U.S. State Department’s Second Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom

On July 16-18, 2019, the U.S. State Department hosted its Second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The opening event was held at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. to emphasize the “importance of promoting religious freedom and protecting religious minorities.” The closing event, also in Washington, D.C. was at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and co-hosted by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.[1]

First Day Activities[2]

After welcoming remarks by Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, the participants discussed the opportunities and challenges for promoting and defending religious freedom globally. Through a series of plenary sessions, they discussed the necessary building blocks and emerging trends in advancing religious freedom, as well as how religious freedom, international development, and humanitarian aid can work together to advance mutual interests.

Second Day Activities[3]

 There were three separate discussions led by topical experts, civil society actors, religious leaders, academics and working-level government officials on topics such as best practices for religious freedom advocacy; limitations in forming, registering and recognizing religious communities; challenges facing religious minorities; combatting the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic behavior; countering violent extremism; religious freedom and national security; religious freedom and economic development; cultural heritage protection for religious sites; religious minorities and humanitarian crises; international development aid and religious freedom; and mobilizing faith leaders around peace and development goals.

At the end of the second day, the White House held a brief reception for some of the Ministerial attendees. One was Cuban Pastor Mario Felix Lieonart, who said, “Pastor, Ramón Rigal, and his wife are imprisoned in Cuba.  Please pray for them and help the people in Cuba. Two other Cuban pastors who were invited for the Ministerial “are not here because the government in Cuba would not give them permission to come. They are Moisés de Prada, president of the Assemblies of God, and Álida León, president of the new Evangelical League of Cuba, which said, “The intention to attend [the Ministerial] was made public, it was a proof of transparency and truth, we have nothing institutionally to hide.” Lieonart added, I am here because I am a refugee in United States.  Thank you for your hospitality for me.” In response to a question from President Trump, Rev. Lieonart said, “Raúl Castro is continuing in power because he is the First Secretary of the Communist Party.  And the new President is not really Cuba’s leader. Castro is the real leader.”

Third Day Activities[4]

Senior government and international organization representatives focused on: identifying global challenges to religious freedom; developing innovative responses to persecution on the basis of religion; and sharing new commitments to protect religious freedom for all. Survivors or close relatives of those who suffered persecution due to their religion or beliefs shared their stories. Government delegations were encouraged to announce new actions and commitments they will take to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief.

There also were the Keynote Address by Secretary Pompeo, an Address by Vice President Mike Pence and Closing Comments by Ambassador Brownback. The highlights of those speeches follow.

Secretary Pompeo’s Keynote Address

The attendance aat this Ministerial “proves that religious freedom matters to literally billions of people all around the world. Look around you. Religious freedom isn’t just a Christian concern, a Jewish concern, a Muslim concern, a Buddhist concern, a Hindu concern, or a humanist concern. It’s all of our concern; it is everyone’s concern.”

“Here in the United States, our Declaration of Independence clearly states that certain rights are unalienable. There are liberties to which all of mankind, in all places, at all times are entitled. Religious freedom is one of them. Our Constitution puts it in the very first amendment.”

“Thomas Jefferson, our first Secretary of State, [helped author the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom,“ which states, ‘Almighty God hath created the mind free… No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry, or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.’”

“The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms religious freedom or belief as a universal right.”

“Today, we come together to turn our convictions into action. And there’s not a moment to lose. A shocking 83 percent of the world’s population live in nations where religious freedom is either threatened or denied entirely.”

Perhaps you’ve heard the recent news of the Cuban evangelical leaders who registered for this very event to come here to Washington but were not permitted to come. . . . [T]he Cuban government prevented them from . . . [coming] to express their religious freedom. Such is the thuggish, intolerant nature of the current regime in Havana.” (Emphasis added.)

The Secretary then commented about violations of religious freedom in Iran, Burma and China.

“{L]ookl at what we’ve accomplished as a result of last year’s ministerial.”

“The State Department has established an International Religious Freedom Fund – a multi-donor fund that provides rapid assistance to victims of persecution all throughout the world. It’s already serving good, and its purpose around the world is expanding. . . . We encourage more countries to step up to the plate and donate and contribute to this important cause that can do so much good all around the world.”

Here are other examples. The “United Arab Emirates they hosted the first regional conference in February on promoting religious tolerance in their curricula. . . .  {T]he nations of the Organization of American States unanimously put forth their first ever statement, introduced by the United States, affirming religious freedom in our hemisphere. Along with the United Kingdom, the United States co-sponsored a groundbreaking conference this past November on meeting the needs of vulnerable religious minorities in conflict zones. And several governments have created special ambassadors specifically charged with advancing religious freedom in their country and around the world.”

