Office of the Spokesperson
For Immediate Release
November 21, 2019
Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback
November 21, 2019
Press Correspondents’ Room
MR BROWN: Everybody knows Ambassador Brownback. He’s going to read out some of his recent travels and talk to you generally about efforts related to religious freedom. This will be on the record, and you can use the audio, for those who have radio, for the duration of the opening statement and for questions. So, sir, please go ahead.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thanks. Just back from the Balkans; Monday and Tuesday did a conference in Albania on religion as an instrument of peace. We’ve got a push that we’re making in the region to get – to work with all the religions, but to work with them in such a way to really – for them to be a constructive vehicle for peace building in the region.
A lot of you know the region well. It’s – I mean, they claim themselves – they talk about being a small area with a history bigger than we can consume, and so we share it with the world. And that’s been in tragic forms in many respects. They’ve had a lot of inter-religious conflict over centuries, and really what we’re trying to do is to head that in the other directions, get the religions to work together – Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Islam, Protestant groups that are there as well.
The conference had all the faiths there, had political leaders from all the countries, and then we’re challenging them to do primarily two things: one, to establish religious freedom roundtables in each of the countries, where you get all the faiths together to talk about faith issues, and then also standing up for each other’s faith. The second piece is harder. We’re asking them to go to sites of various atrocities as faith communities in a spirit of reconciliation and to work with each other to – while there’s peace in the region, to not keep these old wounds still around, but to heal them. This would be an effort to go to some of these atrocity sites and have all the faiths there, and repentance and asking forgiveness and reconciling, and doing this publicly as a way to build towards a better future.
Part of it, for me, I’m pushing it because it’s something I did with Native Americans in Kansas and nationwide. I carried an official apology to Native Americans from the U.S. last year I was in the Senate, and then I went to several of the sites – the Sand Creek Massacre in eastern Colorado, and then where the Trail of Death ended for the Potawatomi Indians. It’s not as well known as the Trail of Tears for the Cherokee. But I just found that if you’ll go there and then say, “These things happened, we acknowledge they happened,” and ask for forgiveness, there’s a healing that can actually happen. And many of these tragedies are never healed. They just – we just kind of go on, but it always leaves a wound open for a politician or somebody that’s a nationalist active to go back and say, “Hey, 200 years ago these guys slaughtered us here, and we should go get them.” And it’s an open wound, and it’s usable.
And now is the time to really try to build a reconciliation while you’ve got a relative peace in this region. And plus, this is where East and West meet, this is where Islam and Christianity met combatively and negatively, and now we’ve got a world where you’re really getting a lot of religions coming up and rubbing against each other. And I said to these guys, “This will either be an example to emulate or a cautionary tale, because we’re getting a lot of these conflict zones.” Nigeria, we’ve got a lot of conflict, a lot of people getting killed.
So that’s an effort. It’s a long-term push. I think it’s incredibly important, and it’s us really engaging those faith communities and the political leaders who are there to do that. I hope over time that we can build some momentum around this.
I was at the site of Srebrenica, where the last genocide tragedy took place – it was 8,000 people killed there – and met with some of the mothers, and they said nobody’s come to them to apologize or ask for forgiveness. And so it just leaves these open wounds.
Anyway, that was that trip. I do want to go – three weeks earlier, I was with the Dalai Lama, the central Tibetan authority in Dharamshala, India, delivering a speech from the U.S. calling – saying that it’s the Tibetan Buddhists that have the right to determine the succession for the Dalai Lama, not the Chinese Communist Party or any government. To me, this is like the Chinese Communist Party, the government, saying they have a right to determine who the next pope is. This is not their right. This is the right of the Tibetan Buddhists to determine this.
The Chinese Government has said repeatedly they have this right. You will recall they kidnapped the Panchen Lama, the number two Lama, 25 years ago roughly now. We don’t know if he’s dead or alive. And they claim that the succession has to go through them, the Chinese Government.
