Remarks by Ambassador Sam Brownback
at Taipei Religious Freedom Conference
March 11, 2019
I would like to thank President Tsai’s comments and her for taking the time to be here out of her busy schedule. I can’t help but just stand up here and cheer you, and be so thankful for so many people who gather here for the cause of religious freedom around the world. Thank you for being here.
Millions of people around the world, billions of people around the world just simply yearn to be free. They just want to practice their faith and freedom. We come from all sorts of faith tradition. As I look out on this crowd, I see people dressed in different religious garb, that we probably don’t agree on a lot of theological things, but they do agree on religious freedom and the needs to protect religious freedom for all. This is something we can all agree upon. This is something we can all pursue. This is something we have to do. I believe, a gathering like this throughout the world, can ensure for millions of others that they will be free from persecution in practicing their faith, which is what we are after is a freedom to do that, and I believe they will.
I am delighted to be here in Taiwan. As a U.S. official, Taiwan is a democratic success story, a reliable partner, and a force for good in the world. We count ourselves fortunate to have Taiwan as a friend and partner in promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific region. As a former U.S. Senator and Governor of the State of Kansas, I have long admired Taiwan and its accomplishments from afar, and I am delighted to finally have the opportunity to visit Taiwan in person. It is a pleasure to be here with you.
I would also like to thank Speaker Su, who is also chairman of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, Deputy Foreign Minister Hsu from Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and my colleague Director Christensen for being here from the American Institute in Taiwan for all their hard work that their staffs have done in making this conference a success.
As you have heard this is a first. Governments haven’t in the past physically come together in support of religious freedom, and yet we have here. Let’s give them a big round of applause for pulling this off. Thank you.
We are going to have a couple days of wonderful programs. One of the first things I want to recognize right at the outset, because I hope he is somebody you will get to know and I hope somebody you will work with to build on what the type of work is that Greg Mitchell over here..Greg please stand up. Greg is at the International Religious Freedom Roundtable. In Washington, D.C., every Tuesday that I am in town, I meet with the religious freedom activists. And these are people from all over the world, they usually have over 100 people who come together to talk about the current issues of religious freedom that are on the agenda. Greg hosts that meeting. It is a great meeting together between government and civil society of the topic of religious freedom of what we can do in basically two categories: the increase in religious freedom and the increase in respect in the non-religious as well. We should not just tolerate each other. A good friend of mine says, tolerance is too low of a bar. We need to keep respecting each other. We need to have an authentic relationship with one another. I hope you talk with him about how to start one of those in your country with your group of civil society religious activists, so that we can have religious freedom in your nation growing, and have activists there to push it and to increase that level of respect for one another, whatever our faiths and convictions are.
I also, before I get to my formal remarks, would like to recognize these survivors of religious persecution that are here with us.
We did the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom last year in Washington D.C., the first ever. We had over 400 civil society activists that were there. The key speakers were people who had been persecuted for their faiths, from all sorts of faith, and from all places around the world. They brought textures and meaning and stories of what happened to so many people around the world. I am so thankful that they are willing to travel here today to tell you what has happened to them. There is nothing like hearing first-hand what has happened to those who were persecuted. I want to just recognize several of them as they are here.
Y Phic Hdok is a young Montagnard Christian. Could you please stand? Thank you. We believe police killed his father. He is participating in the conference to speak on behalf of both Hmong and Montagnard Christians who have been rendered stateless because of their faith by Vietnamese authorities. We thank him for being here to share his testimony.
Dawa Tsering, the Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama here in Taiwan, grew up in a Tibet under Communist occupation, which demonized and criminalized the Buddhist faith that lies at the core of Tibetan civilization.
We need to remember all too well the things that happened to him during his childhood. We appreciate Dawa’s attendance of this conference, and we will continue to support the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way approach for meaningful autonomy for all Tibetans across the Tibetan Plateau while remaining a part of the People’s Republic of China.
