(As prepared for delivery at the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, Session 2)
As President Obama has affirmed, “The United States stands with those who advocate for free religious expression and works to protect the rights of all people to follow their conscience, free from persecution and discrimination. We bear witness to those who are persecuted or attacked because of their faith.” Like other fundamental rights, the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief belongs to people by virtue of their humanity, and this right is inalienable. This right also includes the right not to believe.
Moreover, this right is inherently connected with other human rights, such as the freedoms of association, assembly, and expression. Accordingly, violations of this right should give rise to concern. Participating States are obligated to respect it, and to ensure the conditions for its free expression. Such protections will benefit the people of every nation, and will make the countries where these rights are guaranteed more, not less, secure.
Opportunities for interaction among people of diverse religions or beliefs have reached unprecedented levels, and are contributing to an increasing awareness and mutual understanding.
This helps all of us better protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief. States that create an inclusive environment for people with different views will be able to harness the talents and resources of all their citizens to help meet compelling challenges within communities, at the national level, and within the world community.
Today, we see the various means by which States curtail the free exercise of this right despite the considerable body of related OSCE commitments. As a result, the space for religious observance and expression in many OSCE countries is shrinking.
Onerous registration requirements often lie at the core of restrictive laws on religion, and we encourage the governments of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan to repeal or amend these laws.
We are also troubled by a trend toward new restrictive laws on religion in a number of countries. In Azerbaijan, unregistered religious worship remains illegal. Many groups have been denied registration or are still pending registration for more than 18 months after the deadline for applying for registration. Hungary’s new religion law, adopted on July 12 after a midnight debate, will de-register more than 300 previously registered faiths when it goes into effect next January; new requests for registration are subject to a two-thirds vote of the parliament. We urge that Hungary’s framework for religious freedom be brought into conformity with OSCE commitments.
Kazakhstan’s government is considering a similar law that would make all religious organizations re-register, impose compulsory censorship, and require government approval to open a new place of worship. We encourage Kazakhstan to reject or modify the proposed legislation, and to amend its religion law to remove existing penalties for engaging in peaceful, non-violent but unregistered religious activity.
Individuals in Uzbekistan engaged in religious activities outside of those approved by the authorities are subject to harassment, raids, fines and confiscation of religious materials—as well as imprisonment. Missionary activity is illegal. The law criminalizes unregistered religious activity and bans the production and distribution of unofficial religious publications. Minors are restricted from participating in religious organizations. In addition, criminal charges of belonging to specific banned religious groups considered “extremist” may be brought even when such groups have not engaged in violence. As a result, the U.S. government has again designated Uzbekistan a “country of particular concern.”
In Azerbaijan, there are burdensome registration requirements for religious groups; we urge the government to reform its registration system for religious groups to ensure that the system is fair, transparent, and timely. In addition, those who engage in innocuous religious activity without the permission of the government may be subjected to massive fines. Authorities reportedly monitored and raided some religious services, confiscated religious materials, and harassed and detained members of Muslim and Christian groups. The government has also banned the wearing of the hijab in schools and universities. We also encourage Azerbaijan to allow mosques to be finished or re-opened.
In Russia, use of extremism laws against non-violent religious minorities remains an ongoing concern. Russian prosecutors have filed numerous cases under Russia’s Law on Counteracting Extremism, which has resulted in the banning of religious literature produced by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, and followers of Said Nursi and Falun Gong. Even when these groups have court decisions in their favor, authorities are slow to act. The failure of Moscow authorities to allow the reopening of a Jehovah’s Witnesses branch is just one such example. We encourage Russia to avoid applying anti-extremism laws to nonviolent minority religious groups.
In like manner, vague anti-terrorism and extremism laws in a number of countries like Russia and Uzbekistan are being used as a means to frustrate, if not eliminate, the religious activities of certain groups by mislabeling them as “dangerous sectarian,” “extremist,” or “terrorist” organizations.
Tajikistan has passed legislation over the past couple of years strictly controlling religious practice in the country. Prayer is allowed only in designated places, and women are not allowed to pray in a mosque. Most recently, Tajikistan has imposed restrictions on religious activity by young people. In particular, the Parental Responsibility Law, which prohibits minors from participating in the activities of religious associations, is fundamentally incompatible with OSCE commitments, as are restrictions on the importation and distribution of religious publications.
The United States is alarmed at the increase of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the OSCE region and elsewhere, and we urge OSCE participating States to speak out and address it.
We must learn the lessons of the past to prevent the growth of hatred and discrimination. We commend Lithuania for its Holocaust education program, and urge other countries to reinvigorate such efforts. The increase in anti-Semitic acts in the OSCE region such as defacing property and desecrating cemeteries with anti-Semitic graffiti, along with Holocaust denial and Holocaust glorification is most disturbing.
Even among countries who generally respect religious freedom, and with whom we rarely have disagreements in this area, we occasionally identify issues worthy of note. The banning of head and face coverings in countries such as Belgium and France, and other participating States that may be moving to ban religious attire, such as Italy, violates the right of individuals to determine the practice of their faith. As President Obama has stated, “it is important for … countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit—for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear.”
Ethnic and religious groups working together is the best way to move a culture from fear and negative stereotyping to acceptance and understanding; from narrow mindedness to an embrace of diversity; from hate to tolerance. We must not only confront intolerance, we must actively promote tolerance.
Finally, the efforts to ban ritual slaughter of animals in line with Kosher and Halal guidelines have the effect, intended or unintended, of curbing Jewish and Muslim religious practices and therefore infringe on religious freedom. We encourage all countries which may be contemplating such a ban to reconsider and to recognize that it is a barrier to religious expression and practice.
Conscientious objectors in several participating States have languished in prison for years as the price for following the dictates of their consciences. I would note the ruling of the the European Court of Human Rights, in the case of Bayatyan v. Armenia. The right to conscientious objection to compulsory military service flows directly from the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, and we hope Armenia will amend its 2009 law to address the concerns that have been raised. We urge Armenia to release the 68 conscientious objectors currently in prison and to amend its laws in line with its OSCE commitments to prevent further imprisonment of conscientious objectors. We also urge Turkmenistan, Turkey, and Azerbaijan to bring their laws and policies into conformity with OSCE standards.