The State Department “recently commissioned a group called the Commission on Unalienable Rights to generate a serious debate about human rights that extends across party lines and across national borders. The commission’s purpose is very simple. We’re not out to discover new principles but to ground our discussion of human rights in America’s founding principles, and religious freedom is certainly amongst them.”

“In 2019, the State Department introduced mandatory training on international religious freedom for every one of our Foreign Service Officers. We’ve, so far, trained nearly 12,000 employees on how to identify religious discrimination and persecution and how to work closely with faith leaders all across the world. It is incredibly important that our diplomats be our ambassadors for this first freedom.”

“We should all consistently speak out about abuses of religious freedom. It’s the least that we can do. Today, we have nine statements of concern on countries and issues all teed up. I would ask each of you to sign them in solidarity.”

“Albania, Colombia, Morocco, and the Vatican will host regional conferences in the near future.”

“Thanks to Poland’s efforts, the UN General Assembly has named August 22nd as a special day to remember the victims of religious persecution. Please commemorate it in your home countries too. And we should all keep making the case at the United Nations and in other bodies that religious freedom should be a priority for that institution.”

“But governments alone can’t properly tackle this problem. Our countries need to support civil society groups.”

“I’m very proud to announce today a new effort that’s intended to help us in our goals across the board. We will create the International Religious Freedom Alliance. We hope that this new vehicle – the first every international body devoted to this specific topic – will build on efforts to date and bring likeminded countries together to confront challenges of international religious freedom. . . . it will defend the unalienable rights for all human beings to believe – or not to believe – whatever it is they choose.”

“You all came here because you understand that it is our responsibility to help them. We’re all in this fight together. You can be sure that the United States will be out front defending the God-given, unalienable right of all human beings to worship as they choose.”

Vice President Pence’s Remarks

“Since the earliest days of our nation, America has stood for religious freedom.  Our first settlers left their homes and all they knew for the chance to, as they said, “Begin the world [all] over again.”  They carved protections for religious liberty into the founding charters of our nation and our very earliest laws.  And after our independence was won, the crafters of America’s Constitution enshrined religious liberty as the first of our American freedoms.”

“Our Declaration of Independence proclaims that our precious liberties are not the gift of government, but rather they’re the unalienable rights endowed by our Creator.  Americans believe that people should live by the dictates of their conscience, not the diktats of government.”

“Free minds build free markets.  And wherever religious liberty is allowed to take root, it is prosperity and peace that ultimately flourish as well.”

“And as we tell even our closest allies, those who reject religious freedom are more likely to breed radicalism and resentment; that it can sow those seeds of violence and it can too often cross borders. And those who deny religious freedom to their own people often have few qualms denying those rights to others.”

“The list of religious freedom violators is long; their oppressions span the globe.” It includes Burma, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Iran, Burma, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China and North Korea.”

“While religious freedom is always in danger in authoritarian regimes, threats to religious minorities, sadly, are not confined to autocracies or dictatorships.  The truth is, they can and do arise in free societies, as well, not from government persecution, but from prejudice. This is the evil of Anti-Semitism.”

=========================

[1] State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo Convenes Second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom (June 25, 2019); State Dep’t, Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom Convenes Opening and Closing Events (July 12, 2019). The first Ministerial in July 2018 was discussed in a prior post.

[2] State Dep’t, Day 1: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 16, 2019).

[3] State Dept, Day 2: Track 1: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 17, 2019); State Dept, Day 2: Track 2: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 17, 2019); State Dept, Day 2: Track 3: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 17, 2019); The White House, Remarks by President Trump in Meeting with Survivors of Religious Persecution (July 17, 2019); Cuban Pastor Denounces Cuban Violations of Religious Freedoms to President Donald Trump, Diario de Cuba (July 19, 2019); The regime prevents two of Cuba’s leading evangelical leaders from leaving the country, Diario de Cuba (July 14, 2019); We have nothing to hide’: the Evangelical League of Cuba, Diario de Cuba (July 19, 2019).

[4] State Dep’t, Day 3: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 18, 2019); State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo Keynote Address at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom (July 18, 2019); The White House, Remarks by Vice President Pence at the 2nd Annual Religious Freedom Ministerial (July 18, 2019). The prior day the Secretary made a similar speech for the presentation of international religious freedom awards. (State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo at the Reception for the Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom and Presentation of the International Religious Freedom Awards (July 17, 2019).

 

 

 

State Department’s Latest Report on International Religious Freedom

On June 21, 2019, the U.S. State Department released its 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom in every other country in the world in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (P.L. 105-292). The Report’s stated focus is describing other government’s “policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world.” [1]

Here is an overview of that report and a subsequent post will discuss its report on Cuban religious freedom.

