Knox Thames, special advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia at the U.S. Department of State, marks the twentieth anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act with a discussion on the State Department's Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And the audio and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.
We’re delighted to have Knox Thames with us today to mark the twentieth anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act as well as a discussion on the State Department’s recent ministerial to advance religious freedom.
Knox Thames serves as a special advisor for the religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia at the U.S. State Department. As the first person to serve in this capacity, he leads the State Department’s efforts to address the situation of religious minorities in these regions.
For over a decade and a half, he has worked in various U.S. government capacities, including at two different U.S. government foreign policy commissions, as well as in the Office of International Religious Freedom. Prior to joining the State Department, he was the director of policy and research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. And he is the author of numerous articles on international affairs.
Knox, thanks very much for being with us today. As I mentioned at the outset, we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act on October 27. And this summer, the State Department held their first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, marking this anniversary. So it would be great if you could walk us through the historic nature of the event this summer, the stakeholders that were present, and summarize for us what were the outcomes from the meeting and where you go from here.
THAMES: Well, thank you so much for offering this important platform. I want to thank the Council on Foreign Relations and you, Irina, for inviting me to speak today. I know I speak for myself and many others on the call that this platform you’ve created and your hard work has really been helpful for those of us who are working on issues of religion, religious freedom, foreign policy to discuss these interesting, yet difficult issues.
You’re right that 2018 does mark the twentieth anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which was a groundbreaking piece of legislation that made the promotion and protection of religious freedom a foreign policy priority. You know, religious freedom is a universal human right that should be available to everyone everywhere. And promoting freedom of religion or belief and protecting religious minorities is a foundational tenet of the United States established in our own Constitution domestically and mandated in statutes in accordance with our international obligations. So the passage of IRFA twenty years ago was just a further extension of this American distinctive, this unique part of our international engagement.
The International Religious Freedom Act created a special ambassador position for religious freedom here at the State Department, supported by an Office of International Religious Freedom. The current ambassador at large, as many of you, is Sam Brownback. He is the principal advisor to the president and secretary of state on issues relating to religious freedom worldwide. And I am based in the Religious Freedom Office with him.
In addition, there’s another anniversary this year, the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), another landmark document that recognized the rights of individuals to have any faith or none, to change faith, to share beliefs through teaching or other practices, and to educate one’s children in the faith of the parents. Unfortunately, seventy years after the UDHR’s passage, we’re very far from the expansive ideals it recognized.
The Pew Forum, as many of you know, reports that 83 percent of the global community lives in countries that restrict the free practice of faith. That means, either due to government limitations or societal limitations, individuals can only operate in very narrow lanes of permissible religious activity. That doesn’t mean everyone’s being persecuted, but rather, if someone steps out of those permissible lanes, then they can expect to be persecuted, if not harassed and repressed by either government or society.
So we see religious persecution continuing in too many places: the ongoing repression of and atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in Burma; the brutal Chinese crackdown in Uighurs, Tibetans, Buddhists, and Christians; attacks by terrorists on Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Pakistan; the authoritarian repression of Baha’is in Iran and now Yemen and all faiths in North Korea. So in the face of these limitations and persecution around the world, we wanted to do more to protect everybody’s inalienable right to religious freedom. I mean, we really believe that we’re more effective when likeminded governments and communities can work together to protect religious freedom for everybody.
And so that’s why Secretary of State Pompeo brought together representatives of governments, religious communities, civil society groups, and international organizations, from literally every corner of the world, to discuss these issues at the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. So the ministerial itself went from July 24 to 26 and we hosted eighty-four governments here at the State Department as well as representatives of the European Union, the Organization of American States, the OSCE, and the United Nations. And recognizing the importance of including members of civil society and religious communities in these discussions, over four hundred NGOs and religious figures also attended. We really threw open the doors at the State Department during these three days.
And we asked everyone to come with the joint goal of finding ways governments and civil society can work together to protect religious freedom around the world. But we also didn’t want this to be an abstract discussion. We wanted to connect people with the suffering outside of the walls of our conference space, so we brought in survivors of religious persecution from a variety of countries, including Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Sudan, and Vietnam that represented multiple faith communities, including various Christian denominations, Muslims, Jews, Yazidis, Baha’is, Animis, and Buddhists. And we also had the daughter of Pastor Andrew Brunson, who represented her father’s plight. And we’re very thankful that he’s been released and his now back home, but she also had a very captivating speech about what her father had gone through at that time.