And I think the international community needs to aggressively speak out that this right belongs to the Tibetan Buddhists to determine by whatever procedure that they choose or that they have. And they’ve been doing this for centuries, so they’ve got a process. And that’s what I was meeting with the Dalai Lama.
He’s healthy. He showed me his muscle, and he said, “I’m strong. I’m going live 15, 20 years. I’m going to outlive the Chinese Government.” He speaks freely. But it is a matter, I think, that the international community has to be very clear about and strong that this right does not belong to the Chinese Government.
So I was out and doing that, and then meeting with Indian and Nepalese authorities in – or we had another grassroots conference.
This will be a final point, then I’d be happy to open it to questions. We’re really trying to make this religious freedom movement go grassroots, so I was doing that in Bangkok with a number of NGOs. I’m meeting with a number of church groups and we’re having, I think, some good conversations how you do that.
The human trafficking movement went grassroots. It was a bill about the same time that we did the religious freedom bill, but it really got seeded into places. So I’m at the Bangkok airport; there’s a sign there, “If you see somebody that’s suspicious, maybe is trafficked, call this number.” We need that on the religious freedom movement for it to go grassroots, so that it’s driven by people of all faiths or no faith all over the world, that this is their human right and that they have this right to do that.
And so that’s part of what our – it’s part of what our push was at the ministerial, where we had a thousand civil society and religious actors there. It’s part of what we’re doing at these conferences, and we’re going to continue to push that.
So I’d be happy to try and take questions.
MR BROWN: Carol.
QUESTION: Ambassador, I have two questions. Could you talk a little bit more about when you were in the Balkans what some of the places are besides Srebrenica where you’re suggesting that people go and seek this healing and whether you ever intend to go along with them?
And also, when you were in the Baltics, did you get any insight into what Ambassador Grenell is doing in terms of trying to work with Serbia and Kosovo?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I don’t have other insights on what he’s doing in Kosovo or in the region. I know the region is happy that he’s appointed and that we have somebody working this topic. But I was in Belgrade, Sarajevo, Pristina, Tirana, and there’s one other I’m missing. I was – kind of a blur.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: What’s that?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: No, I didn’t go to Zagreb.
QUESTION: You didn’t go to Zagreb?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Uh-uh. I didn’t – I wasn’t in that part of it. There’s one other.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: No. I don’t know. Keep guessing, but I’ll come up with it. (Laughter.)
And I was meeting with – meeting with a lot of the religious and the political leadership, and I met with all parties – Catholic, Orthodox, and Islamic. And they were agreeable to the – that they needed to get together, and they were receptive of the concept. Nobody said, “Yes, we will do it,” on this healing process. I am willing to go and be a part of it. I have done this. I have found it to be very difficult but very important and healing to both the land and the people. So we’ll continue to track it.
They seemed, again, receptive to it and knowing something needs to happen, but not sure how willing they are to step up, because all these things have such – such impact on the people. In any book you read about the region, any paper you read about it, it starts in 1486 these people slaughtered these people, and they haven’t forgotten it and they cite to it. And so it’s just constantly used in this region, and this is an area of East meeting West. So this is a new – it isn’t a new concept to them. This is an important concept that I think is going to take some cajoling on our part and willingness to work, but I think it’s absolutely essential or you’re going to see this cycle repeated again. This will happen again in that region.
QUESTION: I had a similar —
MR BROWN: Tracy.
QUESTION: Thank you. Tracy Wilkinson, LA Times. I had a similar question. I was wondering where else you went besides Srebrenica. But from what you’re saying, it’s going to take a lot of cajoling still. No one is willing to do this yet. It’s been —
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: They didn’t say no, and the patriarch particularly in Belgrade of the Serbian Orthodox Church said sure, happy to meet. People have talked about this for years, but it hasn’t happened yet.
