Thank you very much.
It is great to be back at the Holocaust Museum. You can’t walk through these doors and not just feel something. It’s enormous what you feel, because there are so many stories to tell, and the emotions run high, but it’s always a touching moment. And you know, it is a reminder: never again. And so congratulations to your team who always does a fantastic job, and, obviously, I want to thank all of you for being here.
I congratulate Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Brownback for this fantastic event, and to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for hosting this evening. It says everything about our country that this first ministerial has been devoted to the importance of preserving, protecting, and expanding religious freedom.
I want to say a special word of welcome to the survivors of the religious persecution who are here tonight. Thank you for sharing your stories. Peter, your story was amazing. Thank you for sharing your stories. You are the most compelling advocates for change that we have, and we are deeply grateful for your courage.
I know you’ve heard a lot over the past few days about how religious freedom is threatened and how we can strengthen it. Tonight, I want to say a few words about how America’s respect for freedom of religion informs our foreign policy. It is an overlooked weapon in our modern arsenal of democracy. It is both a good in its own right and a means to protect peace and security.
Religious freedom is an issue that’s personal to me. Not, thankfully, in the way that it is personal to the survivors who have shared their stories at this ministerial. But I am fortunate to have benefited from religious tolerance.
My parents immigrated to a small town in South Carolina from India in 1969 as members of the Sikh faith. My dad wore a turban – and still does to this day. My mom wore a sari. We were the first Indian-American family in our small town in South Carolina. We stood out. We were different.
Throughout my childhood, people would show up at our door asking us to convert to their religion. Some had tears in their eyes because they sincerely believed that eternal damnation awaited those who didn’t share their faith. My older sister was given a Bible once by one of these well-meaning visitors. When my mom saw it, she told my sister to read it cover to cover. “There’s truth in there,” she said.
Twenty years ago, my faith journey took me to Christianity and where I have found great strength in my faith and trust in my heart.
I am a person who is humble in my faith. I don’t claim to have the wisdom to know what God has in store for me or for other people. But I do know this: there are many places in the world where my faith journey would have been impossible. There are places where governments deny their people the right to choose their faith – or the right to have a faith at all.
To my great fortune, my parents legally immigrated to America. And here, we not only protect our inalienable right to know God’s grace, we also know that true grace cannot be imposed by government. It must be embraced freely from within.
The past almost two years at the United Nations have given me the opportunity to see how this most intimate and personal issue impacts entire nations and peoples. War and peace. And it has given me the chance to extend the remarkable example of American religious freedom – something I experienced first-hand – into the international arena.
The protection of religious freedom in our Constitution was inspired by our founders’ knowledge of the religious wars that devastated Europe for centuries. Religious differences fueled conflict at that time.
Violence in the name of religion has certainly not left us. But what I have seen over and over at the United Nations is how peace and security are threatened from the denial of religious freedom.
The first Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom was Robert Seiple. In 1999, Ambassador Brownbacks’s predecessor designated the following countries for their denial of religious freedom: Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, and Sudan. The Taliban, a non-state group, was also designated.
Ambassador Seiple was on to something very significant. Every single one of the countries and the group that he singled out for their religious oppression was also a current or future security threat. Every one was either already on our radar, or would become a major national security concern for the United States in coming decades.
There is a remarkable overlap between the countries that deny religious freedom and the countries that threaten peace and security. This is why it is so frustrating at the United Nations Security Council that they don’t consider religious liberty – as well as other human rights – to be an appropriate subject for its consideration.
Until the U.S. presidency of the Security Council last year, the Security Council had never had a session focused exclusively on human rights, not to mention religious rights.
There had been meetings on isolated situations in particular countries, but never one dedicated to the broader question of how violations of the rights to speak, assemble, and worship lead to conflict that often spills over its borders. The thinking was that peace and security were the Security Council’s business, and that human rights should be left to the other UN agencies.
The United States has begun to change that.
Since we came to the UN, we have fought to give human rights the prominence it deserves in the international arena. And that means putting human rights on the Security Council agenda.
Our basic morality compels us to give prominence to human rights concerns, because it’s the right thing to do.
It’s unfortunate that the Human Rights Council – the UN organization that is “supposed” to consider human rights – is politically corrupt and morally bankrupt. It does more to injure the cause of human rights than to help it, which is why the United States announced its withdrawal from the Council last month.