Now, we launched the whole week of activities at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. We chose the museum because it’s such a stark reminder of the failure of the international community to protect Jews from the horrors of genocide and the millions of others murdered for their faith and religious identity. We had the opening ceremony with Irene Weiss, a Holocaust survivor whose picture at Auschwitz actually hangs in the museum. She keynoted the opening ceremony in a powerful hall remembrance. And we had stand behind her these survivors of twenty-first century persecution, and that made a really stark contrast that the persecution of the last century is still going on today. And it has reinforced the need for the ministerial.
And so the way we divided the actual meeting over the three days was with different themes. Day one was about equipping, day two listening, and day three was acting. So on the first day with the equipping theme, we had sessions to help educate NGOs and religious groups and activists about how to get the resources they need to do the important work in the field. The second day, the listening theme, we had a variety of panels on a variety of topics that we could get the information from these communities that had come from all over the world to better inform U.S. diplomacy. So we had discussions on a real, quite expansive range of topics, including legal limitations, such as registration or blasphemy laws, we had a panel on cultural heritage, another one on women’s rights and religious freedom and a few others.
And then the last day was for governments and that was focused on action. We really wanted the ministerial to be more than just a talk shop, we wanted it to be action oriented. Demonstrating that ourselves, we had very high representation from this administration. Vice President Pence was a keynote speaker, Secretary Pompeo spoke, Ambassador Haley spoke, Administrator Green from USAID, Ambassador Brownback moderated and led the discussions over all three days, but particularly on day three as well.
And so we had several important outcomes. While we were challenging the international community to do more, we were also challenging ourselves. And so some of the things we launched are as follows. First, we launched the International Religious Freedom Fund which is a global fund where we’ll work with our likeminded partners to gather resources to assist victims of persecution around the world. And USAID launched the Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program. And that’ll be bringing new USAID resources online to work on these topics.
In addition to better equip NGOs to have greater impact, we launched a special accelerator workshop called Bold Line designed to support and scale innovative partnerships about religious freedom.
And then at the conclusion of the ministerial, the secretary released the Potomac Declaration and Plan of Action. The Potomac Declaration reflects the importance of promoting religious freedom as a universal human right and is really linked to the UDHR. And the Potomac Plan of Action provides the roadmap for meeting that goal, outlining a comprehensive framework over six different topics that outlines activities governments, but also other actors can take to promote religious freedom and to respond to persecution on account of religion, belief, or nonbelief.
We also issued—the Potomac Declaration and Plan of Action were in our voice, it was a U.S. statement. But the secretary also issued three country statements on Burma, China, and Iran and three thematic statements where we invited other countries to join. And many participants did so. For instance, on the thematic statement on blasphemy, we had a very diverse group of countries come together. It was cosigned along with us by Armenia, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Israel, Kosovo, Oman, Poland, Sri Lanka, and the United Kingdom. And that’s quite a diverse group of countries from different regions and religious backgrounds and political systems all speak out against blasphemy.
The ministerial also launched commitments for follow-on conferences and civil society roundtables to promote religious freedom. And my office here, we’re working with countries that offered to host follow-on conferences.
And importantly, both the vice president and the secretary announced that the ministerial will be an annual event, so now we’re starting to think about what we want to do in 2019.
So from all this activity, I think you can tell that we really believe that defending freedom of religion or belief is the collective responsibility of everyone, of the global community. We really do believe that religious freedom is essential for achieving peace and stability within nations. We’ve seen that when religious freedom is protected, other freedoms are protected like expression, association, and assembly. And yet, when religious freedom is absent, we find conflict, instability, and violence.
The ministerial in response also spurred new religious freedom ambassadorship alongside of Ambassador Brownback’s position. Before or after the ministerial, the U.K., Germany, Mongolia, Bahrain, and Taiwan all announced new special ambassadorships, joining others from Norway, Denmark, the EU, and a special office in Canada. And these are going to join preexisting networks that we have of likeminded countries already working on religious freedom and gain momentum. And we’re starting to see increasing interest from Latin America, South American countries where religious freedom is generally protected. We’ve been inviting them to become more active. And Argentina, Chile, and Mexico are really starting to step up and we hope others from OAS will also join.
