Senior State Department Official on the 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom

Senior State Department Official on the 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom

MODERATOR:  Good morning.  Thank you for joining us for this call to preview the release of the 2022 International Religious Freedom Report.  Our briefer today is [Senior State Department Official].  Today’s call is on background, so you can identify our speaker as a State Department senior official.  The call is embargoed until the conclusion of the Secretary’s remarks on the release of the report, which will take place at 11 a.m. this morning.

And now I’ll turn over to – and now I’ll turn you over to [Senior State Department Official] for opening remarks.  [Senior State Department Official], over to you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks so much, [Moderator], and good morning everyone.  Today we’ll release and submit to Congress the 2022 International Religious Freedom Report.  In its pages you’ll find a comprehensive assessment of freedom of religion or belief conditions in 199 countries and territories over the last year.  Nations described in the report include the closest U.S. allies and countries with whom we have no diplomatic relations, countries at war and those enjoying peace.  The International Religious Freedom team is dedicated to protecting religious freedom and exposing, countering, and preventing restrictions on this fundamental right all around the world.  We could not produce this report without the hard work of our colleagues at U.S. missions abroad, to whom we owe a special thanks.

The report also reveals the stories of individuals and communities struggling to survive as oppressive regimes seek to expunge them, and even the memories of their existence from their own homeland; to erase and change entire cultures, for example, in the case of Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghurs in China.  You will also read about brave civil society advocates who stand up to oppression and persecution, and who give voice to the voiceless and shine a strong light where it is most needed.  And this year’s report clearly shows once again governments and civil societies must work together in the face of brutal challenges to these human rights.

Throughout 2022, we witnessed authoritarian governments wielding blasphemy, apostasy, and anti-conversion laws against many individuals, including Christians, Muslims, and humanists or atheists.  Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim attacks also continue to increase in many regions, often following discriminatory rhetoric and public pronouncements of bigotry, even by government officials.

We continue to focus on the protection of members of religious minority groups across the globe.  But just like last year, we note that important and positive progress is possible when governments, civil society, multilateral bodies, and even concerned individuals are willing to step up.  When these brave souls take the risk of seeking change, often challenging authorities to live up to their obligations, and they succeed, entire societies can begin to stabilize and prosper.

The Secretary later today will highlight a few of these wonderful examples.  Over the last year and a half, I’ve spoken frankly with government leaders all around the world, engaged religious actors, and worked closely with civil society representatives.  We collaborate with other leaders and colleagues in our government, including our partnership with Second Gentlemen Douglas Emhoff, and Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, to counter anti-Semitism.  We work closely with the White House, as we did on the United We Stand Summit last year, and on the Interagency Task Force to Combat Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and Other Forms of Hatred.

I’ve greatly appreciated the opportunity to engage with young people who are using their creativity to prevent and counter hatred.  No progress is possible without these strong allies.  I look forward to the collaboration and honest conversations with my foreign counterparts and civil society interlocutors that will emanate from the release of today’s report.  Some of these conversations we have publicized, but many must remain private for now as we use every tool available to press hard for change.

Let me take a moment also to thank you brave journalists for bringing to light some of the worst abuses in the world, for covering the release of this report, and for your interest in these important issues.  Your amplification of these key messages is critical to improving the freedom of religion or belief around the world.  And with that, I’m honored to take your questions.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, [Senior State Department Official], for those opening remarks.  Operator, if you can please report – repeat the instructions to ask a question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  And ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your telephone keypad.  You may withdraw your question at any time by repeating the 1-0 command.  If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers.  And once again, if you have a question, you may press 1 then 0 at this time.

MODERATOR:  Great, thank you.  And we’ll go over to Alex Raufoglu from News Agency Turan first.

QUESTION:  Hey, good morning.  Can you hear me?


QUESTION:  Yes.  Good morning.  Thank you so much for doing this.  I have two questions.  One is on Ukraine.  As you know, the destruction to religious and cultural sites in Ukraine have been major concern.  I’m just wondering if, since last year, if you have been able to focus on the latest development.  We certainly did not see your visiting the region, obviously.  But if there’s anything that has been done in terms of registering those damages and also preventing the new damages from happening.