We are heartened by the Turkish government’s decree of August 27 to return or compensate for properties confiscated from religious communities over the last 75 years. We also commend the Turkish government for returning the Buyukada Orphanage to the Ecumenical Patriarchate earlier this year. I would note that at the Belgrade meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in July, the issue of the Halki seminary was raised. The United States reiterates its call for the Government of Turkey to allow the reopening of the Theological School at Halki four decades after its forced closure by the authorities. We also urge Turkey to amend the 1982 military-drafted constitution to provide full legal status and rights for Turkey’s religious minorities.
As Secretary Clinton said earlier this month as she released the International Religious Freedom Report, “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.”
We call on all members of the OSCE to uphold their international commitments to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, remains essential to the security of the OSCE region and the world community. Let us all take greater steps to protect this right—a right at the core of human dignity.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Thank you. Good morning, everybody. As you know, the State Department is mandated by law to produce this report each year. The Secretary of State also designates Countries of Particular Concern, countries whose governments have, and I quote the statute, “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
Secretary Clinton has designated eight states as Countries of Particular Concern. They are: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. All of these countries have been long-term, chronic, and egregious violators of religious freedom. The report documents in full detail the violations that have prompted these designations.
In Burma, for example, hundreds of Buddhist monks are still in prison, and the government refuses to recognize that the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, are Burmese citizens.
In China, the government’s overall level of respect for religious freedom declined in 2010 and has worsened this year. The repression of Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims continues.
In Iran, members of the Baha’i are arrested, expelled from university, and their leaders languish in prison.
Saudi Arabia prohibits the public practice of any religion other than Islam, and the government discriminates against the Shia minority.
And in Uzbekistan, it’s illegal to proselytize; and it’s dangerous for a Muslim even to discuss religious issues outside of a state-sanctioned mosque.
These and many other violations in the eight Countries of Particular Concern are spelled out in great detail in the reports. But I want to emphasize that the list is by no means the only measure of serious violations of religious freedom. In a significant number of other countries, we are also closely monitoring official repression of religious minorities or official indifference to their plight, and urging governments to uphold their affirmative obligations to protect religious freedom. Let me mention a few.
We are deeply concerned about the fate of Christians in Syria. Many of these people have been victimized twice: they fled the violence in Iraq and now many are seeking to flee Syria. The government has created a climate of instability and violence in which the human rights of thousands are being violated on a daily basis.
In Pakistan, the government has not reformed a blasphemy law that has been used to prosecute religious minorities and, in some cases, Muslims who promote tolerance or to settle personal vendettas. This year, there have also been several assassinations of those who called for reform of the blasphemy laws, including the Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for minorities, whom Secretary Clinton and I met in February before he was killed.
The Government of Pakistan has taken steps to address these rising concerns. For example, in March, Shahbaz Bhatti’s brother, Paul, was appointed a special advisor on religious minorities to the prime minister. In July, the government also created a ministry of national harmony, which will have oversight for protecting religious minorities at a national level. And in August, President Zardari celebrated National Minorities Day and committed his government to support protection of minority religious rights.
We will continue to engage with the Government of Pakistan to address these issues, to promote tolerance, and to improve religious freedom.
In Iraq, religious minorities and Shia pilgrims have been the targets of devastating attacks since 2003. Last October, more than 50 worshipers were killed in an attack on Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad. We welcome the fact that the Government of Iraq has tried and convicted the perpetrators of that attack, but the tragic massacre of the Shia pilgrims that Secretary Clinton mentioned that came to light yesterday indicates that there is more work to be done.
In Vietnam, the record is mixed. While the government has allowed hundreds of new places of worship to be built, significant problems remain, especially at the provincial and village levels. These include slow or no approval of registration for some groups, especially in the north and northwest highlands. There are also reports of harsh treatment of detainees after the protest over the closing of a Catholic cemetery in Con Dau Parish. And the government re-imprisoned Father Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic human rights defender who has been paroled 16 months earlier after suffering a series of strokes while in prison.
In Egypt, tensions between Christians and Muslims continue. For example, in January, a bomb at the Church of Two Saints in Alexandria killed 22 people. After the fall of the Mubarak government in February, soldiers fired on unarmed Copts at the Saint Bishoy Monastery, wounding six. And in May, clashes between Muslims and Christians in Imbaba left 15 dead, 232 injured.
In response to the Imbaba clashes, military leader Marshall Tantawi issued a strongly worded public condemnation of sectarian attacks, and 48 suspects have been referred for trial. Prime Minister Sharaf has ordered 17 churches be allowed to reopen across Egypt.
We will continue to call on the government to pass a unified law which would set one single, unified standard for building houses of worship that would apply both to Christians and Muslims. And we stand ready to support political, religious, and civic leaders in Egypt as they work to build a new society where democracy and religious tolerance can flourish.
In these and other places, we will continue to review and assess the state of religious freedom, and we are prepared to designate other countries as Countries of Particular Concern as the situation warrants.
Finally, I would urge leaders of all these nations and civil society groups as well to use this report as a resource to help identify and address violations of religious freedom. We stand ready to help.
Now it’s my pleasure to introduce Suzan Johnson Cook, who is the ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom.
AMBASSADOR COOK: Thank you, Mike. And good morning. It is a privilege to be with all of you today as we release this important report. I was sworn in on May 16th after a long haul to get here, but it was worth the wait. Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to work with people of different faiths to bring them together to achieve common goals. It is my belief that in order to live peacefully side by side, we cannot allow violence based on religion to continue under any circumstances.
In my first months in the Office of International Religious Freedom, I’ve met with inter-faith leaders from Switzerland, Turkey, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, OIC. And I’m working with my colleagues in the U.S. Government and the religious community to address systemic challenges to religious intolerance.
As the Secretary said in her remarks last week, too many countries in the world today do not allow people to exercise their religious freedom, or they make it difficult or dangerous to do so. So as hard as it may be, we need to get up every day and keep trying to make a difference. The International Religious Freedom Report we’re releasing today is one way to do that. It shines a spotlight on this fundamental human rights issue and guides our policy making. The report is the work of my dedicated and talented staff in the International Religious Freedom Office who have put in long hours, as have all our missions overseas and others here in Washington, to verify that this report is comprehensive, accurate, and fair.
