MS NAUERT: Well, welcome to our call today with Ambassador Mike Kozak of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Ambassador Kozak will talk about the 2016 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, which Secretary Tillerson released about an hour ago here at the State Department. This call is on-the-record, although it’s embargoed until the end of the call.
With that, I’ll turn it over to Ambassador Kozak. Thank you, sir.
AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Thank you, Heather. I thought I might just briefly introduce what the report is, how it’s prepared, the purposes it serves, and then be ready to take your question. As Secretary Tillerson mentioned in his remarks, the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the Secretary of State to prepare and transmit to Congress an annual report on international religious freedom describing the status of religious freedom in foreign countries and U.S. actions and policies in support of religious freedom worldwide.
Department of State officers in our embassies and consulates around the world, working with the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, obtain input from governments, media, NGOs, and others to come up with the content that goes into the report. The purpose of the report is to give Congress and the Executive Branch data to inform judgments about foreign assistance, allocation of diplomatic resources, and other issues, including adjudication of asylum and refugee requests. It is not designed to pass judgment or to rank other countries, but rather to create a fact-based review for use in U.S. Government decision making.
The instructions for preparing the report are the same for all countries. We do not single out countries or religious groups for special treatment. The record should be based on a country’s actions, not on anybody’s preconceived notions. The report does not automatically affect policy, but it does provide the factual input to policy decisions that get made during the year.
I would also note that as – that this is the first religious freedom report to be issued under this administration – as the Secretary pointed out in his remarks, the administration is making a strong commitment to advancing religious freedom for all. The President, the Vice President, and the Secretary have all emphasized religious freedom as a priority of the administration. As the Secretary mentioned, Governor Brownback is the highest-ranking person to be nominated for the ambassador-at-large position since its creation in 1998. The U.S. has multiple ways to advance these rights across the world, and congressional actions add to them and last year strengthened those mechanisms. We will continue to lead the international community and partner with allies on ways to advance this issue.
Just a few highlights, and a bit in the good news program. First, that ISIS is being defeated. And since the defeat of ISIS in great chunks of Iraq, it means that religious minorities can return to their liberated towns and villages, and the next challenge is to see that they have security and that their homes are rebuilt. There is also good news in terms of positive U.S. engagement. For example, due to steady engagement, and despite the severe religious freedom problems that the Secretary mentioned, Sudan this year released some people who were imprisoned for their religious beliefs.
Vietnam also, as a consequence of heavy U.S. engagement, improved its religion law. At the same time, in both countries the situations remain of great concern, and so we will stay engaged. But this is the kind of activity that we’re looking for, incremental progress in improving religious freedom.
We’ve also had some positive overtures from the Uzbek Government, such as the president there’s offer to amnesty to some religious prisoners. And if implemented, this would address a key religious freedom concern in Uzbekistan. We’ve also, as the Secretary mentioned, asked the Sudanese Government to engage on religious freedom concerns and to work on an action plan for improving religious freedom in that country.
One note is that there is a growing consensus on the need to act. The genocidal acts of ISIS awakened the international community to the threats facing religious minorities. And in response, the U.S., with our Canadian partners, created a network of more than 20 countries focused on advancing religious freedom. It’s called the International Contract Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief.
There is also increasing religious tolerance in some parts of the world. In Marrakech, Islamic scholars got together and issued a declaration promoting equal citizenship for religious minorities. In Tunisia, there was a remarkable display of government support for the annual pilgrimage to the Djerba island synagogue. And in the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates and Oman allowed the construction of churches to host large expatriate communities, as well as Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras.
So with that, I will be happy to take your questions about the report. Please do stick to the report itself, which covers calendar year 2016. If you have questions about other issues or other periods of time, our regular spokespeople will be able to take those questions on another occasion. But with that, I’d be happy to take your questions and comments concerning the report.
MS NAUERT: All right. Thank you, Ambassador. First question, please.
OPERATOR: All right. Ladies and gentlemen, again, if you do wish to ask a question, please press * followed by the 1. You’ll hear a tone indicating that you’ve been placed in queue, and you may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the pound key. Once again, for questions please press *1 at this time.
Our first question comes from Matthew Lee with the Associated Press. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi there. Thank you for taking my question. I’m just – I imagine other people are going to have similar questions, so I’ll make this one really brief. I’m wondering how the report can – and the Secretary can – square the line, the protection of these groups, referring to the ISIS victims, and others who are targets of violent extremists remains a human rights priority for the Trump administration – how do you square that with the refugee decision? The appendix on refugee admissions to this report mentions that refugee admissions are a vital tool in helping to deal with religious persecution.
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