Saturday, July 27, 2019

2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom

Last week the State Department hosted the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the largest religious freedom event of its kind in the globe. More than 1,000 civil society and religious leaders, and more than 100 foreign delegations were in attendance. Last year’s Ministerial was the first to focus solely on religious liberty. This year’s ministerial highlighted several survivors of religious persecution and those still living in systematic persecution.


Monday, July 15

The Ministerial formally began with a private VIP Opening Event with Survivors hosted by the State Department at the Holocaust Museum.

Monday afternoon, Sen. Lankford, Sen. Coons and Ambassador Brownback hosted a reception to honor the survivors. The reception provided a platform for victims of religious persecution to tell their stories to government and civil society member’s eager to act and resolve issues around the globe. Speaking at this event were Irene Weiss, a holocaust survivor born in Bótrágy, Czechoslovakia, and Ester Bitrus, from Gwoza, Nigeria that survived being held captive by Boko Haram for over three years.


Tuesday, July 16

Ambassador Brownback gave opening remarks to the Ministerial. The Ambassador opened laying the ground work that this conference is important to advancing the global religious freedom movement. He stated, “a global human rights movement is being launched from this meeting.” And acknowledged that “government provides a key role for people of faith around the world.” “Although most of the world is religious, 80% of the world’s population live in a religiously restrictive place,” we must join together to fight with others of different faiths to work for religious freedom for all. He stated, we must “fight for each other’s right to religious freedom” and “stand for each other’s ability to exist.” Perhaps this conference will lead to many more around the globe.

USAID Administrator Mark Green gave remarks at the ministerial. Among other things he gave an update on the Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program. He announced, they are “providing $340 million for work in northern Iraq. We're working with 57 new local partners. Thirteen faith-based groups of 35 international organizations, providing urgent relief and humanitarian assistance to devastated communities. We're collaborating with heroic organizations like the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, the Humanitarian Ninewah Relief Organization, Yazda, the Assyrian Aid Society, Catholic Relief Services, Caritas Iraq, and more. Our projects are community-driven and community-led.” He also announced that in the upcoming months they will work with an addition 123 small businesses and Samaritan’s Purse will gain another $3 million in funding to provide shelter and clean water to communities targeted by ISIS.


Wednesday, July 17 — Track I, Track II, Track III

President Donald Trump hosted Ambassador Brownback and the delegation of survivors at the White House to personally hear from the survivors.

Secretary Pompeo hosted the State Department’s first International Religious Freedom Awards ceremony to honor advocates for religious freedom. The awardees are Mohamed Yosaif Abdalrahan, Imam Abubakar Abdullahi, Ivanir dos Santos, William and Pascale Warda and Salpy Eskidjian Weiderud.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar gave remarks on the work HHS has done abroad with faith based groups to fight HIV/AIDs and Ebola. He also stated, “at the annual meeting of the World Health Organization this past May, HHS brought together a diverse coalition of nine countries, representing over 1 billion people, on a joint statement that strongly supported women’s health and made clear that the U.N. and wealthy nations should not be pushing abortion advocacy and anti-family sex education policies on any other nations. Countries have a sovereign right to be respected on these sensitive, fundamental issues.”


Thursday, July 18

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo gave his keynote address where he not only highlighted developments made by the State Department since the last ministerial but also the work done through the collaboration with other nations since the ministerial. In his remarks he announced:

• “China is home to one of the worst human rights crises of our time. It is truly the stain of the century.”

• An update on the “International Religious Freedom Fund – a multi-donor fund that provides rapid assistance to victims of persecution all throughout the world.” The US paid more than $340 million for vulnerable religious and ethnic communities in Iraq. This fund also went to use paying medical bill for those in the Eastern Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka. He announced that USAID is providing another 27 million in new humanitarian assistance.

• The creation of the International Religious Freedom Alliance – an international body devoted to religious freedom that “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.”


Vice President Mike Pence gave remarks to highlighting several of the survivors in the audience and drawing attention to administration action. During his remarks he

• Called on the government of Eritrea, Mauritania, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia to release political prisoners held for their faith -- Abune Antonios in Erirea, held in house arrest for 12 years for refusing to ex-communicate critics of the government from his church; Mohamed Cheikh Mkhaïtir in Mauritania, held for criticizing the governments use of Islam as justification for discrimination; Professor Junaid Hafeez in Pakistan, in solitary confinement on blasphemy charges; and Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, imprisoned for allegedly criticizing Islam.

• Announced that the US had issued sanctions on two leaders of Iranian backed militias.

• Announced visa sanctions on Burma’s Commander in Chief and his deputy.

• Gave an update on two initiatives announced at the last ministerial. The Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program “has provided more than $340 million in aid to faith and ethnic minority communities persecuted by ISIS in Iraq and throughout the region.” Through the International Religious Freedom Fund “we’ve provided more than 435 rapid response grants to those persecuted because of their beliefs, helping more than 1,800 people directly, as well as their families and fellow believers.” The International Religious Freedom Fund helped give assistance after the Sri Lanka bombings.


USCIRF hosted the U.S. Government Grant Workshop to provide groups with the proper tools to competitively bid for U.S. government grants.