So I think I’ll stop here and just end with the closing idea that we need to all find new ways to work together to advance religious freedom for everybody. It’s simple as that. The need is clear. The problem seems to be getting worse and certainly more complex. Every community is impacted somewhere.
So I really appreciate, again, this forum, this opportunity to speak to a real interesting and diverse group of people. And I’m happy to answer any questions that the listeners may have. Thanks again.
FASKIANOS: Knox, thanks very much for that. We really appreciate the background and where this is headed.
So, please, let’s open it up to the group for questions, comments. We look forward to hearing from you.
OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions.
Our first question comes from Tereska Lynam of University of Oxford.
LYNAM: Hi. Thank you. Can you hear me OK?
FASKIANOS: We can.
LYNAM: OK, great. Thank you so much for the presentation. Mine is a very short question. I don’t understand what you mean by signing the resolution against blasphemy, if you could talk a little bit more about what the resolution was and what you hope to achieve by that. Thank you so much.
THAMES: Sure thing. In addition to the three country statements, we issued three statements of concern on counterterrorism as a false pretext for religious freedom repression, concerns about religious freedom repression by nonstate actors, such as terrorists, and then a statement on blasphemy and apostasy laws. And so it was just trying to get a group of countries together to speak on a variety of different issues where we’re likeminded.
We see an increasing use of blasphemy laws and apostasy laws, which the United States, we opposed full stop because they lead to such human rights abuses. They limit freedom of expression and religious—or are applied in such a way to impact the religious freedoms of religious minorities. So it was a short three-paragraph statement calling for their repeal and explaining our concerns about these laws. So it put us on record regarding this commonly held concern.
LYNAM: So basically, what you’re saying is that there will be countries that say, OK, we have, like, let’s—I don’t know for sure that this is happening, but let’s say Saudi Arabia will say that if you—certain sheikhs or whatever will be called blasphemy or apostasy and people will be punished accordingly. And what you’re saying is that you are against this sort of behavior. Is that correct?
THAMES: Right, in a general sense. We’d also seen some countries promoting blasphemy-type laws through the U.N. or other international organizations and this is also an attempt to sort of create a counterstatement explaining our concerns about it and how it impacts a variety of fundamental freedoms.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: The next question comes from Homer International Law Group.
HOMER: Hi. This is Lauren Homer from Homer International Law.
Knox, I’m wondering, as an outcome of the ministerial, whether there was a commitment to links at the highest levels of the executive branches of the various countries. You have done a wonderful job of helping set up the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief, but I’m wondering if there needs to be another linkage, particularly for the countries that have not set up these ambassadorships the way we have.
THAMES: Yeah. So in addition to the network of parliamentarians, Canada launched back in 2015 something called the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief. That was by Ambassador Bennett when they had a religious freedom ambassador. And then as the government was transitioning to the Trudeau government, they asked the United States to cochair it with them. So I cochair it with colleagues from Ottawa. And we meet twice a year as a really closer-knit network of likeminded countries. And there’s no formal membership, per se, but we just ask that countries that participate fully support Article Eighteen of the UDHR, so all the aspects of it, freedom to have any faith or none, to change faith, to share faith, to educate, all those components. And we’ve got about thirty different countries and international organizations that participate.
And this is the venue that we’ve been encouraging South American countries to become more active in promoting religious freedom. And we say here in the United States religious freedom is an American value, but if you look at our hemisphere, it’s really a value of the Americas because, you know, outside of Cuba and Venezuela and, sadly now, Nicaragua, the vast majority of countries don’t really have religious freedom problems of any magnitude. There are no Chinas or Saudi Arabias in our hemisphere, thank goodness. And so we’ve been inviting them to come along with us, to join our engagements as a reflection of this common value.
And Argentina in fact is going to be hosting the next meeting of the contact group next week up in New York. And we’re really excited about it. It’s the first time a non-North American or non-European country has hosted it. And Chile, Mexico have been increasingly interested.
Ambassador Brownback gave a presentation to the OAS Permanent Council here in Washington, inviting, making this pitch to say that we want to create, strengthen, and broaden this network. So we’re seeing increasing cooperation at the governmental level that mirrors the parliamentary network and then also, I think, is similar to the Religious Freedom Roundtable here in Washington. And so we’ve got three legs of a stool built and we just want to continue to strengthen them and expand them so we can have as many actors engaged as possible.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Friends of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.
