SECRETARY CLINTON: Good morning, everyone. Here with me today are Michael Posner, our Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Suzan Johnson Cook, our Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, and members of their teams. They will brief you on our efforts to promote religious freedom and will take your questions afterwards.
Before I begin on this important topic, I want to address the situation in Afghanistan, where there was an attack on our Embassy in Kabul today. It appears that a number of Afghan civilians have been hurt, and we, of course, will do all we can to assist them. There are no reports of casualties among Embassy personnel at this time.
We are following this very closely, also the unfolding situation in the area, including at NATO-ISAF Headquarters, which, for those of you have been in Kabul, you know is across the street from our Embassy compound. We will take all necessary steps not only to ensure the safety of our people, but to secure the area and to ensure that those who perpetrated this attack are dealt with.
But I want to say a word about our civilians who serve at our Embassy. It is, of course, State Department diplomats, USAID development experts, but it’s a whole-of-government effort, and there are civilians from across our government who are there with the sole purpose of assisting the people of Afghanistan in a transition toward stability, security, and prosperity.
The civilians who serve are dedicated, brave men and women, committed to advancing our mission. They will not be intimidated by this kind of cowardly attack. While they work hard every day along with their Afghan colleagues to help children go to school, to help save mothers’ lives at childbirth, to build roads, to assist farmers, the opposition of violent extremists, the Taliban and their allies, engage in a constant effort to threaten and to undermine the peace and progress of the Afghan people.
So we will be vigilant, but we will be continuing with even greater commitment to doing all we can to give the Afghan people, who have suffered so much, a chance at a better future for themselves and their children.
Now, as you know, the protection of religious freedom is a fundamental concern of the United States going back to the earliest days of our republic, and it remains so today.
As we look around the world, in fact, we see many countries where governments deny their people the most fundamental human rights: the right to believe according to their own conscience – including the freedom to not believe or not follow the religion favored by their government; the right to practice their religion freely, without risking discrimination, arrest, or violence; and the right to educate their children in their own religious traditions; and the freedom to express their beliefs.
In Iran, authorities continue to repress Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians, Jews, Bahais, Sunnis, Ahmadis, and others who do not share the government’s religious views. In China, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, “house church” Christians all suffer from government attempts to restrict their religious practice. In Eritrea last year, a 43-year-old evangelical Christian died in prison; he was reportedly tortured for 18 months and denied treatment for malaria because he refused to renounce his faith.
Of course, threats to the free exercise of conscience and religion do not always come directly from governments. Just yesterday, we heard reports that gunmen masquerading as security officers waylaid a bus of Shia pilgrims traveling throughout western Iraq. The women were abandoned by the side of the road, but the 22 men were shot, and their bodies left in the middle of the desert. This sort of hateful, senseless violence has no aim other than to undermine the fabric of peaceful society.
In the Middle East and North Africa, the transitions to democracy have inspired the world, but they have also exposed ethnic and religious minorities to new dangers. People have been killed by their own neighbors because of their ethnicity or their faith. In other places, we’ve seen governments stand by while sectarian violence, inflamed by religious animosities, tears communities apart.
Now, the people of the region have taken exciting first steps toward democracy—but if they hope to consolidate their gains, they cannot trade one form of repression for another.
Shining a spotlight on violations of religious freedom around the world, such as those I just mentioned, is one of our goals in releasing this report.
We also call attention to some of the steps being taken to improve religious freedom and promote religious tolerance. One of those is UN Human Rights Council Resolution 1618, which was introduced by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and adopted by consensus in March. It calls on all states to take concrete action against religious bigotry through tolerance, education, government outreach, service projects, and interfaith dialogue. And we worked very hard with a number of nations and with the OIC to pass this resolution, and we will be working with our OIC and European counterparts on implementing it. And Ambassador Johnson Cook is leading our efforts.
We have also seen Turkey take serious steps to improve the climate for religious tolerance. The Turkish Government issued a decree in August that invited non-Muslims to reclaim churches and synagogues that were confiscated 75 years ago. I applaud Prime Minister Erdogan’s very important commitment to doing so. Turkey also now allows women to wear headscarves at universities, which means female students no longer have to choose between their religion and their education.
Third, as we release this report, we reaffirm the role that religious freedom and tolerance play in building stable and harmonious societies. Hatred and intolerance are destabilizing. When governments crack down on religious expression, when politicians or public figures try to use religion as a wedge issue, or when societies fail to take steps to denounce religious bigotry and curb discrimination based on religious identity, they embolden extremists and fuel sectarian strife.
And the reverse is also true: When governments respect religious freedom, when they work with civil society to promote mutual respect, or when they prosecute acts of violence against members of religious minorities, they can help turn down the temperature. They can foster a public aversion to hateful speech without compromising the right to free expression. And in doing so, they create a climate of tolerance that helps make a country more stable, more secure, and more prosperous.
So the United States Government will continue our efforts to support religious freedom. We are engaging with faith groups to address the issues that affect them. Our embassies encourage inter-faith dialogue. And we will speak out against efforts to curtail religious freedom.
Because it is our core conviction that religious tolerance is one of the essential elements not only of a sustainable democracy but of a peaceful society that respects the rights and dignity of each individual. People who have a voice in how they are governed—no matter what their identity or ethnicity or religion—are more likely to have a stake in both their government’s and their society’s success. That is good for stability, for American national security, and for global security.
And with that, let me introduce both our assistant secretary and our ambassador-at-large to come forward. Thank you all very much.
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, could you just – do you have anything that – can you tell us anything about your understanding of what’s going on in Iran with the hikers and President Ahmadinejad saying that they might be able – that they will be free?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, Matt, as you know, we have followed this very closely. And we are encouraged by what the Iranian Government has said today, but I am not going to comment further than that. We obviously hope that we will see a positive outcome from what appears to be a decision by the government.
QUESTION: Thank you.
Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998. The legislation affirms America’s commitment to religious freedom, enshrined both in the United States Constitution and in numerous international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The International Religious Freedom Act (The Act) acknowledges the pressure and persecution that many around the world face because of their religious beliefs and requires the President to take a series of steps toward the protection and promotion of freedom of religion.
The Act establishes the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department and instructs the President to appoint an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom to head the office and advise the Secretary of State and the President on issues related to international religious freedom. The Ambassador is also responsible for providing information related to religious freedom to be included in the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (Human Rights Reports) and preparing a separate Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (International Religious Freedom Report (IRFR)). The IRFR describes the status of religious freedom in every country, highlights trends and violations, and details the actions that the United States government is taking to improve freedom of religion.
The legislation also establishes the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which is composed of the Ambassador and nine additional experts, three each appointed by the President, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Member of the USCIRF are responsible for reviewing the HRR and IRFR and for making policy recommendations to the Secretary and the President in relation to freedom of religion around the globe. The USCIRF also prepares an annual report.
The International Religious Freedom Act provides the President with a number of options to use in addressing “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC), those countries that have committed or allowed the commission of particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The President is responsible for identifying the source of the violation, consulting with the government in the offending country and other governments in order to coordinate an international response, and reporting to Congress. In addressing the CPCs, the President’s options include: demarches; private or public condemnation; the denial, delay or cancellation of scientific or cultural exchanges; the cancellation of a state visit; the withdrawal or limitation of humanitarian or security assistance; and the restriction of credit or loans from United States and multilateral organizations.