Ambassador-at-Large Suzan Johnson Cook on the 2012 International Religious Freedom Report

U.S. Department of State - Washington, D.C.


Good morning. The 2012 International Religious Freedom Report provides a factual rendering of the status of religious freedom around the world.

Religious freedom is essential for a stable, peaceful, and thriving society. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This is the standard against which we assess religious freedom in the International Religious Freedom Report. This report seeks to advance religious freedom by shining a spotlight on abuses and violations.

As Secretary Kerry said, when a country fails to provide equal protection of religious freedom for all, the groundwork is laid for political instability and sectarian violence. When a government favors one group or set of beliefs and restricts the rights of others, some in society may take that as tacit approval to further target marginalized groups.

As this report makes clear, much work remains to be done. Secretary Kerry just described some of the most troubling trends. Let me note some others.

Thousands of people around the world are jailed because of what they believe, or don’t believe. In Iran, more than 116 Bahai’s are in prison for teaching and expressing their faith, and many Christians, Sufis, and Sunnis are facing similar treatment. Additionally, a Christian pastor named Saeed Abedini, who is an American and Iranian citizen, was sentenced to 8 years in prison just for his beliefs. In Eritrea, people are detained on account of their religious beliefs; some have reportedly died due to torture or lack of medical treatment. We seek the release of all individuals detained or imprisoned because of their beliefs.

Many governments failed to prosecute the perpetrators of crimes motivated by religious animosity, creating a climate of impunity that fueled further discrimination and violence. In Egypt, the government failed to appropriately investigate and prosecute perpetrators and often did not effectively intervene when sectarian violence arose. In Pakistan, religious minorities continue to encounter societal discrimination and violence, and authorities frequently failed to arrest the perpetrators. As sectarian violence claims more lives each year in Pakistan, over 200 Shia were killed in the first two months of this year alone. In Nigeria, elements of the extremist sect Boko Haram claimed the lives of both Christians and Muslims. The government response has involved gross violations of human rights of the civilian population and deepened impunity. Governments must fulfill their responsibility to condemn religious intolerance and bring to justice perpetrators of abuses.

Just last month, I traveled to China, where I pressed government officials to uphold the right to religious freedom for all and stop abusing this universal right. The government restricts the practices of many groups, including Tibetan Buddhists, Uyghur Muslims, unregistered Christian congregations, and Falun Gong practitioners. In 2012, 83 Tibetans chose to self-immolate to protest Chinese policies; the total number is now over 100. We urge governments to protect the rights of all to hold, express, or change their faith without fear.

In Syria, the government targeted faith groups it deemed a “threat,” including members of the country’s Sunni majority and religious minorities. Such targeting included killing, detention, and harassment. Syriac Orthodox archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox archbishop Paul Yazigi were kidnapped April 22 by persons unknown, and remain missing.

Societal intolerance against religious minorities is on the rise. Too often, this intolerance finds expression in acts of violence, vandalism, and desecration. In Iraq, extremists target religious ceremonies, leading people not to attend services out of fear for their safety. Sectarian violence directed at Muslims spread to central Burma in March 2013, resulting in casualties, displacement, and the destruction of places of worship.

Anti-Semitic rhetoric persists in some Middle Eastern media and too often appears in public discourse in some countries in Europe, especially where anti-Semitic parties have gained seats in parliaments. We continue to see violent attacks against Jews in Europe. I look forward to working with my new colleague, Ira Forman, to combat this pernicious problem. Anti-Muslim sentiment and discrimination are evident in places as diverse as Europe and Asia. We call on societies and governments to foster tolerance and hold perpetrators of violence accountable.

We partner with members of the international community to support religious freedom, protect religious minorities, and safeguard freedom of expression. We particularly advocate engaging women and youth on religious freedom, as their voices are a positive force for change.

Violations of religious freedom easily capture the world’s attention. I therefore want to highlight some positive developments that tend to fly under the media radar. Although government restrictions on religious freedom remain in Vietnam, the government took a step forward by allowing large-scale worship services with more than 100,000 participants. Turkey loosened its restrictions on religious attire, allowing female students to wear headscarves in certain religious classes and Islamic schools.

The challenges are daunting, but we remain committed to working tirelessly to ensure religious freedom for all.
I will be happy to take your questions.

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