UTHUP: Hi. This is Thomas. Knox, good to hear from you after a few years.
THAMES: Yes, yes.
UTHUP: You were absolutely on point when talking about religious freedom becoming more complex, while earlier you were saying that in this hemisphere the situation is, of course, not as bad as some other places. But I was wondering if the U.S. had taken any stance on the recent proposal by the Quebec government about banning religious symbols, the wearing of religious symbols. Which brings me to, I guess, the main question or a second question to that, what does the U.S. government do when a provincial or state government takes an action that perhaps a federal government may not approve of?
So in this case, I don’t think Prime Minister Trudeau is very fond of this proposed law, but I’m also thinking about places like India where, you know, you have a federal government and a state government, and some of the state governments are far more radical in terms of actions than the federal governments. So I guess the first question is, has the U.S. said anything about the Quebec issue? And the second question is, in the case where a state government is doing something that perhaps a federal government is opposed to, does the U.S. still get involved? Thank you.
THAMES: Sure. It’s good to hear your voice again. On the first question, I personally am not aware of this legislation in Quebec, so I can’t speak to it directly, whether we’ve addressed it in any public way. I do know that, as a general matter, we would say that people should be free to express their religious beliefs through dress and also be free to express it by not wearing certain religious garb. So we’re against, generally, bans on headscarves as well as the forcible application of religious garb. And that’s just something with countries that are our closest allies that we will—we can talk with about, we can have conversations and share our experience about how we work to protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities in this country.
As far as working at a subnational level, we do engage subnational government leadership when appropriate. Oftentimes, that happens through our consulates. And for sure, we report on it in our annual report on international religious freedom. If there are government restrictions on the ability of individuals to freely live according to their conscience in a peaceful way, regardless of the level, that oftentimes or it should find its way into our international religious freedom report so that—so we’re highlighting it, we’re documenting those limitations. And we’ve found these reports to be a great jumping-off point for further discussions, a way to have the conversations, to share our views and encourage a government at whatever level to have as open a policy on religious practice as possible.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Baha’i International Community.
DUGAL: Yes. This is Bani Dugal. Hi, Knox.
THAMES: Hi, Bani.
DUGAL: Thank you for to the U.S. for this excellent initiative and to you for your leadership. My question is, was there any response from some of the governments that were present if they were going to intercede with some of the countries that you mentioned where religious freedom—(audio break)—level that perhaps the U.S. couldn’t. But since they are your allies—(audio break)—and work with the countries in question to see that they could open up religious freedom? I mean, was there any response from any of the countries that were present and a willingness to do something there?
THAMES: You know, this is one of the reasons that we had the country and thematic statements to provide an opportunity for the governments who were gathered to speak on the issues that we had heard about the preceding two days.
In addition, we had a meeting of the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief at the Canadian embassy the day after the ministerial, which really brought together the most likeminded countries like I had just explained to talk about, OK, next steps. And one of the things that was actually suggested by the Danish religious freedom ambassador was to create focal points amongst likeminded embassies that are part of the contact group in countries of concern. And that has spurred to the establishment of six different groupings of contact group country embassies in sort of swing states, countries where, you know, we can hopefully get ahead of the curve and encourage positive policies that respect this right.
I can’t really say which countries those are in, but that was exciting, frankly, on a couple of levels. One, to have other religious freedom ambassadors start to take ownership of this issue and to use this network to put good ideas forward, and then to see a number of countries really jumping in and saying, yeah, our embassy can do it in country X and another country says, well, we can do it in country Y.
Going back to my point that, while the United States has its twenty-year commitment to promoting religious freedom and it’s part of our cultural DNA, we shouldn’t be the only country doing it. And so now we’re starting to see increasing burden-sharing and cooperation at a time when it’s really needed because the statistics are all pretty depressing. So I’m hopeful that the meeting next week in New York will further this positive momentum and will be able to bring everyone’s political capital to bear.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from John Pawlikowski of Catholic Theological Union.
PAWLIKOWSKI: Yes. I’m sorry, an AMBER Alert seemed to have disconnected me, so I don’t know if anyone heard any of the questions, so let me repeat.