I would also like to thank the hundreds of activists and academics who regularly provide us with reporting and analysis, sometimes at great personal risk.
This year, we are publishing the report on our website, www.humanrights.gov. Humanrights.gov is now the one-step location for all our human rights reporting, and we’re updating it every day with other State Department statements, speeches, and materials.
This report covers every country, every faith, and myriad forms of harassment, persecution, and abuse on the basis of religion. We hope it will prompt other countries to redouble their efforts to create an environment where citizens can freely follow their faith or profess no faith, according to their own conscience.
In some cases we spotlight government violations of the right to religious freedom, and in other cases we call out governments that are not doing enough to stop violence by some citizens against others. Sadly, the list is long. So I urge all of you to read the Executive Summary, where we have distilled in just a few pages the state of religious freedom in 2010. Obviously, a great deal has happened since the end of 2010, including the upheaval in the Middle East and an uptick in sectarian violence there. So we’ve included a summary of key developments around the world in 2011.
We also used shoe leather diplomacy, where at the State Department, we call engagement. It’s going to countries and talking to government officials, religious leaders, educators, human rights activists, journalists, young people, and others about how to combat hatred and religious persecution. So I’m going to be hitting the road in the fall. I hope to visit a number of countries that face challenges in protecting religious freedom, including Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
And the third way we make a difference is by spotlighting examples of where things are going right. So I also plan to travel to countries that are doing the hard work of resolving religious animosities and taking practical steps to guarantee religious freedom to all their citizens. In July, I went with Secretary Clinton to Istanbul for a meeting on combating religious intolerance. As the lead U.S. coordinator for the implementation of the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 1618, which she referred to this morning, I’m eager to work with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and others, other partners to discuss best practices and exchange ideas on how to best protect freedom of religion.
I will convene a meeting of experts later this year, with participants from around the world and from a wide variety of faiths and religions. We’ll talk about how to counter offensive expression through education, interfaith dialogue, and public debate and how to prohibit discrimination, profiling, and hate crimes. And we will share ways of combating hate without compromising the universal right to free expression, because everyone must have the right to believe as well as the right to manifest their belief.
So I want to thank you for coming this morning, and Assistant Secretary Posner and I will be happy to take your questions. Thank you.
MR. TONER: Any questions? Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have two questions regarding China. The first is, according to CECC, the Congressional and Executive Commission on China – according to their reports, Beijing had launched a new round of a campaign since the year 2010 to year 2012 that says calling for increased transformation of Falun Gong practitioners. So I’m wondering if you have been aware of this persecution, this continued persecution?
And the second question is: Recently, China is trying to amend their criminal procedure law, and if this is adopted, it would expand the police power and it may authorize the forced disappearance. So what’s your comments on that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Sure. Let me just put those two questions in a slightly broader context. We’ve said repeatedly that we have concerns about what really has been a deteriorating human rights situation, especially since February of this year. I was in China in April for the human rights dialogue. We raised a number of these issues publicly. And the specific question you raised with the Falun Gong is part of a broader pattern. We have concerns about the treatment of those who are in unregistered churches, so-called house churches – the Shouwang Church, for example, in Beijing, where beginning around Easter time people were not allowed to gather, and a number of the leaders of that church were put in prison. We have concerns about the Uighur community and the restrictions on Muslim religion. We have concerns about the Tibetan community, the Kirti Monastery, where 300 monks were taken from the monastery and detained.
So there is a broader pattern of religious and other persecution that’s part of a broader human rights problem. I also would call out the case of Gao Zhisheng, a lawyer who has represented religious communities and who’s been missing since April of 2010.
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Two questions, one just to follow on China. As far as religious freedom in China, you say you’ve been visiting China and meeting officials and all that. One, what answer to you get from them as far as their – not their belief or not believe, but how they prosecute people because of their faith, especially people from Tibetans and Buddhists are still in jails and we don’t know – you may not know how many of them. And every day they go to jail because of their belief in God or what they worship. So what do you hear from them year after a year? This report comes and you meet and greet here and there and all that.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I take the view – first of all, we will continue to raise these issues in China and elsewhere because they’re universal norms, they apply to every country in the world, and there is an obligation of every government to respect those norms. We have continuous discussions as part of a broader engagement with China, but these issues are an important part of that dialogue.
And I can’t tell you that every time I’ve had a conversation, we’ve agreed or had satisfying results, but I do believe that raising these issues both publicly and privately serves a number of purposes. It provides assurance to people in the country that we’re paying attention; we know what’s going on. It reinforces their commitment to move – to continue working. And in some cases, we have been able to get results like releases or better conditions. We’ll continue to press, even if some of the discussions are difficult.
QUESTION: My other question is on overall religious freedom. Let’s say – I’ve been going through this report and also what you said and Secretary said, as far as in Pakistan and also Saudi Arabia. And including in the U.S. or in Saudi Arabia or in Pakistan, if you go in the mosques, the teachings are not about their religion. Their teachings is basically hatred against other religions in the mosques. And also, in Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs and Christians are under attack more and more as you go through the last year’s report. But government officials have not taken any steps against those, even including reading these thirteen lines on Pakistan.
And so Pakistan is like an open society in many ways and friends of the United States and ally. And also on comparing with Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, it may be a different story because in Saudi Arabia, they don’t allow any non-Muslims to practice anything. But in Pakistan, it’s a different society. But still, why is there – Pakistan has not been taken care of or taking any steps against those who persecute other religious people?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I think what I said in my opening comments – we are, as your comments suggest, or your question – we are concerned about the blasphemy law, about the intolerance in Pakistan, about the murder of Minister Bhatti and Governor Taseer.
At the same time, the government has in the last several months taken a few positive steps, and we’re working with the government on the assumption that these issues need to be addressed. We are – we work with the government on a range of things. This is an important subject. And the increasing extremism in that society, I think, is worrying to everybody.
So we are very mindful of the things you raise in both Pakistan and in Saudi Arabia, and these are issues that we’re very attentive to and will be more so.
QUESTION: One more quickly, if you don’t mind.
