An official website of the United States government

Briefing On COVID-19 Impact on Religious Minorities (May 14)
May 14, 2020

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you very much and good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us for this on-the-record briefing to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on religious minorities throughout the world. Just a reminder that this call is embargoed until the end of the call, please.

Our briefer will be Sam Brownback, our Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. When Ambassador Brownback spoke with all of you in early April on this topic, he urged the swift release from detention and imprisonment of religious prisoners, in part due to the increased challenges of incarceration posed by COVID-19. Today he will elaborate a bit more on this and additional burdens faced by religious minorities everywhere during this unprecedented global pandemic. Ambassador Brownback will open with brief remarks, then answer your questions. As the operator just said, please dial 1 and then 0 to get in the queue. Just a reminder that the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call and it is on the record.

Ambassador Brownback.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thank you very much, Morgan. Appreciate that and thank you all for joining us on this briefing today. I want to start off with a word of thanks. We did this briefing on asking that religious prisoners be released, I’d say about probably a month ago, maybe a little bit more than that, and a number of countries did release prisoners of conscience, religious prisoners. That took place. Now, whether or not it was the result of the press and the pressure, the public pressure that took place, I don’t know, but it happened. It is also a matter that a number of members of the International Religious Freedom Alliance, other countries, took it up, and we saw countries – Iran, Burma, Cuba, Russia – release religious prisoners, prisoners of conscience, and others. So thank you for doing that. I think some people’s lives were possibly saved by this.

Today I want to talk about a little different angle of this, and that’s what religious minorities are experiencing during this COVID crisis. And unfortunately, it’s a tough situation for a lot of religious minorities in various places around the world. The problems tend to fall into about five categories. One’s just a straight government repression that some governments are using this to further repress the religious minorities. Second is then just discrimination in the health care sector, where we’re seeing governments deny health care to some of the religious minorities in various places. A third is in the kind of hoaxes and scapegoating category, where some of the religious minorities, they are scapegoated, they are targeted. There is fake news being put out that they’re the reason for the spread of the COVID virus in their country. Fourth is online inflammatory speech, where actors are putting out disinformation campaigns that are targeting particularly religious minority groups. And then a final category is this growth of misuse of technology to further repress, discriminate, or surveil that’s outside of really the scope of the crisis.

Let me go into some examples on each of these to give you some context of what I’m talking about. Look, we at the State Department in religious freedom category, what we’re asking is that just everybody be treated as an equal citizen regardless of their religious views or their lack of religion, that they just be treated like the majority of citizens like everybody else in their country. We’re not asking for better treatment, but we’re asking that they not be persecuted simply because or targeted because they’re in a religious minority.

Some of the things that we’re seeing in Burma – unfortunately we’re seeing widespread, systematic not allowing health care to the Rohingya by the Burmese Government, particularly the military, and Burma is doing this, which obviously raises risk for COVID-19 exposure and complications if you don’t have access to health care.

In China, we’re seeing a couple of particular faces of this taking place in the religious persecution category in Tibet, towards the Tibetans. Even during the strictest parts of the lockdown, the Chinese Government was conducting a campaign to send a million police to 10 million homes in Tibet to further restrict the Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhism, even during the pandemic. And then also we’re seeing in the Uighur Muslim community they’re facing increase of vulnerabilities as they’re being forced to work despite coronavirus risk, and they’re being further exposed.

In India, we’ve seen reports of unfortunate COVID-related rhetoric and harassment, particularly against the Muslim community. This has been exacerbated by fake news reports, misinformation being shared via social media. There have also been instances of Muslims being attacked for allegedly spreading the coronavirus. Now, I’ve been encouraged and we’ve been encouraged by statements from senior Indian officials really urging a unity, and noting the prime minister stated even that COVID does not scee religion, language, or borders, which is certainly true.

In Malaysia, there have been reports of xenophobia and hate speech against the Rohingya and other foreign migrants. This has been expressed online and in person, stemming from public anger blaming them for the spread of the COVID virus.