Overview

The initial draft of the report for each country is prepared by the U.S. Embassy in that country “based on information from government officials, religious groups, nongovernmental organizations, journalists, human rights monitors, academics, media, and others.”

That draft then is reviewed and modified by the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. based on additional information from “consultations with foreign government officials, domestic and foreign religious groups, domestic and foreign nongovernmental organizations, multilateral and other international and regional organizations, journalists, academic experts, community leaders, and other relevant U.S. government institutions.”

The Department says its “guiding principle is to ensure that all relevant information is presented as objectively, thoroughly, and fairly as possible.  Motivations and accuracy of sources vary, however, and the Department of State is not in a position to verify independently all information contained in the reports.” (Emphasis in original.)

Appropriately annexed to the Report were the texts of the following documents on this subject:

  • [U.N. General Assembly]Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art. 18 (1948) (“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”) (App. A);
  • [U.N. General Assembly Resolution (1966)] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, App. B): Art. 18(1)(“ Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.” Art 18(2)(“ No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.” Art. 18(3)(“ Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” Art. 20(2)(“ Any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”)
  • [U.N. General Assembly] Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief [Nov. 25, 1981](App. C)(reiteration of above Covenant with additional provisions).
  • Religious Freedom Commitments and Obligations From Regional Bodies and Instruments (European Union: Charter of Fundamental Rights; Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Helsinki Final Act; (App. D); OSCE, Vienna Concluding Document; OSCE, Copenhagen Concluding Document; African Union, African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; Organization of American States (OAS), American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man; OAS, American Convention on Human Rights).
  • Department of State Training Related to the International Religious Freedom Act—2018 (App. E).
  • Department of Homeland Security and the International Religious Freedom Act (App. F);
  • Overview of U.S. Refugee Policy (App. G).

“Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) & ”Special Watch List”[2]

 Under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Secretary of State (by presidential delegation) is required to designate as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) “each country the government of which has engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

In addition, under the Frank R. Wolf International Freedom Act of 2016, the Secretary (by presidential delegation) is required to designate a country to the Special Watch List if it does not meet “all of the CPC criteria but engages in or tolerates severe violations of religious freedom.”

As of November 28, 2018, the Secretary designated as CPCs Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. In addition, the Secretary designated Comoros and Uzbekistan to the Special Watch List.

The just released 2018 Report apparently does not have a separate section on CPCs, but an examination of its Country Reports for those just listed as CPCs reveals that all continue in that status. In addition, Comoros and Uzbekistan continue on the Special Watch List with the addition of Russia.

 Ambassador Sam Brownback’s Role and Remarks

This report was prepared under the direction of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback,[3] with guidance from officials in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL).

At the launch of this report, Ambassador Brownback provided a Special Briefing.[4] He started with this alarming comment, “The fight against religious freedom is mounting. There was a report that 80 percent of people live in places where religious freedom is under attack, yet most of the world organizes their life around a set of religious beliefs.”

As a result, he said, the U.S. is working to “see the iron curtain of religious persecution come down; until governments no longer detain and torture people for simply being of a particular faith or associated with it; until people are no longer charged and prosecuted on specious charges of blasphemy; until the world no longer believes it can get away with persecuting anyone of any faith without consequences.”

The Ambassador then had critical comments about this freedom in Iran, China, Eritrea, Turkey and Nicaragua.

Secretary of State Pompeo’s Remarks[5]

Also at the launch of this report, Secretary of State Pompeo made remarks. He noted that Uzbekistan had made improvements and no longer was a “Country of Particular Concern.” Also complimented for specific improvements on this subject were Pakistan and Turkey. But the Secretary specifically criticized Iran, Russia, Burma and China. Finally he noted that the Department in mid-July will be hosting the second annual Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom.

Conclusion

As noted above, a future post will examine how the above background was applied to the report about Cuban religious freedom.

============================

[1] State Dep’t, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom (June 21, 2019) This blog has commented on religious freedom in the “International Religious Freedom” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical (RELIGION).

[2] State Dep’t, Frequently Asked Questions: IRF Report and Countries of Particular Concern (circa Nov. 28, 2018).

[3] Ambassador Brownback, a Republican, is a former Kansas Secretary of Agriculture (1986-93), U.S. Representative (1995-96), U.S. Senator (1996-2011) and Governor (2011-18). (Sam Brownback, Wikipedia.)

[4] State Dep’t, Special Briefing: Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback (June 21, 2019).

[5] State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo at the Release of the 2018 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (June 21, 2019)