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US Secretary of State: Religious Freedom Matters to Billions of World's People

‘We’re here because each of us believes that religious freedom must be upheld, protected, and advanced.’

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The second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom — July 16-18, 2019 in Washington — drew a much bigger crowd than the first event a year ago.  That might not seem like headline news but it isn’t because there was more publicity, nicer hotel rooms, better food, or a lavish side tour to Disney World.
«The astounding growth proves a simple matter,» according to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. «It proves that religious freedom matters to literally billions of people all around the world. Look around you. Religious freedom isn’t just a Christian concern, a Jewish concern, a Muslim concern, a Buddhist concern, a Hindu concern, or a humanist concern. It’s all of our concern; it is everyone’s concern.»
Pompeo’s comments came during his keynote address on July 18, during which he noted that some of those attending «have been persecuted for your faith, cast out from society, banished from your homes. If you are here as a survivor of persecution, I want you to know you are among friends today.
«We’re here because each of us believes that religious freedom must be upheld, protected, and advanced. But it’s important to understand where that belief comes from.»
As part of the Ministerial, the United States government presented several Statements of Concern to the country delegations participating. These Statements of Concern highlight some of the most pressing issues impacting religious freedom around the world and particular countries where religious freedom is under serious threat.  Participating countries were given the opportunity to join these Statements of Concern to demonstrate their shared concern on these key issues. You can see the various statements at the links following and see which delegations joined in support of each statement.

For more information and for the most updated list of co-signatories, please visit

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo –  Keynote Address at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom

Thank you. Good morning, everyone. It’s great to be with you all. Thank you, Ambassador Brownback, for the kind introduction. Your team has done a fantastic job with this incredibly special event. Thank you. Thank you and all of your team.
I also want to give a special welcome to those of you who have been persecuted for your faith, cast out from society, banished from your homes. If you are here as a survivor of persecution, I want you to know you are among friends today.
And to all of our other attendees – civil society, government affairs, religious leaders, others – you are those friends. Thank you for being here. Thank you for supporting these individuals.
As I said at the beginning of this incredible ministerial, I also want to note the remarkable growth in attendance from one year to two. I hope we can keep that trend up. There are hundreds more attendees, and we thank you all for taking time out of your incredibly busy schedules to be part of it. It is the largest human rights ministerial ever held at the United States Department of State. (Applause.) It is also – with our country now some 200-plus years old, it is the largest event ever hosted by a U.S. Secretary of State ever. It’s truly remarkable.
The astounding growth proves a simple matter. It proves that religious freedom matters to literally billions of people all around the world. Look around you. Religious freedom isn’t just a Christian concern, a Jewish concern, a Muslim concern, a Buddhist concern, a Hindu concern, or a humanist concern. It’s all of our concern; it is everyone’s concern.
And it is – it’s such a boost to see so many allies in the fight and not just from governments. We are committed and we are united, and our voices are growing stronger and stronger. And this is, indeed, just the beginning.
We’re here because each of us believes that religious freedom must be upheld, protected, and advanced. But it’s important to understand where that belief comes from.
Here in the United States, our Declaration of Independence clearly states that certain rights are unalienable. There are liberties to which all of mankind, in all places, at all times are entitled. Religious freedom is one of them. Our Constitution puts it in the very first amendment.
And just a short walk from where you are seated today, Thomas Jefferson, our first Secretary of State, stands 19 feet tall in bronze. On the walls of his monument is a quote from the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, which he had helped author. It says, quote, “Almighty God hath created the mind free… No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry, or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.”
As you can see from that, religious freedom is embedded deeply in the American character. But it isn’t exclusively an American idea. Indeed, just the opposite. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms religious freedom or belief as a universal right. It’s been now more than two centuries since Secretary Jefferson steered our foreign policy, but I’m with him. He said that “Almighty God hath created the mind free.” And everyone in this room understands and appreciates that.
Today, we come together to turn our convictions into action. And there’s not a moment to lose. A shocking 83 percent of the world’s population live in nations where religious freedom is either threatened or denied entirely.
Perhaps you’ve heard the recent news of the Cuban evangelical leaders who registered for this very event to come here to Washington but were not permitted to come. Last weekend, the Cuban government prevented them from boarding their flights to travel to Washington, D.C. to express their religious freedom. Such is the thuggish, intolerant nature of the current regime in Havana.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, authorities ban religious minorities from possessing religious books and they deny them access to education.
The Cubans aren’t alone in their repression, of course. In May, the Iranian Government prohibited religious minorities from working at childcare centers where there are Muslim children. And as we know too well, beatings and imprisonments are common. Iranians who dare stand up for their religious freedom, for their neighbors, face abuse.
Last month, the regime threw a city councilman in prison for calling for something so simple as the release of two Baha’is. Indeed, we’re proud to have with us here today Dabrina Bet-Tamraz, who is the daughter of Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz. Victor was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2017 for his faith and is currently appealing his sentence.
Sadly, these stories aren’t confined to Iran. In Burma, each of you has had the chance to hear how the military has brutalized and persecuted the Rohingya, the large majority of whom are Muslim. On Tuesday, the United States announced visa restrictions on the two highest-ranking Burmese military commanders and two other senior military figures, each of them for having been involved in these very atrocities. It’s the first time any country has taken public action against the Burmese military’s highest-ranking leaders.
Targeting the Rohingya is just one part of the military’s decades-long war in Burma on ethnic and religious minorities. And you can see that from an individual who’s here with us today, Pastor Langjaw Gam Senge. He spent 15 months in prison for helping visiting journalists do the simple thing of report on damage caused by an airstrike on a Catholic church in Kachin. Welcome, Pastor Senge.
And in China – in China, the Chinese Communist Party demands control over the lives of the Chinese people and their souls. Chinese Government officials have even discouraged other countries from attending this very gathering. Is that consistent with the guarantee of “freedom of religious belief” that is found directly in the Chinese constitution? If you’re here today and you’re a country which has defied the Chinese pressure to come here, we salute you and we thank you.
And if you have declined to attend for the same reason, we took note. We hope, too. We hope, too, that those of you who chose not to be here will reconsider your decision next time and find the courage to stand up for freedom every day and always.
Everyone in this room knows, too, that the Chinese faithful need our support. In September of last year, Chen Huixia, a member of the Falun Gong, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison simply for practicing his faith.
In May of 2018, authorities arrested Wang Yi, the pastor of Early Rain Covenant Church, a large unregistered church in Chengdu, for openly criticizing the government’s controls on religious freedom. He’s still in jail today.
And China is home to one of the worst human rights crises of our time. It is truly the stain of the century.
Since April 2017, the Chinese Government has detained more than one million Chinese Muslims and other minorities in camps in Xinjiang. With us today is Jewher Ilham – a courageous woman – a courageous woman who has fought the release – for the release of her father. He was given an unprecedented life sentence for his writings dedicated to bridging the gap between the Uighur people and the Han Chinese, a noble undertaking.
Ms. Bet-Tamraz, Pastor Senge, Ms. Ilham are just three of the many who we invited here today. These are heroes who have come to this ministerial from around the world. Their stories are of fiery trials, heart-pounding courage, and truly uncommon faith. I’d like to ask all of them to stand now for applause. (Applause.)
I want each of you and, indeed, all of us to know that your work is not in vain. We’re here today to support your quest to defend and promote religious freedom. I’m confident – I’m confident that together we can advance this cause. In fact, just look at what we’ve accomplished as a result of last year’s ministerial:
First, we’ve put our money where our mouth is.