In Pakistan, I want to particularly recognize a New York Times report that was an excellent report on the problems that sanitation workers are experiencing there, 80 to 90 percent of which are religious minorities, particularly Christians. They are the ones that get the jobs of sweepers and sanitation workers. And now, as the sanitation work includes collecting contaminated waste from hospital quarantine wards across the country, these workers must not be neglected as the government works to increase distribution of personal protective equipment for front line workers. You can’t single out and isolate this religious minority that’s the Christian workers that are the sanitation workers.

In Sri Lanka, several Muslim individuals who have died from the COVID-19, their families – they were forced to have them cremated per government policy, which is not based on WHO guidelines and which is against their religious beliefs. And the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has also sparked anti-Muslim sentiment in some quarters.

There have been positive things that have happened in different places for religious minorities. We’ve certainly seen this – the united Sikh community, other religious groups, Muslim, Christian – really across the board – Jewish groups, Baha’i, Hindu groups have stepped up to try to help out during this crisis. And I want to also thank many of the religious leaders across the world that have taken steps to not have people congregate during this COVID crisis. Now, there are the outlier cases where some religious leaders have had congregations, but by and large the religious community, I think, has been very responsive to not having people congregate in ways that would help spread the virus. And I really appreciate the religious communities’ leadership in working with government authorities to try to contain the spread of the virus as much as that’s possible to do.

Those are some of the key concerns. I’d be happy to try to respond to questions.

MS ORTAGUS: Wonderful. Thanks, Sam. I believe first in the queue is Shaun Tandon, AFP.

QUESTION: Could I follow up? You mentioned Tibet at the beginning. I guess this isn’t directly COVID-related, but if I’m not mistaken, today is the 25th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s recognition of the Panchen Lama. Do you have any greater clarity on the whereabouts of the Panchen Lama as recognized by the Dalai Lama? Is this still something that you have been raising with China?

If you could allow me briefly one other unrelated question, the Baha’is. In Yemen, toward the beginning of the COVID crisis, there was a statement by the Houthi authorities that they pardoned a prominent Baha’i and were dropping charges against the community. Have you seen progress on that? Is that something that you’ve had any dialogue on? Thanks.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thanks, Shaun, for the questions. Yes, today is the Panchen Lama recognition. No, we do not have any idea of the whereabouts, and yes, we continue to press the Chinese authorities to release the Panchen Lama and to let him free, but – and, well, let the world know where he is. And this takes on, I think, an increased interest and focus and importance as China continues to assert – the Chinese Communist Party continues to assert their right to appoint the next Dalai Lama, and – which they do not have the right to do.

So this issue continues to be raised by the U.S. Government, will continue to be raised by the U.S. Government. And I think it’s also getting some increased interest, again, in the Congress and in places around the world because of the succession issues and concerns being raised by the Chinese claiming this right which they don’t have. They don’t have the right to appoint the next Dalai Lama any more they don’t have the right to appoint the next pope.

In Yemen, I was very pleased about the Baha’i release that took place. We continue to have concerns about how Baha’i are treated there and in, unfortunately, a number of different countries around the world and most particularly Iran. Although Iran did release a number of Baha’i from prison, and I was very pleased that they were willing and did do that. But they’ve had a lot of heavy persecution against Baha’i in, unfortunately, a number of different countries around the world.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Great. Thank you. Next we have Trey Blanton from St. Michael’s Media.

QUESTION: Good afternoon, Mr. Ambassador, and thank you. Just three questions on Pakistan. I’ll get them out real quick. What is the effect (inaudible) is having on the judiciary system and its ability to adhere to such as (inaudible) and other abducted children who are abducted and converted to Muslim – to Islam and forced (inaudible) their abductors? What are your expectations for the National Commission for Minorities? Will it be able to help young abducted women and also the sanitation workers? And have you heard anything about those convert-or-starve incidents I’m hearing coming out of Pakistan? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Let me try to take those. The judiciary impact, I’m not getting much – any additional information on this. The Pakistani judiciary at times will really step up and do the right thing. They let Asia Bibi go, and – but at other times, you see a difficulty, and I have – and unfortunately, a lot of – a number of the judiciary members, I’m afraid, are afraid of the violence that’ll be directed at them if they do the right thing.

