’re asking for once your peaceful practitioners to be released.

MR HARUTUNIAN:  And the last question is from Lalit Jha.  Lalit?  I don’t think he’s on the line anymore.

MS ORTAGUS:  Yeah.  Is there anyone else in the queue, Ruben?

MR HARUTUNIAN:  There is no one else.

MS ORTAGUS:  Okay.  Thank you so much, everybody.  I appreciate it.  Thank you so much, ambassador, for doing this today.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Thank you, Morgan.  Thank you, everybody.  Goodbye.