MR. TONER: Come on, let’s give – Goyal, let’s give some other people a chance. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. You mentioned engagement as a way of promoting religious tolerance in different countries. What about the countries where you don’t have access to, where you don’t have any relations, you don’t have presence such as Iran, for example?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, we are obviously very frustrated by a number of things in Iran, including the continued harassment of the Baha’i. There were seven Baha’i leaders who were sentenced to 20 years in jail. The government then reduced it to 10 and now they’ve upped it again to 20 years. There are eight leaders of one of the Baha’i schools of higher education that are being put on trial. People – Baha’i kids can’t go to the regular universities. So there’s a range of things, not only the Baha’i but other minority communities.
We’ve raised these issues, we continue raising these issues. We have, obviously, a difficult relationship with that government or North Korea, other places that are on the list. But I think it is, again, important for us to be clear about the facts, to hold every government to the same standard. It does reinforce people in those societies who understand and know that the United States Government is listening and paying attention.
QUESTION: Resolutions have also been passed in Geneva, but even they apparently have not had any effect. Is there any other mechanism through which you can get to these countries, such countries?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I think with respect to Iran in particular, there is now a special rapporteur that’s focused on Iran who’s just beginning his work, and I think that will also play a useful role. It’s not just the United States. It’s the global community. The Human Rights Council selected that individual. And we’re now going to see whether the government lets him in, and if – and what kind of a report he produces and then what the reaction is.
But again, I think there’s a drumbeat and there’s a growing view in this world that these issues of human rights and religious freedom are part of what’s expected of every government in the global community.
QUESTION: Is the OIC itself helpful at all? It’s Islamic.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I think, again – and Sujay can speak to this as well, I hope – and will – I think the OIC has helped us change the discussion, which was a very negative discussion of defamation which was at the Human Rights Council for a decade or so. We were debating endlessly a Pakistan and OIC-promoted resolution that really pitted us against some of the Islamic countries because it focused on ways to restrict free speech. Our view is that free speech and promoting religious tolerance and harmony are consistent.
And so what the OIC secretary general has done – and Sujay and Secretary Clinton were with him in Istanbul – is to talk about an alternative, this 1618 resolution which has now been adopted by the UN, which says let’s go at the problem of religious discrimination, religious intolerance, affirmatively, let’s find some practical ways forward. And he’s listed about a dozen of them. Those are useful things, and that’s partly what we need to be focusing on, an affirmative agenda.
AMBASSADOR COOK: And the resolution that was achieved was the result of 10 years worth of work, and so it’s an ongoing effort. Where we’re now at is the implementation stage. And so Istanbul was a successful trip, and we’re going forward with my hosting the experts in December here at the Secretary’s invitation. So it’s ongoing, and so we will not let it go. Thank you.
QUESTION: Hi. I wanted to ask you about Israel. There’s issues of Christians and Muslims being able to worship freely, and also there has been several attacks on mosques in the West Bank. Have you been speaking to the Israeli Government about this? How much responsibility do they hold in trying to protect as an occupying power?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We do speak to the Israeli Government about this and a range of other human rights issues. I’ve been myself particularly involved since the Goldstone Report in dealing with some of the issues of humanitarian access, et cetera, in the context of a UN resolution. But I would say – I think to put this in a broader frame, at the center of a lot of the tensions in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza is the absence of a peace process, of a peace process that’s yielding a two-state solution. That’s what we favor. A lot will be – a lot of human rights issues are going to be dealt with much more directly and easily once we have that process up and running and once we get a result.
QUESTION: Thank you. And could you comment on the situation on religious freedom in Georgia in general? And also, I was wondering if you would give us some more details about Uzbekistan, the only former Soviet state that appeared in CPC list? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I don’t have anything, I think, to add to what’s in the report on Georgia. With respect to Uzbekistan, we have had a set of – I’ve been to Uzbekistan twice. We had a – my colleague, Tom Melia, was part of a bilateral dialogue that occurred last week here with the Government of Uzbekistan. And one of the things he raised, and Ambassador Blake, is the issue of religious freedom. We continue to have concerns about both restrictions on the ability of religion – religious groups, unregistered groups to participate, to operate openly. I met with a number of religious figures when I was last there who had church services disrupted, some religious leaders arrested. So there really is an ongoing problem there, and we are eager to work with the government to try to improve that record.
MR. TONER: Last question. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Hitting Pakistan again, I wondered if you see any progress on the blasphemy law and whether you considered adding it as a CPC.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We certainly consider adding any country, and there – and we are very mindful, as I said in my opening comments, about the both misuse of the blasphemy law, the fact that it’s been applied so often, and the fact that some people have been – have received severe sentences as a result of it.
We are going to continue to work with the government. We’ve seen some positive steps in the last few months. But I think the message here is we have great concern about the overall situation of extremism and intolerance in Pakistan, and we stand ready to work with the government to try to address that.
MR. TONER: Thank you all.
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.