The National Commission on Minorities, I’m pleased that it was finally put forward. This is something that was required by the Pakistani Supreme Court, what, five, six years ago. So I’m glad that it’s been put forward. I really think they missed an opportunity by pulling off the Ahmadi Muslim that was nominated to be on it. I think their wilting to the public pressure really sends a bad signal. The Ahmadis are a very peaceful-oriented Muslim group. And they just continue to really have great difficulty in Pakistan and in a number of countries, but it seems like particularly in Pakistan.

I have not heard anything further on the convert-or-starve campaign, but we have been seeing this. This is something that we’re tracking now on the humanitarian aid to make sure it gets to everybody that qualifies for it, regardless of their religious affiliation. And we have heard and seen reports of people saying, “Well, if you’ll convert to the majority faith, then we’ll give you the aid, and if you don’t, we won’t.”

And we’re asking the development aid and the humanitarian aid community – and I’ve even written letters to key people in that community – asking them to track and to inquire about this particular issue happening. I haven’t received responses back, but it’s something that we’ll be asking – we’ll be asking for post audits as well, after the crisis, to see if this happened. Right now, we’re just most concerned about – that just everybody be allowed to have equal access, equal citizenship, regardless of their religious beliefs.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thank you. Next in the queue is Jessica Donati from The Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION: I was wondering if you could provide an update on the U.S. position on Afghan Sikhs who have been seeking asylum in the U.S. because of attacks against the community.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I’ve visited – I’ve met over the phone with a number of Sikh representatives about this particular case, and they continued to ask for – there continues to be an ask for – from some of their representatives to immigrate – U.S., Canada, even inquiries about India, Pakistan, about being able to go to any of these places to get out of Afghanistan. It’s a terrible tragedy that this wonderful, peaceful religious group is – virtually been decimated in Afghanistan and less than a thousand left in the entire nation. That’s wrong. They should be allowed to live there freely and peacefully, and yet these latest attacks just make it such that the community wants to remove itself whole cloth. That’s really – that’s not the response that a number of people want to see. We want to see people to be able to live in peace and harmony in their own nation and not be forced to leave.

Having said all that, I know the case is still being – the cases are still being reviewed, and we’ve been inquiring, as others have, of possible places for the remaining Sikhs in Afghanistan to go to be able to be safe. I don’t have anything publicly that I could say about where those situations might end up being.

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. Next is Matt Lee, AP.

QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks. Ambassador, thank you. In your comment (inaudible) just like to say that you are the first senior U.S. official I’ve heard in probably about a month to say something about the WHO that was not negative.

And my question is: You gave a good overview, I think, of the global situation. But I’m just wondering, is there a country or a specific religious minority that you see to be now at – where the risk is particularly acute or the repression – COVID – the virus-related repression or discrimination is the worst or is worse? Thanks.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Matt, I honestly kind of wish I could answer that question, and – but I can’t because – or I can’t report just a particular community because I could take you around the world, as I just did in a number of these examples, to some pretty dire situations for a lot of communities that’s taking place. And we just – this wasn’t COVID-related, but the Sikh community in Afghanistan just on the verge of being completely wiped out. The Christian sanitation workers in Pakistan – but I know that New York Times article and then the increased problems they’re having now dealing with cleaning these – taking out the material from the COVID wards as well without protective equipment is a dire situation.

But I – and I’m very concerned about what’s going to sprout up against the Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan with the spike of – they tried to put an Ahmadi on this national minority council and he got kicked off out of public pressure, and really just wild threats that he got pushed off, and if that’s going to spike further oppression against the Ahmadis in Pakistan. There’s just – you get a crisis like this, it exacerbates tension. People are tense anyway, and then they look for a scapegoat, and then unfortunately you get somebody that gives them one and you’re off at the races. And it gets very particular in each situation.

It just overall points to the need for us to have a global push for people to just stand for each other’s religious freedom rights regardless of who they are, where they are. Because you don’t know when something like this is going to pop up but you do know what will happen when it pops up, because this is the history of religious minorities, and in times like pandemics or great stress in the world they just tend to be scapegoated and targeted.