QUESTION: Yeah, it’s been 25 years since Srebrenica, for example, so what makes you keen on doing this now, right now? Is there something alarming in the region that has gotten your attention?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: No. What makes me want to do it now is it’s probably been long enough that people have cooled down enough where you could actually get some sort of legitimate discussion. What makes you also want to do it is in the work that I do I see all these conflicts that have religion as a component of them, whether it’s the Rohingya being kicked out of Burma. People say, “Well, that’s ethnic.” And I said, “No. If these guys were Buddhists they wouldn’t be getting kicked out of Burma. But they’re Muslims.” And so you’re just seeing so much of a religious component.
When I was in Nigeria, they’re saying, “No, it’s ethnic and it’s regional and it’s resource-driven.” And all those are pieces to it, but it is also there is a religious component to this. And so just seeing it in so many places, that saying if you could really get to the place where we’ve seen this actually happen in a very aggressive form, and it’s spun out of control to a lot of places, this is probably a time where it’s enough time has passed, people have cooled off enough, that you could do it. And if you don’t do it, it will happen again there.
QUESTION: Final thing, you didn’t mention Jews when you were listing the —
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I met with the Jewish people —
QUESTION: Okay. I assume they were not excluded. Okay, I just wanted to clarify.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, I did. But the reason I didn’t mention it is the Jewish community is so small —
QUESTION: Small, but it was key during the war.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: It was key during the war. But I mean, anymore, I mean, there’s like 10 Jewish families in some of the places. But they’re important. I met with them. It’s just it’s such a small community.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
MR BROWN: Abigail.
QUESTION: I actually wanted to ask about China and some of the documents that have just been uncovered about the Uighur detention camps. Broadly, do you have any comment on what it is that these documents show? And then does their existence allow for more concrete action to be taken against China for those actions?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I’ve read the stories and I can’t really comment on the documents. I don’t know the – all the nature of it. The story is consistent with everything we have seen to date that this is a concerted effort by China to – it’s their war on faith and it’s the Islamic portion of it, which is, I think, probably the most aggressive of all of their wars on faith, although you could argue that what they’ve done to Tibet and Buddhism is pretty parallel, pretty similar to it.
But this – and we call on them to stop, to release the people who are in the concentration camps, to allow people to freely practice their faith and not to continue this effort to destroy Islam in China.
QUESTION: Does it —
QUESTION: And —
QUESTION: Oh, can I just follow up? One follow-up on that? But does it give you the ability, having – it sounds like you haven’t seen the documents, but this seems like more concrete, physical evidence that it was a systematic move by them. I know that you’ve, in the past, drawn parallels to concentration camps. This feels like very concrete documentation, so I just wonder if that allows for more authority for the international community to move forward and take action.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I think everybody’s wanting to review the documents carefully. And it’s consistent with everything – what we have said and seen thus far. And I think it will spur more action by the international community. There is a growing effort – I just was – left yesterday Amsterdam with a series of religious freedom advocates, European mostly in that area. They are getting more aggressive and willing to speak out.
For a long time, it’s – governments have been terribly silent on what’s going on in Xinjiang. And we’ve been one of the leading voices speaking out on it. And thankfully, the international press community has really dug into this story and dug up a lot of the information. But I think you’re seeing more now openness and willingness to come – people have been very scared of China. And the many small countries – and they’ll tell us this privately – are just saying look, we’re too small and we’ll – this will hurt us too much. And so they’ve not made comment.
MR BROWN: All right. Reuters and then Fox. Then back to you, Nike.
QUESTION: Hi. I also have a couple questions on this. Is the U.S. considering any sanctions or targeted sanctions related to China’s treatment of the Uighurs?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: We just – you know we don’t preview sanctions. You know we did do sanctions on several of the countries – or, excuse me – companies that have the AI equipment. And I think a number of people continue to review ongoing efforts, but, I mean, we’ve done several things to date, and I’m – there are always things being reviewed.
QUESTION: And then is there any word on the officials that were sanctioned by the U.S. last month related to this, like who those officials were?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Nothing else that I can release at the present time on that.
MR BROWN: Okay. Rich.