Countries of Particular Concern
Burma [ PDF version ]
China (Includes Tibet, Hong Kong, Macau) [ PDF version ]
Eritrea [ PDF version ]
Iran [ PDF version ]
Korea, Democratic People’s Republic of [ PDF version ]
Saudi Arabia [ PDF version ]
Sudan [ PDF version ]
Uzbekistan [ PDF version ]
Angola [ PDF version ]
Benin [ PDF version ]
Botswana [ PDF version ]
Burkina Faso [ PDF version ]
Burundi [ PDF version ]
Cameroon [ PDF version ]
Cape Verde [ PDF version ]
Central African Republic [ PDF version ]
Chad [ PDF version ]
Comoros [ PDF version ]
Congo, Democratic Republic of the [ PDF version ]
Congo, Republic of the [ PDF version ]
Cote d’Ivoire [ PDF version ]
Djibouti [ PDF version ]
Equatorial Guinea [ PDF version ]
Eritrea [ PDF version ]
Ethiopia [ PDF version ]
Gabon [ PDF version ]
Gambia, The [ PDF version ]
Ghana [ PDF version ]
Guinea [ PDF version ]
Guinea-Bissau [ PDF version ]
Kenya [ PDF version ]
Lesotho [ PDF version ]
Liberia [ PDF version ]
Madagascar [ PDF version ]
Malawi [ PDF version ]
Mali [ PDF version ]
Mauritania [ PDF version ]
Mauritius [ PDF version ]
Mozambique [ PDF version ]
Namibia [ PDF version ]
Niger [ PDF version ]
Nigeria [ PDF version ]
Rwanda [ PDF version ]
Sao Tome and Principe [ PDF version ]
Senegal [ PDF version ]
Seychelles [ PDF version ]
Sierra Leone [ PDF version ]
Somalia [ PDF version ]
South Africa [ PDF version ]
Sudan [ PDF version ]
Swaziland [ PDF version ]
Tanzania [ PDF version ]
Togo [ PDF version ]
Uganda [ PDF version ]
Zambia [ PDF version ]
Zimbabwe [ PDF version ]
East Asia and Pacific
Australia [ PDF version ]
Brunei [ PDF version ]
Burma [ PDF version ]
Cambodia [ PDF version ]
China (Includes Tibet, Hong Kong, Macau) [ PDF version ]
Fiji [ PDF version ]
Indonesia [ PDF version ]
Japan [ PDF version ]
Kiribati [ PDF version ]
Korea, Democratic People’s Republic of [ PDF version ]
Korea, Republic of [ PDF version ]
Laos [ PDF version ]
Malaysia [ PDF version ]
Marshall Islands [ PDF version ]
Micronesia, Federated States of [ PDF version ]
Mongolia [ PDF version ]
Nauru [ PDF version ]
New Zealand [ PDF version ]
Palau [ PDF version ]
Papua New Guinea [ PDF version ]
Philippines [ PDF version ]
Samoa [ PDF version ]
Singapore [ PDF version ]
Solomon Islands [ PDF version ]
Taiwan [ PDF version ]
Thailand [ PDF version ]
Timor-Leste [ PDF version ]
Tonga [ PDF version ]
Tuvalu [ PDF version ]
Vanuatu [ PDF version ]
Vietnam [ PDF version ]
Europe and Eurasia
Albania [ PDF version ]
Andorra [ PDF version ]
Armenia [ PDF version ]
Austria [ PDF version ]
Azerbaijan [ PDF version ]
Belarus [ PDF version ]
Belgium [ PDF version ]
Bosnia and Herzegovina [ PDF version ]
Bulgaria [ PDF version ]
Croatia [ PDF version ]
Cyprus [ PDF version ]
Czech Republic [ PDF version ]
Denmark [ PDF version ]
Estonia [ PDF version ]
Finland [ PDF version ]
France [ PDF version ]
Georgia [ PDF version ]
Germany [ PDF version ]
Greece [ PDF version ]
Hungary [ PDF version ]
Iceland [ PDF version ]
Ireland [ PDF version ]
Italy [ PDF version ]
Kosovo [ PDF version ]
Latvia [ PDF version ]
Liechtenstein [ PDF version ]
Lithuania [ PDF version ]
Luxembourg [ PDF version ]
Macedonia [ PDF version ]
Malta [ PDF version ]
Moldova [ PDF version ]
Monaco [ PDF version ]
Montenegro [ PDF version ]
Netherlands [ PDF version ]
Norway [ PDF version ]
Poland [ PDF version ]
Portugal [ PDF version ]
Russia [ PDF version ]
San Marino [ PDF version ]
Serbia [ PDF version ]
Slovak Republic [ PDF version ]
Slovenia [ PDF version ]
Spain [ PDF version ]
Sweden [ PDF version ]
Switzerland [ PDF version ]
Turkey [ PDF version ]
Ukraine [ PDF version ]
United Kingdom [ PDF version ]
Near East and North Africa
Algeria [ PDF version ]
Bahrain [ PDF version ]
Egypt [ PDF version ]
Iran [ PDF version ]
Iraq [ PDF version ]
Israel and the Occupied Territories [ PDF version ]
Jordan [ PDF version ]
Kuwait [ PDF version ]
Lebanon [ PDF version ]
Libya [ PDF version ]
Morocco [ PDF version ]
Oman [ PDF version ]
Qatar [ PDF version ]
Saudi Arabia [ PDF version ]
Syria [ PDF version ]
Tunisia [ PDF version ]
United Arab Emirates [ PDF version ]
Western Sahara [ PDF version ]
Yemen [ PDF version ]
South and Central Asia
Afghanistan [ PDF version ]
Bangladesh [ PDF version ]
Bhutan [ PDF version ]
India [ PDF version ]
Kazakhstan [ PDF version ]
Kyrgyz Republic [ PDF version ]
Maldives [ PDF version ]
Nepal [ PDF version ]
Pakistan [ PDF version ]
Sri Lanka [ PDF version ]
Tajikistan [ PDF version ]
Turkmenistan [ PDF version ]
Uzbekistan [ PDF version ]
Antigua and Barbuda [ PDF version ]
Argentina [ PDF version ]
Bahamas [ PDF version ]
Barbados [ PDF version ]
Belize [ PDF version ]
Bolivia [ PDF version ]
Brazil [ PDF version ]
Canada [ PDF version ]
Chile [ PDF version ]
Colombia [ PDF version ]
Costa Rica [ PDF version ]
Cuba [ PDF version ]
Dominica [ PDF version ]
Dominican Republic [ PDF version ]
Ecuador [ PDF version ]
El Salvador [ PDF version ]
Grenada [ PDF version ]
Guatemala [ PDF version ]
Guyana [ PDF version ]
Haiti [ PDF version ]
Honduras [ PDF version ]
Jamaica [ PDF version ]
Mexico [ PDF version ]
Nicaragua [ PDF version ]
Panama [ PDF version ]
Paraguay [ PDF version ]
Peru [ PDF version ]
St. Kitts and Nevis [ PDF version ]
St. Lucia [ PDF version ]
St. Vincent and the Grenadines [ PDF version ]
Suriname [ PDF version ]
Trinidad and Tobago [ PDF version ]
Uruguay [ PDF version ]
Venezuela [ PDF version ]
Appendix A: Universal Declaration of Human Rights [ PDF version ]
Appendix B: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ PDF version ]
Appendix C: The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief [ PDF version ]
Appendix D: Regional Organizations’ Religious Freedom Commitments [ PDF version ]
Appendix E: Training at the Foreign Service Institute Related to the International Religious Freedom Act [ PDF version ]
Appendix F: Department of Homeland Security and the International Religious Freedom Act [ PDF version ]
Appendix G: Overview of U.S. Refugee Policy [ PDF version ]
Countries of Particular Concern or “CPC” as Designated in the International Religious Freedom Report; Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook; Washington, DC
Promoting Respect and Tolerance for International Religious Freedom; Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook; Washington, DC
Remarks at the Release of the 13th Annual Report on International Religious Freedom; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Washington, DC
Remarks on the International Religious Freedom Report; Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook; Washington, DC
Remarks on the Release of the International Religious Freedom Report; Assistant Secretary Michael H. Posner, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; Washington, DC
The Office of International Religious Freedom has the mission of promoting religious freedom as a core objective of U.S. foreign policy. The office is headed by Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook. We monitor religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, recommend and implement policies in respective regions or countries, and develop programs to promote religious freedom.