And on Iran, religious freedom in Iran has been violated by Islamic Republic for the past four decades.  I’m just wondering if you have any leverage that you put on – put more pressure on Iran to observe the rights of religious minorities.  Thanks so much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Yeah, thank you so much for those questions.  Russia we designated as the Country of Particular Concern for the first time on November 15, 2021.  Russia continues to detain, physically abuse, and torture individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs Jehovah Witnesses, Crimean Tartars, Muslim groups, Falun Gong, Evangelical groups as well.

To get to the specifics of your question, we are – we continue to be very concerned with the situation in Ukraine.  Following their unprovoked and unjustified invasion, Russia has targeted religious minorities in Ukraine, and the Kremlin seeks to create division in the Orthodox church by targeting religious minorities.  And they have caused damage, and I’m sure you’ve seen it – the horrible image as well – of the damage that they’ve caused to sacred religious sites.  We have been in communication with the ecumenical patriarch, who I’ve met a number of times – including a number of trips abroad – and we continue to work closely with him and the church to combat the malign influence efforts that the Russians engage in in the Ukraine.

The Ukrainian people continue to inspire the world, of course, with their courage, and we continue to assist Ukraine through our economic, humanitarian, and security assistance, which we also feel is a critical aspect to protecting religious communities across the country.  We remain steadfast in our support for all members of religious groups to practice their faith freely and expect any actions taken by Ukraine defending itself from Russia’s war will be fully consistent with international laws protecting religious freedom or belief.

To address your question on Iran, Iran has been designated a Country of Particular Concern for over 20 years.  It has one of the worst records in the world on religious freedom.  Iran continues to target minority groups, Baha’is, Christians, non-Shia Muslims.  And we saw horrific blasphemy executions – two of them – just last week.  We have implemented a series of sanctions.  We support actions at the UN condemning Iran’s human rights record, and we strongly support the mandate of the UN special rapporteur to investigate human rights abuses.  So we’ll continue to use a variety of policy tools to address the human rights concerns there.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Let’s go over to Simon Lewis from Reuters next.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thanks for doing this.  Just, I guess, one sort of more general question I had: Is there any way you could give us a rundown of which countries, if any, are newly designated as a specific concern in this year’s report or any countries where you – you’re particularly raising issues that have arisen over the last year?  And I wanted to just ask also on China specifically – obviously, there’s been concerns on China in many previous reports, but I wonder, is there anything in this year’s – in – sort of in the last year that is reflected in the report that is raising a specific concern on – is – in that is the religious freedom situation in China worsening?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thank you so much.  So just as in previous years, we’re releasing our comprehensive report today, and consistent with our obligations under the International Religious Freedom Act, the Secretary will make our Country of Particular Concern determinations and our Special Watch List determinations by the end of the year.  So for now the report is focused on clearly laying out the religious freedom landscape in each country in the world, and then we will get to the designations a few months from now.

With regards to China, China continues to be one of the worst abusers of human rights and religious freedom in the world.  They continue to engage in genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs.  They’re also continuing their repression of Tibetan Buddhists, Protestants, Catholics, Falun Gong, and Hui Muslims.

Since 1999, China has been designated a Country of Particular Concern, and we’ve determined that China’s treatment of the Uyghurs constitutes a genocide and crimes against humanity.  In order to address these concerns, we have a number of tools that we’re using, including financial sanctions, visa restrictions.  We’ve – Congress has passed, and the President has signed into law, The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which provides for penalties for companies that import goods that are being produced by forced labor – actually puts the burden of proof on the companies to demonstrate that they are not importing goods that are the products of forced labor.

We’re also working very closely with the UN.  You may have seen at the Human Rights Council this year the report on Xinjiang was finally released.  And that report authoritatively describes the PRC’s appalling treatment and abuses of Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities.  So we’ll continue to work closely with our partners and our allies around the world, including the OIC countries, to step up their actions on China, and specifically China’s treatment of religious minorities.  We continue to see the situation worsening, and we’ll continue to use all the tools that I described to do everything that we can to help the people of China as they face repression at the hands of the government.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Let’s go over to Michele Ghandour from Alhurra next.