First of all, I’m very grateful for the fact as a founder of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that this important event was held there and the lengthy work of the Holocaust Museum with the greater work of international religious freedom.
My questions are these. First of all, in your listing of problematical countries and in the very frequent listing of problematical countries, one country that seems often neglected is Saudi Arabia. And yet, I know from some of my students who have worked there how difficult it is to provide any kind of religious services for Christians, including guest workers. And I’m wondering whether Saudi Arabia is being given a pass by our government because of the so-called special relationship we have with them. That would be one.
And number two, one question that has come up in this complex issue is, how do you distinguish between authentic religious freedom and situations where the call for religious freedom may in fact be a call for forms of discrimination?
THAMES: Well, thank you for those questions. On Saudi Arabia, I would highlight that we have—it has been designated as a country of particular concern for particularly severe violations of religious freedom every year since 2004. One of the—
PAWLIKOWSKI: That’s true, but nothing seems to change on the ground.
THAMES: Well, you know, there’s been—Saudi Arabia, the way it’s structured, it doesn’t move as quick as other countries, certainly. We follow very closely what happens in the kingdom. We have a very complicated relationship, but these issues are part of the relationship. I would highlight that when the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which USCIRF was also a creation of the International Religious Freedom Act, their commissioners just paid a visit and by their public statements, you know, they were highlighting how the religious police, they’ve been reined in, they’re not nearly as an oppressive force as they’ve been in the past. There’s talk of education reform. We’ve seen positive movement. That’s not to say there’s not more that can be done, there certainly is, and that’s a country that we’ll continue to be engaged on.
On the issue of discrimination, it’s a complex one. It’s very kind of situational-dependent about the different factors. And a lot of times, this comes up in the—in the context of LGBT rights and gay marriage. And how does religious freedom factor into that? You know, so much of the work that we were doing at the ministerial and through this contact group is really focused on persecution, like, the life-or-death situations where everyone can agree that a certain policy needs to change or a certain person needs to be let out of jail or a certain community shouldn’t be repressed simply for what they’re believing or not believing. And that’s where we’re focusing these energies, on those really difficult questions, which seem to be increasing in number in so many places around the world.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Zainab Al-Suwaij of American Islamic Congress.
AL-SUWAIJ: Good afternoon. Thank you very much, Knox, for the—for the update on the—on the conference and the results of it. It was in fact a very interesting gathering and very successful. And I would like to applaud you on that.
My question or I would say it’s a concern is that, how could we hold—we had about eighty-some countries participated in the—in the conference last July. How can we hold them accountable for their violations of religious freedom that they have in their countries? In the first couple of days, NGO activist victims have spoken about the atrocities that some of these countries have done. In the third day when these ministers came in, they talked about how wonderful, their countries, how everyone is enjoying religious freedom. In fact, we know there are a lot of issues and a lot of challenges that happen in their countries. What are the steps that, you know, would be taken next time this conference—as you have mentioned, it’s going to be annual—how can we hold these countries accountable? How can we solve these issues? Thank you.
THAMES: Great question. And, you know, next year we want—Ambassador Brownback wants the size of the event to grow and we expect that it will not be held at the State Department. You know, this year it was a very intentional decision to do it at the State Department because we wanted to show that this issue is a significant part of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, that the, you know, religious communities from a variety of faith groups are welcome to come in and share about their concerns. And so that was powerfully demonstrated by opening our doors.
At the same time, the State Department is not a conference facility, so we were limited to about four hundred seats in the auditorium, which one of the casualties of our planning was then that the governments we invited couldn’t come to the two NGO days because every diplomat that would be in the room would be one less NGO and we wanted to have as many NGOs and religious communities represented as possible. I’m hoping we’ll get a—we’ll do it somewhere in town at a—at a conference facility to where then there can be that interaction between civil society, religious groups, and the governments who have been invited, so we can use this framework, this annual event to have those dialogues, to have those uncomfortable conversations sometimes, that can hopefully lead to better policies and greater space for religious activity.
You know, we said we invited likeminded countries and countries who are saying they want to go in the right direction. There was a range of standards, we would say, we weren’t blind to that. And them coming to Washington gave us an opportunity to engage them while they were in town about issues of concern as well. So next year, I think the format will be a bit more conducive for that kind of exchange.