Given the U.S. commitment to religious freedom, and to the international covenants that guarantee it as the inalienable right of every human being, the United States seeks to:
Promote freedom of religion and conscience throughout the world as a fundamental human right and as a source of stability for all countries;
Assist emerging democracies in implementing freedom of religion and conscience;
Assist religious and human rights NGOs in promoting religious freedom;
Identify and denounce regimes that are severe persecutors on the basis of religious belief.
The office carries out its mission through:
The Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. The report contains an introduction, executive summary, and a chapter describing the status of religious freedom in each of 195 countries throughout the world. Mandated by, and presented to, the U.S. Congress, the report is a public document available online and in book form from the U.S. Government Printing Office.
The designation by the Secretary of State (under authority delegated by the President) of nations guilty of particularly severe violations of religious freedom as “Countries of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (H.R. 2431) and its amendment of 1999 (Public Law 106-55). Nations so designated are subject to further actions, including economic sanctions, by the United States.
Meetings with foreign government officials at all levels, as well as religious and human rights groups in the United States and abroad, to address problems of religious freedom.
Testimony before the United States Congress on issues of international religious freedom.
Close cooperation with the independent United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Sponsorship of reconciliation programs in disputes which divide groups along lines of religious identity. The office seeks to support NGOs that are promoting reconciliation in such disputes.
Programs of outreach to American religious communities.
For information on religious freedom in the United States please check the website of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, which publishes a newsletter, Religious Freedom in Focus, covering cases involving religious freedom around the United States. In addition a number of NGOs who monitor human rights issues around the world also report on conditions in the United States
Ambassador Johnson Cook’s Remarks at the OHCHR Panel on ‘Combating Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief”
Good afternoon. First, let me express my sincere appreciation to the Office of the High Commissioner in arranging for this panel and for the privilege of addressing you on the topic of “Combating Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.” I welcome the opportunity to raise awareness and discuss actions that the international community can take to implement the action-oriented approach laid out in the consensus resolution that called for this panel.
I am here in my capacity as the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have honored me with this appointment and I will work assiduously within the Department of State, our Embassies and Missions abroad and our interagency community to devise and implement strategies that will constructively address systemic challenges to religious freedom and religious intolerance around the world. While serious problems exist, we also see areas of opportunity for a sustained campaign to implement worldwide the actions called for in the consensus approach to combat intolerance, discrimination, and violence.
President Obama has made clear that it is in the interest of security and stability worldwide to ensure fundamental freedoms for people of all backgrounds and all faiths to understand that religious freedom is a universal human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) and protected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
States have tools at their disposal to combat religious intolerance; in many cases what is needed is the political will to use them. Governments need to develop robust legal protections to address acts of discrimination against individuals and bias-inspired violent crimes. Each country should determine if it has laws on the books that allow it to prosecute individuals who discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring, access to public accommodation and other aspects of public life, or who commit violence on that basis. Each country should determine if it has a capable and dedicated band of investigators and prosecutors to enforce such laws. Even more importantly, leaders in government, politics, religion, business and the rest of society must stand ready to condemn hateful ideology; and to vigorously defend the rights of individuals to practice their religion freely and exercise their freedom of expression. Leaders who remain silent are contributing to the problem and should be held politically accountable. Let me give some examples drawn from practice in the United States.
Combating Discrimination through robust legal protections:
The U.S. Department of Justice is the primary institution responsible for enforcing federal statutes that prohibit discrimination or acts of violence and intimidation on the basis of race, national origin, and religion. Bias-inspired violent crimes are prosecuted to the fullest extent of federal law for especially severe punishment. Each state in the United States has similar legal protections and entities responsible for enforcing them.
After the September 11th attacks, the Justice Department implemented an initiative to combat “backlash” crimes involving violence and threats at individuals who are or who are perceived to be Arab, Muslim, Sikh, or South Asian. This initiative has investigated more than 700 bias motivated incidents since September 11, 2001. The Justice Department has obtained 34 federal convictions and assisted local law enforcement in bringing more than 160 such criminal prosecutions.
Personal religious belief is protected in almost all of the federal United States civil rights statutes enforced by the Department of Justice, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits religious discrimination against individuals in employment, public accommodations, and other sectors.
Condemn Hateful Ideology and Outreach to Affected Groups:
Legal safeguards are essential, but it is better to create a climate that seeks to prevent discrimination and violence before it happens, than to punish after the fact. This requires the commitment and courage of political and societal leaders. For example, in the immediate aftermath of September 11th, former President Bush and Congressional leaders from both parties visited mosques and engaged in other visible interactions with members of the Muslim community precisely to build solidarity with them and to counter efforts to blame all adherents of a Islam for the actions of a violent extremist group. When an extremist pastor in Florida threatened to, and then burned a Quran, President Obama and political leaders from both parties condemned his behavior and rallied religious and social leaders to do the same. His behavior is publicly reviled and rebuked by virtually the entire society. The result has been that you can count on your fingers the number of supporters Pastor Terry Jones has in our country.
It would be a productive exercise for political leaders around the world to review their own reaction to similar events in their countries and ask whether they have used their own leadership skills to make such behavior unattractive to all but the most anti-social individuals.
The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department engages in extensive outreach to address September 11th backlash-related civil rights issues, by providing speakers at national and regional conventions and other community events, and hosting a bi-monthly meeting that brings together community leaders with officials from a variety of federal agencies to comprehensively address civil rights issues.
The United States Department of Homeland Security also works to improve the cultural competency of its personnel and leads training for Federal, State, and local law enforcement on effective policing without ethnic or racial profiling; best practices related to community engagement; and misconceptions and stereotypes of Islam and Muslims, for example.