The State Department has established an International Religious Freedom Fund – a multi-donor fund that provides rapid assistance to victims of persecution all throughout the world. It’s already serving good, and its purpose around the world is expanding. Just one example, it’s assisting victims in Sri Lanka, today as we stand here, with medical bills after the attacks there this past Easter Sunday. We encourage more countries to step up to the plate and donate and contribute to this important cause that can do so much good all around the world.
Since 2017, the United States has provided more than $340 million for vulnerable religious and ethnic communities in Iraq, particularly those that ISIS had targeted for genocide. Last year’s ministerial, too, helped galvanize a huge part of that effort. Today – today, the IEDs that ISIS left behind are cleared. Kids are back in school. Lives are being saved, and much, much more.
And today, I have the privilege to announce that USAID is providing 27 million in new humanitarian assistance to keep this very progress going. (Applause.)
Money matters. There’s no doubt about it. Resources are in demand. But beyond money, we’ve been active on multilateral front, alongside our friends and allies. A great example, in the United Arab Emirates they hosted the first regional conference in February on promoting religious tolerance in their curricula. That includes striking hate speech and other forms of incitement from textbooks.
At the most recent General Assembly, the nations of the Organization of American States unanimously put forth their first-ever statement, introduced by the United States, affirming religious freedom in our hemisphere.
Along with the United Kingdom, the United States co-sponsored a groundbreaking conference this past November on meeting the needs of vulnerable religious minorities in conflict zones.
And several governments have created special ambassadors specifically charged with advancing religious freedom in their country and around the world.
And finally, I’m proud to have led our own initiatives here at the State Department.
You heard me speak earlier about unalienable rights. I recently commissioned a group called the Commission on Unalienable Rights to generate a serious debate about human rights that extends across party lines and across national borders.
The commission’s purpose is very simple. We’re not out to discover new principles but to ground our discussion of human rights in America’s founding principles, and religious freedom is certainly amongst them.
In 2019, the State Department introduced mandatory training on international religious freedom for every one of our Foreign Service Officers. We’ve, so far, trained nearly 12,000 employees on how to identify religious discrimination and persecution and how to work closely with faith leaders all across the world. It is incredibly important that our diplomats be our ambassadors for this first freedom.
And now we come here together for the second time, and it’s time to build on this good work. Those of you who are government officials have the opportunity to take the next important steps:
We should all consistently speak out about abuses of religious freedom. It’s the least that we can do. Today, we have nine statements of concern on countries and issues all teed up. I would ask each of you to sign them in solidarity.
Albania, Colombia, Morocco, and the Vatican will host regional conferences in the near future. I’d urge you to attend.
And we need to make progress, too, in the world’s multilateral institutions. Thanks to Poland’s efforts, the UN General Assembly has named August 22nd as a special day to remember the victims of religious persecution. Please commemorate it in your home countries too. (Applause.)
And we should all keep making the case at the United Nations and in other bodies that religious freedom should be a priority for that institution.
But governments alone can’t properly tackle this problem. Our countries need to support civil society groups. You in the civil society groups are the true, real foot soldiers for freedom, and I thank you for that.
Let’s harness the passion of these people of all faiths to defend it. Look at how the fight against human trafficking has become a major humanitarian priority. Grassroots efforts made that happen. And I’m confident that we are replicating them.
To that end, I’m very proud to announce today a new effort that’s intended to help us in our goals across the board. We will create the International Religious Freedom Alliance. We hope that this new vehicle – the first every international body devoted to this specific topic – will build on efforts to date and bring like-minded countries together to confront challenges of international religious freedom.
It will provide a space for the work that we do here to flourish throughout the year. And importantly, it will defend the unalienable rights for all human beings to believe – or not to believe – whatever it is they choose. We’re eager to discuss this new initiative with you and to work with you and to build it out.
I’ll end with a last word about why I’m personally so fired up for the fight for religious freedom.
As an 18-year old, a long time ago, I joined the Army. I joined it in part because I knew how precious America’s basic constitutional freedoms were. But I was just a kid. I didn’t understand them as fully as I do now. But there was a fire inside of me that our American creed is true and good and right.
And now, I have the privilege to serve as America’s 70th Secretary of State and I have the chance to defend these freedoms each and every day.
Last year at this ministerial, I told this audience that we were working to bring home Pastor Brunson, who was unjustly held in Turkey for more than two years. This year, hallelujah, our prayers have been answered, and he’s with us here today. Pastor Brunson, where are you at?
Pastor Brunson’s deliverance goes right alongside what I think is my most memorable moment as the Secretary of State. Last year, on one of my missions to North Korea, I brought home Kim Dong-chul, Kim Hak-song, and Tony Kim. We got off the plane here at about 2:30 a.m. at Andrews Air Force Base. President Trump was there, the Vice President was there to greet them. It was one of the most joyful moments of my life. As the three of them descended the stairs from the plane, they slipped me a little note. It was on an index card. I stuck it inside my coat pocket.
And when I got home, I woke my wife up – it was early in the morning – and my wife Susan and I sat down to read the card. It was Psalm 126: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” I keep it framed in my office today. I do so because it reminds me of the power of faith in even the most trying times.
There are so many around the world who are longing for the right to worship freely. Without fear. Without persecution. Their faith gets them through these trying times.
You all came here because you understand that it is our responsibility to help them. We’re all in this fight together. You can be sure that the United States will be out front defending the God-given, unalienable right of all human beings to worship as they choose.
And I know and I hope that you will all stand with us.
I hope good people everywhere will see that our movement is just getting started.
I hope too they see the ever-increasing enthusiasm all throughout the world to defend religious freedom.
And when they do – and when they do, I am sure that the next ministerial will be even bigger than this one.
Thank you all for coming.
God bless your work, God bless the United States of America, and may the good Lord bless all of you as well. Thank you.

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Jim Fair

Jim Fair is a husband, father, grandfather, writer, and communications consultant. He also likes playing the piano and fishing. He writes from the Chicago area.

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