And it’s also—I would just add parenthetically, this is why we welcome, as Religious Freedom Office, engaging with people like yourself, religious communities, NGOs, so you can give us the information that empowers us to then have those conversations bilaterally. So the door is always open to our office for that kind of information.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Jay Kansara of the Hindu American Foundation.
KANSARA: Hi, Knox.
THAMES: Hey, Jay.
KANSARA: So we at the Hindu American Foundation have been very fortunate to have a great working relationship with both you for several years as well as Ambassador Brownback, even when he was a governor of Kansas and especially since he’s come to Washington, D.C. So I ask this question with all sincerity and understanding that this is not the intention that I know that both of you and the office to have, but sometimes it can be the perception that is given to the broader public, and that is the perception within the ministerial, which we were very grateful to attend, but that the—that the fundamental principle that has been key to America’s success in the realm of religious freedom is that there’s a healthy distance between religion and state.
In some of the presentations during the ministerial, particularly leaders of the Hindu American Foundation felt that that distance had been lessened and particularly one religious community had been preferenced over all others. Now, this is just the perception that is given off. Can you perhaps elaborate on how this perception can be—it can be remedied for years to come with the ministerial so that others may not feel this way?
THAMES: I’ll do my best now and I would—let’s definitely grab coffee and I want to—we can have a more extensive conversation offline.
You know, our intent was to be as inclusive as possible. And I think you and others who were in the conference space saw the incredible diversity of groups that were represented. We were very intentional in the victims—or rather, the survivors of persecution to make sure there was broad representation from many communities, not just Abrahamic, but from Buddhists and Yazidi, for example.
KANSARA: Absolutely. And I think what my question is more focused on is the—is that there were oftentimes many references made to Christian religious tradition at the podium as opposed—and that, from someone who comes from a minority tradition, that would make me feel uncomfortable.
THAMES: Did we lose Jay?
KANSARA: Hi. Can you hear me?
FASKIANOS: I can hear you.
Knox, did you not hear that?
THAMES: Well, I would just say that I hear those concerns. I’ll take those back. And as we think about next year, we’ll definitely take that into consideration. The purpose of the ministerial was not to create exclusivity, but to rather create an inclusive environment. The Potomac Declaration and Plan of Action were, you know, centered on international standards. And that’s the framework that we’re going to be carrying forward.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from William O’Keefe of Catholic Relief Services.
O’KEEFE: Good. All right. So I’ll skip the rhetorical thank yous—thank you—and just say I’m interested in learning more about the genocide prevention initiative that you mentioned you USAID launched at the ministerial. Any more details you could provide would be greatly appreciated. Otherwise, congratulations on a successful event and we look forward to being involved in the future.
THAMES: Great. Well, always appreciate your guys’ engagement. That is a continuation of the priority that Vice President Pence laid out. It’s been also joined by Secretary Pompeo and USAID Administrator Green to try to find ways to support ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq. So there’s been a lot of activity this week about that. And so I would encourage you to look at Administrator Green’s Twitter feed or the USAID webpage that’ll have a lot of the details.
But some of the information I have here is over $133 million has been launched in a variety of activities focusing on immediate needs, helping restore communities, promoting economic recovery and preventing future atrocities. This is being run out of USAID. They have a new Minorities Unit in the Middle East Bureau that is focusing on this and starting to stand up this new program. In addition, they’ve sent a special advisor out to Embassy Baghdad to help make sure that this specific program, but also the bigger emphasis on getting aid to the religious communities that were victims of genocide by ISIS, that they have the resources they need to restart their communities. They’ve got a USAID person out there in Baghdad to help ensure that. So there’s a lot of activity.
And I’ve got it pulled up here. It would probably be better if you just look at it. It’s quite detailed and quite impressive. I mean, to be honest, I’m not aware of an attempt by the international community to recreate an environment for a religious community that had been the victim of genocide. So I’m proud that we’re trying. It’s going to be very hard, but it’s partnerships like this with your organization and others that hopefully will make it successful.
O’KEEFE: Thanks. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
O’KEEFE: We are actually involved. I wasn’t sure if it was the same initiative, so thank you so much for clarifying.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you. Next question please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Jack Moline of Interfaith Alliance.