President Obama has emphasized the importance of interfaith collaboration as a way to advance religious freedom. The United States has implemented and facilitated initiatives all over the world to bring together people of faiths. For example, the U.S.-Indonesia Interfaith Conference brought together private sector, civil society and faith leaders from eight countries to work together on projects that will have an impact on their communities in the areas of poverty eradication, environment, education, and governance. Here in Geneva, we were pleased to partner with Jordan to promote interfaith dialogue and understanding earlier this year during World Interfaith Harmony Week. These collaborations have created long-term partnerships that have resulted in constructive dialogues as mechanisms to advance religious freedom and avoid violence and mistrust.
Vigorously Defend the Freedoms of Religion, Belief, and Expression:
Our founding fathers, understanding the importance of freedom of religion, made it first in our Bill of Rights. In 1790, George Washington wrote to a synagogue in Rhode Island, that this country will give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Rather than seek prohibitions on offensive expression, the United States advocates for other measures such as urging political, religious, and societal leaders to speak out and condemn offensive expression; creating a mechanism to identify areas of tension between communities; training government officials on outreach strategies; and encouraging leaders to discuss causes of discrimination and potential solutions with their communities. Indeed, we believe that laws seeking to limit freedom of expression in the name of protecting against offensive speech are actually counterproductive. The suppression of speech often actually raises the profile of that speech, sometimes giving even greater voice to speech that others might find offensive. In some countries, politicians will not condemn offensive speech, but instead will defer to the courts to judge if it is legally prohibited. In our view it is far more effective if political leaders know that they cannot point to the law as an excuse for doing little to nothing. They have a moral and political obligation to use their own freedom of expression to lead a strong counter effort, and should be held to account politically.
As I have said before no country is immune from the problems of intolerance and hatred, but governments can and must respond in ways that promote the human rights of all individuals. Here in this room where consensus and unity was achieved, I wish to conclude by thanking you for this opportunity. I hope that together we will move forward to achieve the substantial goal of combating religious intolerance, discrimination and violence.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, this day has been a long time coming – (applause) – which makes it only sweeter for all of us who are gathered here. Sometimes when people are sworn in, we have to call out reinforcements – (laughter) – but this is a clear demonstration of the great support, the friendship, and the family that our ambassador can really rely on in every way. And so it is, for me, a great honor to see so many of you, familiar faces, in this crowd, to be here with us for Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook’s swearing-in, and two very special young men, who are with me on the podium, along with their mother, Christopher and Samuel. (Applause.)
Now, it is a testament to Sujay, as many of us like to call her, and her strong New York roots, that we have such a great turnout here today. (Laughter.) And there are a number of members of Congress, as we just heard, who are desperately trying to get here despite the voting requirements in the House of Representatives, and so we’re hoping that they will be here because I’m feeling like I’m a senator from New York again – (laughter) – and I want some more company.
Now, it has been a wait worthwhile, because in Sujay we have a passionate, visionary, and experienced defender of religious freedom. (Applause.) And we have a big stack of issues just waiting for her, because she and I will work in very close partnership in defending the values that those of us in this room hold so dear. Now, there is no doubt we will be busy, because around the world authoritarian regimes abuse their own citizens, violent extremists attempt to exploit sectarian tensions, and religious freedom is under threat from both quiet intolerance and violent attacks. The Obama Administration is dedicated to the rights of all people everywhere. Everyone, no matter his or her religion, should be allowed to practice their beliefs freely and safely.
Now some of you might wonder, if you don’t know her very well, how can we be so sure that Sujay is the right person for this difficult and critical position at this particular moment in history. Well, I could tell you about her many firsts. She was the first woman appointed chaplain of the New York City Police Department. (Applause.) She was the first woman, first black woman, to become senior pastor in the 200-year history of the American Baptist Churches of America. (Applause.) She was the first female president of the Hampton University Ministers Conference. (Applause.) She has been called the Harriet Tubman for women in ministry – (applause) – and one of my personal favorites, Billy Graham and Oprah rolled into one. (Laughter.) And she’s also been deeply involved in international activities her entire life.
I could go on and on, but she is going to demonstrate every single day why she is the person for this job at this time. To many, she is more than a minister, more than a spiritual leader, although she is certainly that. She is a passionate advocate for the God-given rights of people everywhere, no matter which god they believe gave them those rights in the first place. And she is a leader in bridging faith and public service, a champion of civil rights, a trailblazer, a pioneer. She’s always faced difficult odds head on.
When she first decided to become a minister, there weren’t many female ministers, and there were churches, as we know, that would not accept a female minister. But instead of stepping back, she stood up. She studied hard, and against long odds, she became ordained. She did it her own way and she blazed the path for others to follow.
Now, I have attended her sermons, and I have been swept away – (laughter) – by her infectious ability to touch everyone in her church, or in the Apollo Theater for that matter. (Laughter.) I have watched her career from her days as a White House fellow, to assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to an accomplished author, speaker, and activist.
Now, my long years of friendship with the ambassador – (laughter) – have certainly demonstrated unequivocally to me she knows how to build bridges between people. For somebody who is such a good talker, she’s an even better listener. She can foster dialogue between people. She knows how to promote respect and tolerance, and she will bring those skills to this position that she will now hold with such honor.
I first met her when she worked on my husband’s domestic policy council in the White House all those years ago. She was introduced to me then as the Baptist preacher from the Bronx. (Laughter.) And since Bill was a Baptist from Arkansas – (laughter) – and I was in a mixed marriage as a Methodist – (laughter) – I was looking to her for a little translation. (Laughter.) So some people call her Pastor Cook, some people call her Dr. Sujay. But finally, after a long wait, we can call her ambassador. (Applause.)
So we are ready for the official swearing-in, and accompanied and supported by these handsome young men – there we go – (laughter) – you’ll raise your right hand and repeat after me.
(The Oath of Office was administered.)
AMBASSADOR COOK: Thank you, Secretary Clinton, for your kind introduction and for your leadership in promoting religious freedom as a diplomatic and national security priority. I am deeply honored and humbled by this appointment to serve as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. I look forward to serving you and President Obama and working with all of my colleagues to advance human dignity around the world.
As the President has said, “Our Nation’s enduring commitment to the universal human right of religious freedom extends beyond our borders as we advocate for all who are denied the ability to choose and live their faith.”