MS ORTAGUS: Great, thank you. Now we have Daphne Psaledakis from Reuters.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. I wanted to ask if there’s any movement from the U.S. to finally act against the Communist Party chief in Xinjiang over the treatment of the Uighurs and what the holdup is if not.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Chen Quanguo is somebody that’s familiar to a number of U.S. Government officials and a number of people. And as we – a number of people would say, this is not his first effort at religious oppression. He built the model in Tibet; he perfected it in Xinjiang. He’s been given a huge amount of resources to conduct this campaign against the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the oppression continues in Tibet. He’s – he may be the best in the world at directing these overall sorts of practices towards religious minorities and trying to really just take the faith out of them, take the religion out of the culture altogether.

And I – there continues to be focus and interest of what’s happening and of what he is doing in particular as a politburo member in China, but I can’t articulate any specific actions against him. But it is certainly noticed and the oppression has not declined. It’s even increased, as I’ve noted, what’s taking place in Xinjiang, but more of what I’ve noted taking place even continuing in Tibet.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thanks, sorry, just one second. I’m getting my AT&T list back up here to see who’s next. Jennifer Hansler, CNN.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks for doing this. There was the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh today. I was wondering if you had a reaction to that and whether you’re calling for the Government of Bangladesh to lift the internet and phone restrictions in that camp. And then to follow up on my colleague’s question, the Senate is said to be moving forward with the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act in the coming weeks. Does the State Department support this legislation and would they support the sanctions that are included as part of that legislation? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, thank you, Jennifer. I was – I was afraid of that. I had not heard that the COVID had arrived there, but I just – kind of a – almost seemed a matter of time. I’ve been to that refugee camp. It is incredibly crowded, that the COVID virus will spread through there very rapidly, unfortunately. They have to have access to adequate health care. I have been calling for their – the Bangladeshi Government to give them internet access. They – it just seems to me ludicrous that they’re not, that they wouldn’t have this. But we’ve been calling for that. That has come up in other meetings that I’ve been a part of.

I do appreciate greatly that the Bangladeshi Government has hosted the Rohingya and has had a great deal of aid flowing into there from a lot of other places. This is a very difficult thing for them to handle and they aren’t heavy on resources, so this is something I deeply appreciate that they are doing, but they’ve got to let them have the internet access and I hope they’ll give access to all the health care that’s going to be needed as – with COVID hitting there.

State Department to my knowledge hasn’t taken a position yet on this legislation. Now – and the spokesperson I’m sure could clarify that if that’s different. To my knowledge it hasn’t taken, but I don’t know for certain.

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. We’re getting near the end of the call. We have two more people in the queue that I want to try to get to, Lara Jakes and then Carol Morello, so Lara first. Lara Jakes, do we have you on? Lara, one more time.

OPERATOR: This is the operator. They’ve dropped off the call.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thank you. Then we’ll just go to Carol Morello and that will be last question.

QUESTION: Hi, Ambassador. Thank you for doing this. You mentioned India and how you had heard encouraging language coming from the leadership there regarding Muslims. I was wondering if you have any reason to believe that it might have to do with the International Commission on Religious Freedom recommending that the U.S. designate India as a Country of Particular Concern, or if not, what do you attribute this change of language to? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I don’t have anything particular that I’m attributing the language to, I just noted that it’s positive and that’s good. And I don’t want to always just point to everything’s negative. I was delighted we had a number of religious prisoners that were released around – was ecstatic about it because I think it probably saved a number of lives. And so the fact that the leadership would say this, great. USCIRF did put them out, as you noted, in that light and that got a lot of interest both here and in India, as you might guess. We will be putting our report out – Secretary will put out the report from State Department fairly soon, and then we’ll – that’ll start the time clock on the Secretary’s ultimate determinations on Countries of Particular Concern or watch list countries, and the USCIRF recommendation will be noted and has been noted as well. But I don’t know why they did that, but I’m glad they did.

MS ORTAGUS: Great. Well, we’re at 2:30 now and I think the end of our queue anyway, so thank you so much, Ambassador Brownback, for being on this call. Really appreciate it. Thanks to the reporters, and we’ll talk to everyone tomorrow.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thanks, everybody. Really appreciate it.