QUESTION:  Middle East and other than Iran, how was the religious freedom situation there last year?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Yes, we continue to have concerns about a number of countries in the region.  We continue to see the use of blasphemy and apostasy laws.  These are issues that I raise directly with governments as we travel in the region and we meet with them.  We continue to see restrictions on registration and recognition of minority groups.

What we have been encouraged by is that we are seeing courageous individuals and groups within civil society take action to try to address some of these challenges, and we’ll continue to do everything that we can to support them.  But the overall situation continues to be of concern for us.  And as you’ll see by reading the report, we go through, country by country, every nation in the region and describe the situation that religious minorities face, describe our communication with government and civil societies and the issues that we’re pressing them on in terms of their enforcement of laws that are particularly harsh towards religious minorities.

We’re of course pressing them in places where religious minorities are not even allowed to construct places of worship or have particularly onerous requirements.  We’re pressing them to allow for open practice of religion.  There are countries in the region in which it’s essentially criminalized to openly practice your religion if you’re from a minority faith, and so we continue to work with governments and civil society in the region to address these issues.

I will say also that there have been some bright spots in our engagement, particularly with civil society leaders and some governments, on articulating the importance of protecting religious minorities.  One such initiative, which you may be following, is the continued advance of the Marrakesh Declaration, which was issued in 2016 when over 300 leaders from the region came together to articulate a set of protocols and standards on the protection of religious minorities, including Christians working – or living in Muslim-majority countries.

We worked with a number of scholars for a number of years in the region, playing a largely convening role.  And initiatives like the Marrakesh Declaration are ones that give us hope.  Of course, the situation that we’re in, we didn’t get to overnight.  And so there will be a need for concerted effort and grassroots efforts in ensuring that initiatives such as the Marrakesh Declaration and other initiatives in the region, which are in their nascent stages, can build momentum and ultimately have an impact, and ensure that they are able to reach their potential in helping to protect the religious freedom of people across the region.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, [Senior State Department Official].  We’re – we have time for one more question so we’re going to go with Zeba Warsi from PBS.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you so much for doing this.  My question is on India.  Could you tell us what this year’s report finds on India?  It has been a Country of Particular Concern for consecutive years.  And what is the administration planning to do about pressuring the Indian Government with respect to religious minorities, particularly Muslim, ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit next month?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  I’ve spent a good amount of time in India and have experienced firsthand the phenomenal culture of the country, the vast potential, the people of the country, and that’s also why at times I’ve been saddened and to see what is outlined in today’s report.  What we outline in today’s report is a targeted – continued targeted attacks against religious communities, including Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindu Dalits, and indigenous communities; dehumanizing rhetoric, including open calls for genocide against Muslims; lynching and other hate-fueled violence, attacks on houses of worship and home demolitions, and in some cases impunity and even clemency for those who’ve engaged in attacks on religious minorities – we’re also continuing to see, at the state level, some restrictions on religious attire.

We’ll continue to speak directly with our colleagues and counterparts in India regarding these concerns.  We’re continuing to encourage the government to condemn violence and hold accountable and protect all groups who engage in rhetoric that’s dehumanizing towards religious minorities and all groups who engage in violence against religious communities and other communities in India.

There’s been a significant attention, of course, from the international community on the situation in India, including human rights organizations.  The U.S. Holocaust Museum continues to draw considerable attention to the human rights situation in India and lists it as one of its top countries of concern and with – with regards to potential for mass killings there.  So we’ll continue to work very closely with our civil society colleagues on the ground, with courageous journalists that are working every day to document some of these abuses, and we’ll continue speaking directly with our counterparts in India to address these issues.

MODERATOR:  That’s all the time we have for questions this morning.  I hope everyone will tune into the Secretary’s remarks today at 11:00 a.m.  I would like to thank [Senior State Department Official] for taking his time today to answer your question, and as a reminder, this call is on background and is embargoed until the conclusion of the Secretary’s event this morning.  Thank you all for joining us.

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