I also want to thank my family and the friends who have walked with me for many years and encouraged me through the long confirmation process. Thank you for being here today. I would not be standing here today were it not for your support.
Madam Secretary, you have famously used the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Allow me to introduce some folks from my village.
And, of course, I want to thank my staff in the Office of International Religious Freedom. I am thrilled to join this talented group of people. Thank you for your passion and commitment to advancing this essential American value and a universal right.
We have a lot of work to do. Religious freedom is an increasingly important issue because religion is an increasingly prominent force around the globe. And today 70 percent of the world’s population—that’s nearly 5 billion people—lives in countries where there are restrictions on religious practice and belief, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. These restrictions violate human rights. They marginalize vulnerable populations. They embolden extremists and fuel sectarian tensions. And they rob societies of the moral and charitable contributions that faith communities could make if they had freedom.
But in countries that do protect religious freedom, we find that minorities are empowered, extremist ideologies have little appeal, sectarian hatred gives way to interfaith harmony, and societies flourish. Madam Secretary, as you have said, “Religious freedom provides a cornerstone for every healthy society.”
This strong correlation between religious freedom and societal health is demonstrated time and again by the State Department’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. We find that countries with religious freedom tend to be more stable, secure, and prosperous.
As Ambassador at Large, I intend to leverage the Report and all of the diplomatic tools at our disposal to foster greater awareness of religious persecution and increased respect for religious freedom. I look forward to partnering with our embassies, with my colleagues who manage our public diplomacy, and with other senior officials across the State Department, National Security Council, Defense Department, and the entire interagency, to find creative new ways to advance our ideals and interests. I also look forward to working with foreign governments to improve the record of religious freedom where the need is greatest.
Secretary Clinton, I share your passion for collaborating with NGOs and civil society actors as key partners in promoting shared goals and values. A nation’s foreign policy and diplomacy are ultimately reflections of the values of its people, and my friends in American civil society—many of whom are here today— live out daily the values of religious freedom and respect for religious diversity.
For those of us from New York City, religious diversity is just a fact of life. We live it, we walk in it, we study in it, and we work in it. America has become the world’s most religiously diverse country, and New York is our most diverse city. New York challenges our assumptions every day. And New Yorkers learn early on the importance of respecting the beliefs and practices of others. Our city is not perfect, and we encounter bumps along the road. But I believe New York, and our entire country, is a model of how principled pluralism makes a society more vibrant and more successful.
In my new role, I draw strength and inspiration from the example of my home community, the Black church. Birthed in a context persecution, the Black church helped my people endure centuries of degradation and segregation. It gave voice to the yearnings for freedom and justice. It’s no surprise that the civil rights movement was largely organized from the black churches and championed from our pulpits.
For the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, his heart, his passion, his core convictions, his words and his actions were inseparable from his faith. Faith is a public and private reality. As Black American who have experienced more than our fair share of discrimination, we appreciate diversity and cherish the freedoms in the First Amendment. People of every worldview—be it spiritual or secular—have equal rights to speak in the public square. And we need stand up when anyone’s right to believe or to voice those convictions are violated. As Dr. King told us, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
I had the privilege of serving as a domestic policy advisor in President Bill Clinton’s White House. And I remember his call to defend religious liberty in 1996: “Let us never believe that the freedom of religion imposes on any of us some responsibility to run from our convictions. Let us instead respect one another’s faiths, fight to the death to preserve the right of every American to practice whatever convictions he or she has.”
This vision inspires my work as America’s Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. In this era of globalization and democratic uprisings, the values of religious freedom and respect are more important than ever. Because “religious freedom provides a cornerstone for every healthy society,” in this season of the Arab Spring we must encourage the highly religious countries of the Middle East and North Africa to guarantee full equality under the law for all religious actors.
As President Obama said in his speech in this room two weeks ago, “In a region that was the birthplace of three world religions, intolerance can lead only to suffering and stagnation. And for this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shi’a must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.”
It is an honor for me to serve as a principal advisor to a President and Secretary of State so deeply committed to advancing religious freedom as a core part of U.S. foreign policy. Thank you, Madam Secretary, for your friendship and support over the past two decades.
And thank you, once again, to all of you for joining in this ceremony today. I now ask you to join me in one of the great civil rights struggles of our day—the struggle for religious liberty and respect for religious diversity around the world.
Suzan D. Johnson Cook was sworn in as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom on May 16, 2011.
Prior to joining the State Department, Ambassador Johnson Cook served as the senior pastor and CEO of the Bronx Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in New York City from 1996-2010. She was also the founder and president of Wisdom Women Worldwide Center and the owner of Charisma Speakers.
In 1993, Johnson Cook was a White House Fellow on the Domestic Policy Council. In that role, she advised President Bill Clinton on a range of issues including homelessness, violence, and community empowerment. She also worked with the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development on faith-based initiatives from 1994 until 1997. President Clinton appointed her in 1997 to serve on his National Initiative on Race as his only faith advisor.
Johnson Cook held the position of Chaplain to the New York City Police Department for twenty-one years, the only woman to serve in that role. She was also a founder and board member of the Multi-Ethnic Center in New York City. From 1983-1996, she served as Senior Pastor to the Mariners Temple Baptist Church, and was a professor at New York Theological Seminary from 1988-1996.
Johnson Cook has travelled to five continents to promote religious freedom. She has led interfaith delegations to Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and throughout the Caribbean. She worked with World Vision in Ruschlikon, Switzerland in its efforts to combat global poverty, and travelled to Zimbabwe and South Africa to meet with Zulu faith leaders to promote interfaith dialogue and tolerance. As a young woman, Johnson Cook worked with Operation Crossroads Africa, where she participated in a cross-cultural exchange with student groups in Ghana and Nigeria. She also spent time living and studying in Valencia, Spain.
Johnson Cook is the recipient of several awards, including the Woman of Conscience Award, the Martin Luther King Award, the Visionary Leaders Award, and has also authored ten books. She received her Bachelor of Science in Speech from Emerson College in Boston in 1976 and a Master of Arts from Columbia University Teachers College in New York City in 1978. She completed a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York and a Doctor of Ministry from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, in 1983 and 1990, respectively. She was also the recipient of the President’s Administrative Fellowship at Harvard University, where she served as Associate Dean and later as professor.