QUESTION: Thanks a lot. Hey, Mr. Ambassador.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Hey.
QUESTION: I was wondering if you could give us a bit of an update on where the administration is on discussing whether to condition aid on countries’ religious freedom and allowing religious minorities freedom within their countries, what your thoughts are on that proposal, the merits are of it.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, I can’t give you an update on other internal discussions on that conditioning of aid. I can tell you we’ve been working with a number of the development organizations to ask them to consider if they can help religious minorities in countries, particularly places that are persecuted. We do help certain groups, like we’ll have particular programs targeted towards women in some countries or the handicapped. And I’ve asked a number of them to see is there a chance that we could look at this for religious minorities in countries as a way to help and support them. That’s being reviewed.
We had at the ministerial an entire track done by AID of what they’re doing to increasingly look at trying to support religious minorities in particularly persecuted places where they have a lot of difficulty. The meeting I was just at in Amsterdam, there were several other countries there that are looking at development aid and what they can do to use it to help religious freedom advocacy work.
I know one country’s particularly concerned about Pakistan and we are concerned about Pakistan because of the harshness of the persecution atmosphere and the number of people getting killed or the inability for the Ahmadi Muslims to function in the country, because they – the Pakistanis won’t let them register as Muslims. They’re saying you’re an Ahmadi. They say yes, I’m an Ahmadi Muslim. Well, that means you’re not a Muslim. No, we are Muslims. But they won’t let them function in the country. So we’re looking at what we can do in that space, and so that’s an active discussion.
The other piece on conditioning aid, I really don’t have any further comment I can make.
QUESTION: Just generally speaking on the issue itself, and going back to your time in the Senate, do you believe that the U.S. Government when it comes to just making aid decisions has elevated religious freedom sufficiently?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Not yet. The latest numbers from Pew say 80 percent of the world lives in a religious persecution atmosphere. The year before, it was like 73 percent. We continue to lose ground in this effort. That’s what – when I was meeting with our European allies on this spot – this space yesterday, I said guys, yes, we’re getting more done, but the trendline continues against us. We continue losing ground in this space. We have a lot of people getting killed. We’ve got many people being locked up.
And then now you’ve got on top of that this development of these sort of artificial intelligence, Big Brother, watching systems that is the future of oppression. This thing is coming where you’re going to have – the oppression isn’t going to be locking people up; it’s going to be marginalizing them in society. It’ll be the social credit score type system that the Chinese are using. You’ve just seen the prototype of this develop in Xinjiang. This is a prototype. This will expand in other authoritarian regimes. And that’s why, for me, this is something that we’ve really got to go at aggressively now, before this thing spreads more.
MR BROWN: Nike.
QUESTION: Yes. Thank you for the briefing. Ambassador, as you mentioned, the succession of His Holiness Dalai Lama should be determined by Tibetan Buddhists.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yes.
QUESTION: Could you please tell us how is UN – excuse me. How is UN responding to your effort to take on this succession issue? What will be the usual vehicle? And then – excuse me. Would you like to respond to the Chinese Communist Government’s accusation that U.S. is meddling in their internal affairs? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, I just categorically reject that I’m meddling in their internal affairs. There are many people that follow the Dalai Lama that don’t live in China. This is a well-known spiritual leader throughout the world and deserves respect and deserves to be – the succession process picked by his faith community and the processes that they’ve followed for centuries. So I reject what the Chinese say. I think this is an issue even really that should be taken up in international bodies to speak out clearly on this topic, to allow the succession process to go forward by its normal methods.
And we’re going to keep pushing on that. I was very pleased that I was able to deliver that speech in Dharamshala in front of a group of the Tibetan community that was gathered there for a celebration, and I think you’re starting to see more interest pick back up in what’s happened in Tibet and to the Dalai Lama. He used to travel so much, was such a great spokesperson. I met him several times when he traveled to the United States – just was energetic and lively and clear. But he’s not able to travel as much now, so he can’t really kind of carry the cause the way he used to carry the cause almost singlehandedly in the past.
