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HomeGovernmentSecretary Antony J. Blinken 2023 International Religious Freedom Report Rollout

Secretary Antony J. Blinken 2023 International Religious Freedom Report Rollout

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, good morning, everyone.  Very, very good to have all of you here today.  Welcome to the State Department.

Today, thanks to Ambassador Hussain, thanks to his team, thanks to our diplomats and our partners around the world, the State Department is releasing its annual report on the status of international religious freedom.  This is an important date for us every year, and no less so this year.

This report advances our vision for a future where everyone is able to choose and practice their beliefs, including the right not to believe or ascribe to a faith.  Respecting religious freedom reinforces other rights, like the right to speak freely, to assemble peacefully, the ability to participate in politics.  Protecting this universal right empowers people to express themselves, to live up to their full potential, to contribute fully to their communities.

Yet today religious freedom is still not respected for millions of people around the world.  Pew Research Center recently found that government restrictions on religion had reached their highest global level since tracking began back in 2007.  Today governments around the world continue to target individuals, shutter places of worship, forcibly displace communities, and imprison people because of their religious beliefs.  Some countries place restrictions on wearing certain types of religious dress; others enforce it.  In some instances, governments are reaching beyond their own borders to target individuals because of their faith and their advocacy for religious freedom.  In every region, people continue to face religious-based violence, religious-based discrimination, both from governments and their fellow citizens.  They may be shut out of schools, denied jobs, harassed, beaten, or worse.

Violent extremist groups also target people based on their faith, as we saw in the attacks last weekend on churches and a synagogue in Russia’s Dagestan region in which police, civilians, and a priest were killed.  Since Hamas’s horrific terrorist attack on Israel on October 7 and the subsequent conflict in Gaza, both antisemitism and Islamophobia have increased significantly across the globe.  Here in the United States, reports of hate crimes and other incidents targeting both Muslims and Jews have gone up dramatically.

The Department’s report tracks these kinds of threats to religious freedom in almost 200 countries.  For example, blasphemy laws in Pakistan help foster a climate of intolerance and hatred that can lead to vigilantes and mob violence.  In Hungary, officials continue to use antisemitic tropes and anti-Muslim rhetoric, and they penalize members of religious groups who criticize the government.  Nine other European nations have laws that effectively ban some forms of religious clothing in public spaces.  In India we see a concerning increase in anti-conversion laws, hate speech, demolitions of homes and places of worship for members of minority faith communities.

At the same time, people around the world are also working hard to protect religious freedom.  We see that in the religious leaders advocating across the globe on behalf of the Baha’is, who are being suppressed and persecuted in Iran and across the Middle East; in activists like Rushan Abbas, who is raising awareness about the genocide and crimes against humanity that China is committing against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Countless civil society leaders are also pushing back against hate, like Tali Nates in South Africa, who is sharing the story of her Jewish family members, who survived the Holocaust, working with young people to challenge antisemitism, racism, xenophobia.  Like Farid Ahmed, whose wife, Husna, was among the people murdered five years ago in the mosque attacks in Christchurch, and has since dedicated himself to understanding between faith communities in New Zealand.  These are just two examples, but they are not alone.

One of the things this report documents is the countries that are taking important steps to defend and promote religious freedom.  Last November Czechia brought officials, practitioners, faith and civil society leaders from some 60 countries to share ways to push back against authoritarian governments that are cracking down on religious freedom.  Saudi Arabia continues to remove exclusionary and hateful language against religious minorities from its public school textbooks, introducing new editions that promote peace and tolerance.  In Germany, authorities are working with survivors to prosecute ISIS fighters who carried out genocide and atrocities against Yazidis, Christians, Shia Muslims, and other religious minorities in both Iraq and in Syria.

The United States will continue to stand with our partners and work to advance religious freedom across the globe.  Since 2021, we’ve dedicated more than $100 million to this effort.  We’ve supported initiatives to prevent religious-based violence.  We’ve provided legal assistance to people who are facing religious persecution.  We’ve trained thousands of human rights defenders who are helping to document abuses.  We’ve also continued hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to support those fleeing religious oppression.  Over generations, our nation has welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees facing religious persecution.  We work relentlessly to secure the release of people in prison for exercising their right to religious freedom around the globe.  Just over the last year alone, 47 of those prisoners were freed, and we’ll continue advocating for the many who remain unjustly detained.

We’ve also recently launched a new initiative to train diplomats, train officials from other countries who are advocating for religious freedom.  We will stay focused on protecting religious freedom, freedom of religion, freedom of belief everywhere it needs protection.

Ultimately, this work is about protecting an essential part of what it means to be human: the ability to explore something bigger than ourselves, to decide on our own what we believe or don’t believe without fear of repression.  The right to choose what we believe also allows us to learn from those who are different than us and celebrate all that we have in common.

As the religious scholar Huston Smith put it, and I quote, “if we take the world’s enduring religions at their best, we discover the distilled wisdom of the human race.”  So many of the people in this room have dedicated themselves to lifting up that shared wisdom, defending the many faiths that contribute to it, protecting the ability of people around the world to choose what role, if any, religion plays in their lives.

So I want to end by thanking you, by expressing gratitude for everything that you do every day.  And what we know is this:  In this effort to defend, to protect religious freedom, to advance it, we’re all in this together.  And the partnerships that we have with so many of you, those are a great source of strength in making sure that we’re effective in doing the work that each of us is dedicated to.

So thank you for your presence here today, and now with that, let me turn it over to our extraordinary ambassador, Rashad Hussain.  Rashad, over to you.