There is also an undeniable connection between violations of human rights and threats to international security – the very thing the United Nations is supposed to promote.
The fact is, real peace cannot be achieved in isolation from human rights. In case after case, human rights abuses are not the byproduct of conflict – they are the cause of conflict, or they are the fuel that feeds the conflict.
This is especially true of violations of religious liberty.
Denial of religious freedom is so destructive because it represents the state elevating itself above the divine. In America, our rights – including the right to worship and believe freely – are outside of the realm of government. Denial of religious freedom is the ultimate authoritarianism.
Limiting or denying religious freedom is a key way for governments to exert control over their people. Authoritarian governments see independent religious communities as threats to their power and, at times, their existence.
In Russia, post-Soviet regimes began to deny religious freedom in order to increase the power of the state as far back as the latter half of the 1990s. Since then, religious intolerance and authoritarianism have risen in tandem in Russia.
The Chinese government has sent hundreds of thousands of Muslim minority Uighurs to “re-education” camps in order to combat what it sees as a threat to its rule. The Chinese state is exerting control over every aspect of life for the Uighurs, creating what one publication has called a “fully-fledged police state” in the province where most of the Uighurs live. Their religious and ethnic identity is literally being extinguished by the Chinese government.
And as we sit here tonight, the authoritarian government in Nicaragua is turning its power against the Church in an effort to beat down the popular uprising that threatens its existence.
The government of Daniel Ortega once saw the Church as a mediator in talks with Nicaraguan protestors. But then the government began what one human rights group called a “shoot to kill strategy” at protests, resulting in hundreds of people killed. And when the bishops objected to the killings and declared that Nicaraguans have a right to peacefully protest, Ortega turned on them. Clerics have been attacked. Catholic charities have been looted. Churches have been desecrated.
In classic authoritarian fashion, Ortega is attempting to destroy the institution that threatens his corrupt government the most. The Church provides the inspiration, the organization, and the independence to challenge the authority of the state. Daniel Ortega has realized that he can’t control the Church. To survive, he has decided he must destroy it.
Religious persecution also threatens peace by driving desperate people to do desperate things.
The campaign of ethnic cleansing conducted by the Burmese government and security forces against the Rohingya minority has displaced an unknown number of people within Burma and forced almost 700,000 people to flee to Bangladesh. Interviews with Rohingya refugees have produced stories of unimaginable violence.
Army troops would appear early, while most of the village was still asleep. They targeted only Rohingya homes, leaving the non-Rohingya houses untouched. They used religious and ethnic slurs as they burned Rohingya houses, killed Rohingya men, and raped Rohingya women and girls.
Now, almost a million people are living in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
I would like to thank Bangladesh for its generous humanitarian response to the Rohingya crisis. We thank Bangladesh for opening its arms and allowing international organizations to access and support the refugees.
I’ve been to refugee camps in Ethiopia, Congo, Turkey, and Jordan. I’ve spoken to desperate mothers. I’ve seen their traumatized children wandering the camps.
The Rohingya refugees face discrimination because of their beliefs. They have been robbed of their very identity. Their children are growing up stateless and humiliated. These are the very kinds of desperate situations that radical extremist groups attempt to take advantage of.
A former detainee in one of the Chinese “re-education” camps for Uighurs described the effects of religious discrimination very succinctly to a visiting reporter. The Chinese, he said, “are planting the seeds of hatred and turning detainees into enemies.”
This will not remain simply a Chinese problem, or a Burmese problem. Soon it will be a problem for all of us, unless we do more.
Whenever I speak to audiences of young people I try to remind them to be grateful for the blessings that they have in America. Our country is not perfect – no country is. But as Americans we have been given a great set of tools with which to build a more perfect union. The protection of our religious freedom – our right to worship, and believe, and even instruct our children – in the manner in which we choose and to live our faith is first among these tools.
We will continue to forcefully advocate for religious tolerance in the international arena. Not just because so many people are being denied this right, but because defending religious freedom makes for a safer and more peaceful world for all of us.
Where there is religious tolerance, there is political tolerance. And where there is political tolerance, there is peace, security, and prosperity.
I thank you all for being here tonight. I thank you for all you’ve done to share the gift of religious freedom.
Thank you very much.