Well, now more of the international community needs to step up and start carrying the cause with him and for him. And I believe that is starting to happen. You saw the bill in Congress this year. We’re getting more engaged. I think you’re going to see more in the international community on this too, and it has to happen now before – it just needs to happen now.
QUESTION: What would be the usual vehicle under the UN structure to take on this succession issue, as you have advocated?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: At the UN?
QUESTION: Either it’s something that you have said – you have called on United Nations to —
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I think the UN needs to take this topic up. I think it should be taken up by the United Nations. It should be taken up by other international bodies too, but the UN should take it up, the European – a number of governments in the – around the world should take this up. Particularly, European governments should take this up that care about religious freedom and human rights. So that’s part of what we’re trying to stir and I was trying to stir yesterday with colleagues from Europe, is that this is a key topic that they need to be taking up and expressing clearly and now, not when you get in the middle of some crisis. This is something that needs to be addressed at this point in time.
We know what the Chinese are capable and willing of doing because of what they’ve done to the Panchen Lama. So this – we are not going to be surprised what actions they’re going to be willing to take. It’s just we need to get there ahead of time and address it.
MR BROWN: Just go.
QUESTION: Thanks. Thanks, Ambassador. I wanted to follow on China and the Uighur situation. Would you say that the pressure that the U.S. has been putting for a while on China has had any effect on their actions in Xinjiang, or would you say that there’s some positive steps taken by China or not at all, the situation is even worsening?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, I – you couldn’t say there are tangible results that we could announce to date. I do think that the Chinese are noticing and are feeling this. I do think there is a broader international consensus developing. I think there are more voices willing to speak up that were silenced earlier for fear of Chinese reprisal. All of those things are happening. But the actions by the Chinese have continued to be of the same ilk that they have in the past.
So they haven’t changed their – their response has changed. They kind of – first they denied it was taking place, then it’s just kind of vocational training camps and it’s all good for people, and now it’s you’re meddling in internal affairs. I mean, they’re kind of – the response keeps morphing, but there are more people willing to address this and believe it’s a horrific thing that’s taking place.
MR BROWN: Michel.
QUESTION: I have one on Iran and one on Turkey. Iran – the Iranian regime is targeting demonstrations and protesters in some areas where the religious minorities are. Are you aware of that? How can you help them?
And on Turkey, when President Erdogan was meeting with President Trump, his forces were targeting a Christian village in northeastern Syria. Are you aware of that? And if you have anything on it.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: We’ve been speaking out and pushing and sanctioning Iran as heavily as anybody has ever done, and we’ll continue to do so by the broad U.S. Government policy, not particularly about religious minorities but about the regime and what it has done and continues to do and stand for. It remains one of the most repressive regimes in the world. It has been horrific towards its religious minorities. If you’re not a Shia Muslim you should expect problems, and the – what they’ve done to the Baha’i, the Jewish, the Christian community has been terrible.
Turkey, there’s been a number of people comment about the targeting of religious minorities in Turkey, the Christians, the – and other religious minorities in the area. I met with some Kurdish – the Kurdish foreign minister today about refugees fleeing from that – from the fight that the Turkey – Turkey is doing in Syria. It remains an issue that the administration is very focused on, and what we need to do and how to push to protect the religious minorities. The President’s talked about bringing the country’s economy to its knees sanctions-wise if certain lines are crossed, and I believe he’ll do it. He’s done it before. And remember Pastor Brunson, Andrew Brunson, that was in a Turkish prison and kept talking to him, talking to him about it. They wouldn’t react, and then finally, he just put sanctions on their steel and aluminum exports. It drove their currency to a record low when he did that – record low.
QUESTION: But don’t you think that they crossed already the line when they targeted the Christian and – villages and other minorities?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: That call has to be made by the President and the NSC community and will be. I just – what I can tell you is that they are watching this very closely and they are paying attention to what’s happening in that region.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR BROWN: Time for one more.