The State Department gave the various delegations present at the ministerial the opportunity to co-sign Statements of Concern (highlights below). In addition to these there were a few recommendations made in the annual USCIRF report that were adopted during the Ministerial:

Treasury issued Global Magnitsky sanctions on two Iraqi nationals, that are leaders of the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) militias, for their targeting of religious minorities. These sanctions block them from receiving any assets they may own in the US and bar US citizens from doing business with them.

• State Department issued visa sanctions on four Burmese military leaders responsible for human rights violations against the Rohingya Muslims, including extrajudicial killings. The visa sanctions ban them and their immediate families from traveling to the US.

• Vice President Pence called on the government of Eritrea, Mauritania, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia to release political prisoners held for their faith -- Abune Antonios in Erirea, Mohamed Cheikh Mkhaïtir in Mauritania, Professor Junaid Hafeez in Pakistan and Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia.


State Department joint statements with other nations present at the Ministerial:

Statement on China to address the religious freedom concerns and “call for an end to China’s mass detentions and its repressive controls on the cultural and religious practices and identities of members of religious and ethnic minority groups.” In the statement they call for the release of Pastor Wang Yi and two elders. Also signed by Kosovo, United Kingdom and Marshall Island.

Statement on Respect for Religion or Belief with the following co-signatories: Ukraine, Italy, Armenia, Estonia, Azerbaijan, Austria, Lithuania, Uzbekistan, Kosovo, Poland, Denmark, Albania, Cyprus, United Kingdom, Lebanon, Slovakia, Latvia, Norway, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Norway, Czech Republic, New Zealand, Hungary, Marshall Islands and United Arab Emirates.

Statement on Iran opposing the Iranian government’s violations and abuses of religious freedom including blasphemy, apostasy from Islam, and proselytization of Muslims, and the discrimination of unrecognized religious minorities. State calls on “the Iranian government to release all prisoners of conscience and vacate all charges inconsistent with the universal human right of religious freedom.” And urges, “Iran to ensure fair trial guarantees, in accordance with its human rights obligations, and afford all detainees access to medical care.” Also signed by Ukraine, Kosovo, Marshall Islands and United Arab Emirates.

Statement on Burma/Myannmar with the following co-signatories: Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Kosovo, Cyprus, Lebanon, United Kingdom, Jordan, Georgia, Marshall Islands and United Arab Emirates. The joint statement condemns the violence and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, emphasizes the need for the equal right to vote in the upcoming election, the protection of constitutionally-provided religious freedom for all while holding perpetrators of abuse accountable, the need for unhindered humanitarian access and a safe and sustainable return of refugees.

Statement on Use of Technology and Religious Freedom calling on “governments to use technology to facilitate greater religious freedom and not as a tool for repression, including for unlawful and arbitrary surveillance.” Also signed by Ukraine, Kosovo, United Kingdom, Marshall Islands and United Arab Emirates on the.

Statement on Protecting Places of Worship committing “to working to prevent violence against places of worship by countering intolerance and discrimination, continuing to support religious groups and other communities that have been subject to terrorist and extremist violence, and moving swiftly to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes.” Signed with Ukraine, Italy, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Austria, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Kosovo, Poland, Albania, Cyprus, United Kingdom, Lebanon, Jordan, Slovakia, Latvia, Hungary, Singapore, Georgia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Czech Republic, New Zealand, Colombia, Marshall Islands, Portugal and United Arab Emirates.

Statement on Blasphemy and Apostasy Laws calling “on governments that utilize these laws to free any individuals imprisoned on such grounds, and to repeal blasphemy, apostasy, and other laws that impede the exercise of freedoms of expression and religion or belief, in a manner inconsistent with international law.” Signed with Ukraine, Italy, Armenia, Estonia, Lithuania, Kosovo, Poland, Latvia, Denmark, Albania, United Kingdom, Slovakia, Georgia, Moldova, Serbia, Brazil, Portugal and Marshall Islands.

Statement on Counter-terrorism as a Pretext for the Repression of Religious Freedom to “promote accountability for officials who misuse or abuse counter-terrorism or other security laws and measures to commit violations of religious freedom and other human rights.” Signed with Ukraine, Armenia, Austria, Lithuania, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Kosovo, Poland, Albania, United Kingdom Lebanon, Slovakia, Latvia, Georgia, Moldova, Serbia, Brazil, Czech Republic, New Zealand, Colombia, Marshall Islands, United Arab Emirates, Portugal and Italy.

Statement on the Abuse of Members of Religions by Non-State Actors, Including Terrorist Groups to “urge civil society and faith leaders to come together and advocate for mutual understanding, respect for pluralism and tolerance, and recognition of human rights and human dignity, and we urge all governing authorities to permit and support such independent efforts.” Also signed by Ukraine, Italy, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Austria, Lithuania, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Kosovo, Poland, Denmark, Albania, Cyprus, United Kingdom, Lebanon, Jordan, Slovakia, Latvia, Georgia, Moldova, Serbia, Brazil, Czech Republic, New Zealand, Marshall Islands and United Arab Emirates.


There were additional side events surrounding the ministerial.

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