AMBASSADOR HUSSAIN:  Thank you.  Well, one of the many strengths of our democracy is that it is made up of public servants from all backgrounds who come together and try to do our part to address the challenges that we see all around the world.  Mr. Secretary, with the support of civil society, including the leaders that are gathered here today, you’ve been unwavering in your advocacy for religious freedom, and you have made clear to the world that promoting this fundamental right is integral to U.S. foreign policy.  So, thank you.

You’ve also spoken frequently about the importance of evidence-based policymaking at the department and our role in collecting robust data to inform our decisions.  I am proud to say that the International Religious Freedom Report does exactly that.  For 25 years, this annual report has set the global standard for assessing the state of religious freedom around the world.  This year’s report covers 199 countries and territories.

As I’ve said before, if anyone wonders whether religious persecution in any part of the world has escaped our attention, your answer is in this report.  In this report’s pages are the stories of thousands of individuals who are in each way trying to live according to their own conscience.  We find the stories of parents, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, people from every walk of life – lawyers and artists, students and teachers – just far too many people that are facing repressive regimes, terrible conflict, and extremist violence.

We tell this story of those who suffer at the hands of these repressive regimes, such as Hkalam Samson, a Baptist pastor who was unjustly detained for advocating for religious for all individuals in Burma.  Samson is among the many activists and religious leaders – including Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims – that the regime in Burma has targeted for brutal repression and imprisonment.  The Burma military has used many of the same tactics that it used in its genocidal campaign against Rohingya, and it now targets anyone opposing its repressive rule.

The report also continues to cast light on the ongoing crimes against humanity and genocide the Chinese Government is perpetrating against Muslim Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.  This repression follows decades of persecution of religious communities – from Tibetan Buddhists, to Christians, to Falun Gong practitioners.  This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s crackdown on Falun Gong practitioners.

Joining us today is Yuhua Zhang courageous leader who has served several prison sentences, at times enduring torture for her beliefs, and who eagerly seeks to be reunited with her husband who is still imprisoned in China.1  We even see the PRC attempt to reach across its borders to target individuals and silence critics, such as the reports of Chinese authorities engaging in transnational repression against predominantly Muslim Uyghurs, Tibetans, Falun Gong, and many more.

This year also marks the 10th year – the 10th anniversary of the genocide and crimes humanity against the Yezidis and Christians and Shia Muslims and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria perpetrated by ISIS.  Pari Ibrahim, a representative of the tens of thousands of victims and survivors of these crimes, is here with us today.  The United States and our likeminded partners will continue our efforts to work together to bring long-delayed justice, restoration, and religious freedom to protect and preserve survivor communities.

Our report also documents cases where violence is occurring at the societal level, sometimes with impunity, and it also contributes to the repression of religious communities.  In India, for example, Christian communities reported that local police aided mobs that disrupted worship services over accusations of conversion activities or stood by while mobs attacked them and then arrested the victims on conversion charges.

Just last week, we witnessed two brutal killings related to accusations of blasphemy.  A mob in northwest Pakistan dragged a man accused of blasphemy from a police station and killed him, while in Nigeria a mob stoned a Muslim man accused of blasphemy.  Such blasphemy laws criminalizing speech are ineffective because they fail to – to address the underlying causes of bigotry, and in fact, they are often counterproductive in seeking to maintain order, because as we’ve seen too often, blasphemy laws frequently serve as a pretext for mob violence and even contribute to radicalization and recruitment into violent extremism.

All these dangers and developments are occurring against a backdrop of rising hatred and bigotry around the world, including a sharp rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia.  The horrific terrorist attacks of October 7 produced the deadliest day in Israel’s history, and since October 7th we have also witnessed far too much suffering and innocent loss of life in Gaza.  2023 was the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.  While we remain hopeful for a lasting ceasefire, a sustainable ceasefire must not be the condition for protecting civilians, houses of worship – including churches and mosques – and other civilian objects, and providing humanitarian aid to those in need.

Beyond Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank, the conflict has also fed a global surge in acts of anti-Muslim hatred and antisemitism.  The Secretary has spoken very powerfully about the far-reaching impacts of dehumanization, and all of us have the responsibility, starting with ourselves and starting with our families, to counter dehumanization and promote respect.  That is a critical goal that will lead us to the future that we seek in the long run.  That’s the vision that gives us hope even as we continue the tireless work to help those who are facing oppression around the world.

We are also hopeful because we know the powerful change that’s possible when governments and civil society come together to stand up for human rights, including for religious freedom.  Today, as a direct result of relentless advocacy, including by those of you who are here, many people who were once unjustly imprisoned are now and again contributing to their communities.  Asia Bibi is no longer in a jail in Pakistan facing a death sentence.  Meriam Ibrahim and the daughter she gave birth to in a Sudanese jail are free, and Meriam now advocates for the rights of others.  Nguyen Bac Truyen is free and reunited with his wife, who fought tirelessly against his unjust detention in Vietnam.  Bishop Rolando Álvarez, while exiled from his home country of Nicaragua, is with his fellow priests at the Vatican.  And after a perilous path out of Iran, Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi is now able to tell her story about her quest for freedom.  More than 60 members of the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church, who I welcomed upon their joyful arrival to the United States, can spend their Sunday mornings together in safety and not hiding from PRC authorities.

That’s what this work is all about, and that’s why it is so important for this report to cast light on all those who are facing religious persecution around the world.  I encourage everyone to take some time to take a look at it, to learn more about the people and the human lives that it describes, and to consider how each of us can contribute to the work of ending dehumanization and making religious freedom a reality for everyone.  Thank you so much.  (Applause.)

[1] Yuhua Zhang seeks to be reunited with her husband who is not imprisoned, but unable to leave China. [back to 1]

Official news published at https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-2023-international-religious-freedom-report-rollout/

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