MOLINE: Hi. Thanks. And thanks for hosting this, Irina.
Knox, this is, I know, a difficult question. We are, as Americans, famous for exporting religious tolerance and religious freedom, but there are some countries that are the beneficiaries of religious prejudice from us, particularly as it pertains to the LGBTQ community. Is the ministerium prepared to address the exporting of these unfortunate aspects as well?
THAMES: The way we’ve structured this whole emphasis has really been on persecution, individuals who are unable to follow their conscience without fear of, you know, the worst forms of repression. These questions are certainly very serious and things that need to be debated. It was a topic that did come up organically during the NGO days amongst different communities that were present at the ministerial. So that debate happened and I think that it was good that it happened and it happened in a very civil way. And, you know, if the ministerial is the forum where that discussion can move forward in a constructive way,that would be great.
At the same time, you know, the emphasis that we’re focusing on is the really—the violation of the most personal of human rights, religious freedom, that we see increasing around the world and marshaling governments from every corner of the world to meet this challenge. So that’s what I anticipate the focus of the next ministerial will be, similar to what it was this year.
MOLINE: With respect, there really is no greater violation of basic human rights than imprisonment or taking of life for expressing yourself in what you consider an organic way. And you talked beautifully and I think appropriately about opposing blasphemy laws. There are capital punishments in some of the countries based on religious teachings for people who don’t exhibit the kind of heterosexual tendencies that are often being promoted by Americans who are traveling to these other countries.
THAMES: Right. No, and look, you know, no one should be jailed or tortured or executed for how they choose to love, full stop. You know, that’s absolutely a hundred percent our position. I think the bigger question is, is this topic the right space to get at this very important issue that you’re raising? It’s not the direction that we intended the ministerial to go. We’re looking at a related—I mean, I see the relationship. There obviously is a connection between religious actors who are sharing what they understand to be the appropriate understanding of their faith, but I do think it does—it is different from the approach that we had taken with this first one.
But at the same time, I would welcome the opportunity to continue to dialogue on this and to—and to consider, you know, the points that you’ve raised.
FASKIANOS: Thanks, Jack. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Soraya Deen of Muslim Women Speakers Movement.
DEEN: OK. Thank you. So I’m also with Omnia Institute for Contextual Leadership and what we do is we equip religious leaders and people of faith to counter religious extremism. So I’m from Sri Lanka originally and I was in Sri Lanka for two months, these past months. And what the government does not—does promote religious freedom. But what I noticed, myself being a Muslim, I saw a lot of social segregation and the stagnating of social and political, like, within my community. So I don’t know, I feel that we need a strong focus on educating religious leaders on contextual reality. I would like to hear your comments on that please.
THAMES: Can you explain what you mean by contextual realities?
DEEN: Yeah. So contextual reality is what is happening on the ground today, how can we relate our religion and our theology to the challenges that are arising from the ground? That means living, listening, and learning from people in the margins, which I found very lacking in my country, particularly within the religious community that I belong to. And I saw a lot of social segregation between Muslim women and the community.
THAMES: Yeah, I had the honor, the opportunity to visit Sri Lanka for the first time back in March. And my visit was focusing on issues of communal violence where Muslims had been victimized due to speech on platforms like Facebook, putting out these spurious rumors, and then calls for violence. And how can we work with the majority community, law enforcement, and engage religious leaders on the importance of respecting religious minorities, respecting their base, most fundamental human right to life, but also ensuring that they have the space to practice their faith?
Engaging religious leaders is something we do. We want to talk to everyone in a country to explain, you know, what the United States, our values as well as our priorities. But we don’t want to go too far into the realm of theology because that is a place where governments really shouldn’t go. But we certainly do engage religious leaders as community leaders, as people who have social networks that are incredibly valuable. And we hope to encourage them to be used for positive activities and not negative ones.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Joe Charnes.
CHANES: Yes. Hi. I’ve got a quick question for you, I know we’re short on time so I’ll distill it to the essential point.
What I’m hearing is a lot of—I’ve heard terms like “likeminded” or countries that are present, and IRFA and UDHR and the Potomac Declaration are all wonderful. My question—you spoke also of equipping and listening and acting—what about countries that don’t show up? They’re run by people, dictators, who have hearts that aren’t even open to the notion of religious freedom any more than MS-13 is open to the notion of compassion and sensitivity to your enemy. Where do you and how do you work with those countries who aren’t present or with leaders who simply aren’t willing to even allow that concept or notion to be present in their country?
