The Oasis Reporters
December 11, 2020
‘…there’s going to be consequences for practicing your faith violently’
An on-the-record briefing on the rollout of U.S. designations against religious freedom violators, including Country of Particular Concern, Special Watch List, and Entity of Particular Concern designations was held recently with Mr.Brown kick starting the event by introducing Sam Brownback, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, as the briefer.
The ambassador then started off with brief remarks and then took questions.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thank you very much. Appreciate it. Thanks to everybody for joining us on this call. International religious freedom is a key U.S. foreign policy priority. The Department of State promotes global respect for and combats violations and abuses of this fundamental human right.
December 2nd, the Secretary of State, Secretary Pompeo, designated his Countries of Particular Concern and Special Watch List Countries and Entities of Particular Concern. The Secretary re-designated Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern. He also designated Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern.
Secretary Pompeo again placed Comoros, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Russia on a Special Watch List for governments that have engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom. While Sudan and Uzbekistan were previously placed on the Special Watch List and had been in the past Countries of Particular Concern, he did not place them in either the Special Watch List or Countries of Particular Concern this year due to significant and impressive steps taken by each of these governments to improve religious freedom.
I spoke to the foreign minister of Uzbekistan and the prime minister of Sudan yesterday and congratulated both of them for the strong movement that each of those countries has taken to open up the religious freedom space in their nation. It’s been impressive. Indeed, Sudan is the first country in modern times that has repealed an apostacy law, and we’re asking all countries around the world to repeal these apostacy and blasphemy laws. There are even 10 countries that still give the death penalty for apostacy or blasphemy, and we’re pushing back in our Religious Freedom Alliance on these apostacy and blasphemy laws.
The Secretary also designated a series of countries that – or excuse me – that’s Entities of Particular Concern and took two entities off that list because they no longer qualified for the designation because they no longer controlled territory and therefore didn’t meet the statutory requirement. They still are terrorist groups, but they have to control territory to qualify, and two of them lost territory – which is a good thing, that that took place.
The Secretary announced the designation of specific sanctions, dual-hatted sanctions for Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, and North Korea, satisfying the International Religious Freedom Act’s presidential action requirement. And then for Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, the Secretary issued a waiver for the presidential action requirement, determining that there were important national interests of the United States requiring the exercise of the waiver authority.
And just on a final note before opening up for questions, there is – this is – we, as I noted, congratulate the two nations for getting off the list but added Nigeria because of tolerating egregious acts taking place in that nation. And the Secretary and really the world has great concern about what’s taking place in Nigeria at this time, and a number of terrorist groups are organizing and pushing into the country. We’re seeing a lot of religious-tinged violence taking place in that country and indeed in West Africa. It’s an area of growing concern about what’s happening, in particular the tension that’s taking place there between religious groups. And it’s often the religious affiliation is used to try to recruit and inspire violent acts.
We are seeing on the good side a number of religious groups and theologians – Christians, Muslims, and Jews in particular – stepping up to push back against the use of religion for violent purposes and saying no, our faith is a peaceful faith and using theological arguments. And I’m very hopeful that as these things move forward that we’ll see more peaceful theologians step forward and say that our faith is for the use of peace, not war. And I’m encouraged about that trend. I was just on a call yesterday with a peace summit of Christians, Muslims, and Jews at a very high level of theologians saying and pushing this purpose, and we really need that. We cannot concede the theological ground to those who would push for violent use of religion.
MR BROWN: Great. For our first question, let’s go to the line of Shaun Tandon.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ambassador, for doing this. Could I follow up a little bit on Nigeria? You mentioned the concerns about terrorist groups. Are there concerns about the government’s response with President Buhari or other things that you think that could be done that aren’t happening now? What’s your wish list for government action?
And if you’ll allow me just one sidenote, I was wondering – something that’s in the news quite a bit right now in France, President Macron’s actions targeting radical Islam. It’s caused a lot of concern in the Muslim world. Do you have any view on that? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Great questions. Yes, that is – a major concern for us is the lack of adequate government response in Nigeria. You’ve got expanded terrorist activities, you’ve got a lot of it associated around religious affiliations, and the government’s response has been minimal to not happening at all. A number of cases – there have not been criminal cases brought forward by the government. The terrorism continues to happen and grow, in some places unabated.
And we’re just very deeply concerned that there’s a completely inadequate response by the government taking place for the scale of what’s happening and the building up. We don’t want this place to devolve into a very difficult, lawless terrain in places. And the government really needs to act. We stand ready to work with them. I have traveled there, spent a week. Key officials from State Department have been there and have been talking with the government and getting an inadequate response.
I’m concerned obviously for what’s taking place in France, and our view of it is that you’ve got – the government’s role is to protect religious freedom. You cannot practice your faith violently, or, I mean, there’s going to be consequences to that. But if you’re peacefully practicing your faith, you’re entitled to practice that faith as you see fit. And we think countries do best when they work with religious leaders, identifying concerns, problem areas, and not get in disagreements with religious groups. They have their fundamental religious freedom rights, and those need to be honored and protected by government. I think there can be constructive engagements that can be helpful and not harmful. When you get heavy-handed in situations, the situation can get worse.