Let me begin by thanking Vice President Antonio Tajani for his leadership in convening this meeting. Your role in promoting interfaith dialogue is critical to achieving greater respect and tolerance in our societies; your leadership on this issue is needed now more than ever before.
Unfortunately Dr. Lantos Swett of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom was unable to attend this event. The Commission is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission that does important work monitoring the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad. It uses international standards to monitor religious freedom violations globally and makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress.
It is also a sign of the State Department’s focus on today’s topic that it has an Office of International Religious Freedom, currently headed by Ambassador-at-Large David Saperstein. The office monitors religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, recommends and implements policies and develops programs to promote religious freedom. In the Department of State there is also a Special Advisor on religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia.
Former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks stated in the British Parliament in July 2014 that “God himself weeps at the evils being committed in his name.” It is an ethical imperative to speak out against these evils. A century ago poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote:
“To sin by silence, when we should protest, Makes cowards out of men.”
The plight of Christians around the world is serious. We just heard from Dr. John Newton of Aid to the Church in Need, an organization that has done so much to document the issue.
Without repeating the litany of tragedies Christians are facing, I wanted to mention a few salient facts. The Christians in Iraq are on the point of disappearing: in 2003 there were approximately 1.5 million Christians; today there are no more than 300,000. In July 2014 Daesh jihadists drove out all faith communities including non-Sunni Muslims from Mosul. For the first time in 1,600 years, church bells are not ringing in Mosul. Not only is this a tragedy for the Christian community in Iraq and around the world; it is also a tragedy for Iraq, a country rich in diversity and the cradle of many great faiths. Christians in Syria declined from 1.75 million in early 2011 to barely 1.2 million in the summer of 2014 – a decline of over 30 per cent in three years. According to Aid to the Church in Need, Christianity is on course for extinction in many of its biblical heartlands within a generation. Just as the environment needs biodiversity, our societies need religious diversity in order to be stable and thrive.
Christian persecution is not a phenomenon limited to the Middle East. In April 2014 well over 200 schoolgirls (mostly from Christian families) were abducted in Nigeria. By May 2015 successive acts of violence by Boko Haram had caused 100,000 Catholics alone to flee Nigeria and to destroy 350 churches. The situation is dire in some parts of Asia. According to one report, at least 10 per cent of North Korea’s 400,000-500,000 Christians are detained in labor camps.
The civilized world has been shocked in recent months at the images of desperate refugees, driven from their homelands because of their faiths; and at the images of barbaric violence, including beheadings. But it important to bear in mind that persecution can take many forms, including less visible, but nonetheless serious, psychological violence – in the form of unjust legal processes (including blasphemy laws), restrictions on religious freedom, access to employment, education and healthcare.
As we focus on the difficult situation facing many Christians, we must also not forget the religious and ethnic minorities elsewhere in the world facing sectarian violence, political disenfranchisement, and official and societal discrimination.
And we should not forget that, while al Qaeda and Daesh target their propaganda to Muslim communities, particularly Muslim youth, as they seek to recruit them, Muslims themselves are the ones most likely to be the victims.
According to the Aid to the Church in Need, religious freedom is impaired in 81 countries in the world. In 55 countries there has been a change for the worse in the past year. 20 countries are designated as seriously lacking in religious freedom: of these, 14 experience religious persecution linked to extremist Islam; in 6 countries, religious persecution is linked to authoritarian regimes. The most striking statistic is that in 81 of the world’s 196 countries – slightly over 40 per cent – religious freedom is either impaired or in decline. In 2014 global religious freedom entered a period of serious decline.
The world has learned that religious pluralism encourages and enables a thriving civil society; while religious discrimination is often the source of conflict that endangers peace and stability. Countries benefit when their citizens fully enjoy the rights to which they are entitled. No nation can fulfill its potential if its people are denied the right to practice their beliefs.
As President Obama noted, what happened in Paris was an attack not just on Paris, it was an attack not just on the people of France, but it was an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.
Among those values is the fundamental principle of tolerance– in this case, religious tolerance. As Pope Francis stated last year, “Reason recognizes that religious freedom is a fundamental right of man, reflecting his highest dignity.”
The United States seeks to engage where it can. Sometimes we have done so militarily: In August 2014, as Daesh began its attack on the Yezidis on Mt. Sinjar in Iraq, President Obama ordered airstrikes to avert atrocities and to protect American interests in Iraq. We are seeking to stop the violence at its source by supporting the coalition to degrade and defeat Daesh.
We are providing financial assistance to alleviate suffering and to prevent the conditions in which terrorism thrives. Since 2008, the State Department and USAID have provided more than $83 million to assist religious and ethnic minority communities. We have also provided over $4.5 billion in humanitarian assistance since the start of the Syrian crisis – more than any other single donor – to help address dire humanitarian conditions faced by 7.6 million displaced people inside Syria and over 4 million Syrian refugees in the region, in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
We have pledged to take in refugees: 70,000 per year over the past three years; this year it will be 85,000. Of the more than 123,000 Iraqi refugees the United States has admitted since 2007, nearly 40 percent are members of religious minorities, including Chaldeans Catholics, Roman Catholics, other Christians, Sabean-Mandeans, and Yezidis. We have announced our intention to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. Slamming the door in the faces of refugees based on religion would be a betrayal of our values.
We are using our diplomatic resources: for example, we have worked with Christian communities regarding the two kidnapped metropolitans from Aleppo and the 200 Christians kidnapped in the Khabour River valley; we have worked closely with representatives of the Yezidi community in relation to the over 4,000 Yezidis still held captive by Daesh.
We are making strides with our international partners to support the tough diplomacy needed for an inclusive political transition in Syria. The international community’s November 14 meeting in Vienna created further momentum to press for a political solution, which would help us substantially in the effort to defeat Daesh.
We are promoting stability in Iraq rooted in a responsive, inclusive government, and capable security forces that respect human rights and the rule of law. We are working with the Government of Iraq on a whole of government approach to address the needs of Iraq’s religious minority communities.
And together with our allies around the world we must also redouble our efforts around the world to address the underlying conditions that feed violence. When minority groups feel represented by government, protected by security forces, and respected in a society that enables freedom of worship and the chance for decent livelihoods, violent extremist groups like Daesh find it far more difficult to take root.
Non-state actors, including terrorist organizations, are increasingly becoming the principal persecutors and preventers of religious tolerance and practice. At a minimum, as a basic first step, countries have a responsibility to cut off funding that fuels hatred and corrupts young minds and endangers us all. As you may have seen, last week the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on a Syrian businessman it claims is instrumental in enabling Islamist militants to sell oil. We also need to do more to combat the rise of religious hatred and fundamentalism through social media.
There is a lot of work to do. I hope today’s call for action stimulates further action.