THAMES: It’s a great question. You know, the International Religious Freedom Act created the special designation of countries of particular concern, which is a very useful diplomatic tool that we can invoke the highlight severe violations of religious freedom and to make that known to the world. If the situation continues to deteriorate, then it’s possible the secretary has the option of applying sanctions. There are currently ten CPC countries as we would call them. And I’ve experienced over my career, almost twenty years now in different government capacities, where the CPC designation creates leverage. Countries don’t like it and that creates opportunities to encourage them to reform, to change their oppressive laws and policies. You know, the strongman may not care a whit about religious freedom, but he doesn’t want to be viewed and be on the same list as North Korea. So just the traditional naming and shaming can create political energy that was absent otherwise.
There’s also, you know, increasing studies are showing how, when religious freedom is present, it enables other goods in society, like economic growth and societal stability, helps combat against the rise of extremism. And these are things that, again, an authoritarian may not care about specifically, but does want his country to prosper, doesn’t want terrorists. And so this new body of evidence is presenting another, you know, more enlightened way or reason to pursue religious freedom. But again, there’s no magic wand, there’s no silver bullet and it’s going to take a lot of effort on a variety of fronts to usually see reforms made in a concrete and lasting way.
CHARNES: Well, bless you in your work.
THAMES: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. We have several more questions in queue and I apologize for not being able to get to all of them. But let’s try to squeeze in one last question.
OPERATOR: Our final question comes from Zul Kassamali of Toronto Area Interfaith Council.
KASSAMALI: Thank you. Can you hear me?
KASSAMALI: Yeah. The only thing I wanted to ask—it’s a wonderful work you are doing—could you please tell me, are there any youth involved in the work you do at the—at the policy decision?
THAMES: Not specifically. You know, we’re operating at a much higher altitude, but many of our embassies are encouraged to have programs with youth, both from majority faith communities and minority faith communities. I’ve seen, you know, interesting and positive programmatic work come out of our embassies and consulates about bringing youth from different faith backgrounds together. We’re also working to use efforts to protect cultural heritage sites that are important to multiple faith communities as a way to bring different religious groups together, both at the leadership level, but also at the youth level, so that they are—they come in contact with the religious other. And it helps, when you know someone it demystifies, it means you have a friend, not a foe, and I think that, coupled with education—we’ve talked—that could be a whole other phone call about the importance of teaching kids the importance of interfaith understanding, tolerance, because as our world becomes more interconnected with religions and ethnic communities, intermixing as really never before in human history, we’ve got to learn, we’ve got to teach our children how to engage that in a constructive way that respects everyone’s fundamental human rights.
So we see youth as an important community to reach and it’s something, you know, I hope we can do more with perhaps next year at the next ministerial.
KASSAMALI: Very kind of you. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
Knox, I’m going to just ask one final question. You have been doing this work for more than fifteen years. And at this point, you know, what is the one thing you want to leave us with, the thing that you’re, you know—you know, the next thing that you want to do in this field or you want to see have happen?
THAMES: I hope that we can just continue to find ways to work together to cross over different religious lines, nationalities, ethnic lines, to really advocate for the other, for our fellow human to ensure that they have the ability to believe whatever they want or nothing at all. You know, religious freedom is really the fundamental part of the human experience, to have freedom of conscience to believe what you wish. And so the more we can work in concert at the governmental level, at the religious level, at the parliamentary level, at the NGO level, I think the better off we’ll be in meeting the challenges that we’re facing.
FASKIANOS: Wonderful. So we really appreciate your being with us, Knox, to share your insights, the work you’re doing at the State Department. And we look forward to seeing what else you all are doing. So we will keep—we will be watching. So thank you very much.
FASKIANOS: And thanks to all of you for your questions and comments, we really appreciate it.
We encourage you to follow Knox Thames on Twitter. You can find him @KnoxThames. And we also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter @CFR_Religion.
So as always, we hope that you will email us with any suggestions for speakers, topics at outreach@CFR.org. And we appreciate your being with us today as well as Knox Thames.
THAMES: Thanks so much.
This is an uncorrected transcript.