QUESTION: Given how many times – oh, I’m sorry.
QUESTION: Go ahead, Carol.
QUESTION: No, no. I already asked a question. Okay.
QUESTION: Ambassador, at the UN you suggested that a trade deal with China could still move forward despite the issues with the religious – treatment of religious minorities there. Do you still feel that a trade deal can be reached with them without any sort of – no warning or repercussion for their treatment of the Uighurs?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, these are separate tracks.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: And if you try to combine them, it makes for a great deal of difficulty. They’ve got to – they’ve got to deal with these religious freedom issues. And whether there’s a trade deal or not, we will continue to press on them until they do deal with this. So I see these as separate tracks, and you – and most of the time, that’s why you do these sort of arrangements. You have security deals in security fields. You got trade deals in trade deals – in trade field, and this one is a human rights issue and it has to be dealt with whether or not there’s a trade deal, and will be, my estimation. There’s – it’s grown so egregious and so obvious and so well known in the world, I think there’s going to continue to be more and aggressive pressure on China for what they’re doing to their religious population.
QUESTION: So you don’t think there should be any sort of leveraging component in those trade talks to try to strengthen human rights —
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: They want to keep – and I think this is right – keep trade in a trade space. Years ago I worked in the trade rep’s office – I’m old enough to have worked in Bush 1 in the trade field as a White House fellow – and we constantly were working to just keep the trade issues on a trade agenda. It doesn’t mean you don’t push or that other people on the outside say, “And, well, it would sure help if you would be – would let the Uighurs live freely,” and that these issues won’t get raised back and forth, but normally the process is really to keep these segmented.
MR BROWN: Yeah, sure. One more.
QUESTION: One more. You’ve been talking so much today about trying to intervene and advocate on – against the mistreatment of Muslims. Do you think that the U.S. Government needs to allocate more resources towards helping Muslim communities that are under threat in so many different places and situations? Maybe even reallocate money away that has been diverted to helping Christian communities?
QUESTION: It sounds like —
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: You’ve got – what’s that?
QUESTION: It just sounds like you’re presenting a world in which Muslims are more vulnerable to government mistreatment than Christians.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I’m trying to present a world where you’ve got just a lot of religious-based oppression that’s happening. The – I could talk about the house church in China – didn’t because they’re being held, the – lot of – the – generally it’s house church leaders who are being held, not as many of the congregants, and they’re being held in prison, not in large detention facilities like what has been constructed in Xinjiang. And I could – number of Christians being killed in the world is what many would say is at an all-time high. There – it’s substantial and the largest group, probably. I don’t know that I could – I can’t tell you that by our government numbers, but I can tell you that by other numbers, that the Christian community, there’s more being killed than any other faith community being killed today.
Having said that, you’ve got a couple of very large-scale, Muslim-focused areas, in particularly Myanmar and China, with the Rohingya and the Uighurs that are just – that are of a scale that they’re bigger just in one place than these others that tend to be a lot more diffuse. I don’t know that that would augur for reallocation. We’ve put quite a bit of money into helping the Rohingya now in the refugee camps. The issue is you’ve just got to get a long-term resolution with the Burmese Government, and that’s not happened. And the issue with China is they’re trying to wipe out their Muslim – they’re trying to wipe out the Islamic faith in China; not necessarily the population, they’re just trying to really get it out of them through these intense training camp programs that they’re running. And then they’re trying to force it out of them in a lifestyle through these sort of Big Brother social credit systems that they’ve put in place.
But that social credit system applies to other religious minorities too, to other – to every – all the other religious community. And arguably, they’ve already have done to the Tibetan Buddhists what they’re trying to do now to the Muslim Uighurs. It just took them a longer period of time and they’re still doing it. So I don’t know that I would say we need to reallocate funds. You do have, though, two really large-scale things that are happening today that demand attention, I think, by the global community to resolve.
MR BROWN: Thank you all.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Good questions.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR BROWN: Thanks, guys. Appreciate it.
QUESTION: Thank you.