This month marks the 60th anniversary of His Holiness being forced into exile. Tibetans understandably continue to lament his absence from Tibet, and long for the day that he is able to return and resume his rightful place as their most important religious leader. We urge the PRC authorities to resume formal dialogue with His Holiness or his representatives immediately.
We also want to recognize as well Rushan Abbas. She is a human rights advocate, founder of the Campaign for Uyghurs, an organization that promotes human rights and democratic freedoms following the deterioration of the human rights situation in the PRC’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
The activism she has had has come at a cost. In 2018, six days after she spoke publically about the repression of Uighur Muslims in China, including the detention of members of her husband’s family, two more members of her family – her sister and aunt – disappeared.
Unfortunately her story is not unique. Numerous Uighur expatriates have reported that Chinese officers aim to silence Uighurs abroad by detaining family members.
We thank Rushan for her courage during decades of activism to help the Uighur people share with the world the truth about what the Chinese government is doing to them. It has clearly resulted in personal sacrifices that most of us find difficult to imagine. And yet she has endured it.
And finally, I would like to acknowledge Pastor John Cao, who is not here unfortunately, nor his family members. His wife, Jamie, is American. She is a bold advocate for Pastor Cao’s release. A year ago this month, Chinese authorities sentenced him to 7 years in prison. His crime was providing aid and education to disadvantaged children in China and Burma. That’s what he did and today he’s held in a 26 by 10 foot cell, with a dozen other prisoners. He’s permitted to see sunlight just once a month. His wife and sons aren’t allowed to visit him. We call yet again for his immediate release.
Thank you to all of you that are here to testify and to speak of your situation, and to bring your texture and your personal stories the ways in which [inaudible].
Now we all support the right of an individual to have religious freedom. Promoting religious freedom worldwide is a top foreign policy priority for the United States, and certainly for this administration.
In my capacity as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, I advise the President, and Administration officials on the challenges to religious freedom around the world. I am focused on how we can advance this universal, God-given right globally.
Your presence here speaks to the importance of promoting religious freedom. The time for action has, unfortunately, never been more urgent.
A large majority of the world live in countries or areas where the freedom for practice their own faith is severely limited, prohibited, or in extreme cases can be deadly. Pew Research Center actually puts the number at more than 80% of people live in a religiously-restricted atmosphere.
People across the globe are oppressed, brutalized, and in some cases killed for seeking to practice their faith or live according to their beliefs or conscience. Others face persecution, discrimination, and harassment. We cannot let this continue.
In my own personal experience, I have found Asia’s faith communities to be vibrant and brimming with devotion. Yet the scourge of persecution across the region affects those of all religions. We see this persecution in many countries.
Though Vietnam passed a law in 2016 that has allowed some religious organizations to become legally recognized, local authorities have targeted members of independent, unregistered religious groups by interrogating or arresting them for purportedly being “anti-government” or separatist. One practitioner of the Hoa Hao Buddhist faith returned from a meeting with my team to find his property destroyed. This is unacceptable.
In Indonesia, the government must address the use of blasphemy laws, particularly against religious minorities.
In Malaysia, though religious freedom is guaranteed in its Constitution, non-Sunni Islam is illegal.
Since 1999, the U.S. Secretary of State has designated China and Burma both as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.
In my first trip abroad in this position, I visited Rohingya Muslims in refugee camps in Bangladesh. After decades of persecution and repression, Burmese security forces committed terrible acts of violence and drove out almost 700,000 mostly Muslim Rohingya since August 2017.
Burmese officials have continued to persecute the few Rohingya who remain in northern Rakhine State. We have heard credible reports regarding the harassment of Christians, Muslims, and members of other religious minority groups elsewhere in Burma.
In China, authorities have arbitrarily detained more than 1 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other members of minority Muslim groups in internment camps since April 2017. Tibetan Buddhists are not able to select, educate, or venerate their religious leaders without government interference. House church leaders are detained and their churches are shuttered in accordance with tightened restrictions on religion enforced by the Chinese Communist Party. And Falun Gong practitioners are reportedly tortured and detained by the Chinese government.
As I mentioned in a speech I gave in Hong Kong a few days ago, what does the Chinese government have to fear from people reading the Bible or Uighurs naming their children Mohammad? The Chinese are a strong and vibrant people. They do not need to fear people who have strong religious beliefs or convictions. Instead, the government should promote the protection of the rights of its people to practice their beliefs and worship as they see fit.
I am committed to fighting for the rights of all to believe or not to believe as they see fit, and for all to be able to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms without threat. Not just the freedom of religion or belief, but also the freedoms of expression, of association and of peaceful assembly.
Like people can do here in Taiwan should be the norm for everybody throughout the region in the world.
The freedom of the soul to choose its own course is an inalienable right. And this is why I love this job so much. It is the defense of the pure and noble and beautiful. That is what we are all about. We are defending people that all they want to do is practice their faith without fear of persecution. It is the defense of truth and the right of every man, woman, and child.
For me, this work in action means building a more whole-of-government approach to pursuing religious freedom. And it means calling on all nations to uphold respect for the universal human right to freedom of religion as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Ladies and gentlemen. We cannot afford to fail. There are millions of people cowering in corners now, simply wanting to believe and yet in fear. With your help, we must redouble our efforts to expand religious freedom.
We need your active participation in this cause. To make progress, we need more people to get in the ring, to stand up for religious freedom, and to advance it worldwide. We need all of you and many more to work with the broader religious freedom community, all around the world.
This regional conference is aimed at members of civil society groups, like yourselves. Your participation is vital, but it is only the first step. Civil society is often the first to report of these atrocities and instances of persecution. You are often the first to offer support to those who desperately need it. You are on the front lines, and without you, we cannot do our job effectively.
That’s why I want to see you empowered and even more. We rely on your efforts to press governments to act. We rely on your insight to better understand where persecution, discrimination, or violence is heating up. And we look to you to help us craft the right responses to impact the most people.
We need you to help us increase individuals’ awareness of their rights, empower them to assert their rights, and fight for them when governments or non-state actors seek to infringe upon those rights.
We need better coordination and action within the broader, religious and advocacy communities. That’s a good part of what this event is about. Consider what resources you need to do your work on religious freedom topic you are passionate about. Bring people into the religious freedom roundtable. Bring them to the next Ministerial that will be held from July 16 to 18 in Washington, DC. A global, pulling together of foreign ministers around the topic of religious freedom. Get individuals on social media or in the press.
With persecution continuing around the world against members of religious minorities, the United States wants to partner with our friends and allies on ways we can advance freedom of religion—particularly through education, particularly through advocacy with you.
Governments participating in the Ministerial were encouraged to host regional follow-on conferences to allow for more context-specific discussions, and to facilitate greater civil society participation.
Two weeks ago, we held one in Abu Dhabi that was focused on educational materials. This event is a key conference. Plans are underway for other meetings in Mongolia, Morocco, and Europe.
Another way you can get involved is by creating religious freedom roundtable discussions, as I mentioned earlier, doing this where you live.
Together, as a community with shared values—government, civil society, and faith communities—we can and will advance religious freedom.
With the full participation of all individuals, including religious minorities, societies can much better fulfill their potential and advance human dignity that strengthens peace, security, and prosperity, like it has here in Taiwan.
By God’s grace, life always triumphs over death, freedom overcomes oppression, and faith extinguishes fear. This is the source of our hope. And our confidence in the future, that religious freedom would be the hallmark of the world, that the gates of religious freedom would fly open around the world, and religious oppress, the Iron curtain of religious oppression would come down around the world; and that the people practicing their faith now can do so in peace.
Thank you for being here and part of this great cause, and God bless you all.