Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, U.S. Department of State
National Religion Correspondent, New York Times
DIAS: Good evening! We are glad to be here, and thank you so much, Ambassador Brownback, for sitting down with me and with all of these fine folks who have traveled from very far. I hear—I would be curious to take a poll to see who is from the farthest, but you guys can chat about that over dinner and figure it out for us.
I wanted to start and just thank the Council on Foreign Relations, and Dr. Haass, and also Irina, who is in the back there and has done a lot of thankless work to make all of this happen for us. And just as a reminder, tonight’s conversation is on the record, and we’re going to be having a time for question and answer in the latter half of our conversation, so please be thinking and be ready to chime in. There will be people around, I believe, with a microphone. So get ready for that.
But I’d love to begin, Ambassador Brownback, and just ask you, when were you last here—at the Council on Foreign Relations speaking? And tell us what you have been up to in this last year and a half since you have taken on this role.
BROWNBACK: I was thinking about that when you first mentioned it. I think it has probably been twelve, fifteen years. When I was on the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate was the last time I was up here, and I’m not even sure what the topic was that I was addressing at the time. It may have been something on China then as I also deal with China often now, so it could have been then.
What I’m dealing with now on this position—ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom—is really advocating and pushing for religious freedom for everybody, all the time, everywhere around the world. So it’s a small job. (Laughter.) You know, it’s a very little niche market here—people being free to practice their faith wherever at all times. And I say that completely facetiously because there is just so much going on around the world right now in many different countries, and various types of venues, of all faiths. And so the one kind of pulling-together feature that have of all of this right now is we want everybody to stand up for each other’s religious freedom.
And I just had a roundtable today—I do every Tuesday in Washington that I’m in town—where we bring together people of all faiths—and atheists—together to stand up for each other’s religious freedom. Because the one agreeing thing that we have of everybody is that we all want to be able to be free to practice our faith as long as we are peacefully practicing it.
And so we’ve been pulling together these sorts of conferences, ministerials. We’ll have a ministerial on religious freedom July 16 to 18 in Washington, D.C., the second one. I think this is the first time ever the State Department has done back-to-back human rights ministerials. And we’re going to have a thousand people there, and invited a hundred-and-fourteen countries, and we’ll get most—eighty four showed up last year. It will be a big push. And this administration is very serious about religious freedom and pushing for it.
DIAS: And since the ministerial that you introduced last year—what have been some of the main outcomes of that? And then what do you expect some of the outcomes of this one to be?
BROWNBACK: You know, the effort is to make this a grassroots movement. If some of you have worked any in the human trafficking field, or you are familiar with that at all, when I was in the Senate, I helped carry the first bill on human trafficking. That’s now a grassroots movement. And it’s people all over the world, in different places, are pushing, saying, people should not be trafficked; this is a bad idea, it’s against their rights, their freedoms.
What we want to do with this movement is make this a grassroots movement to where people in every country around the world would fight for each other’s religious freedom. So whether it’s a Muslim-majority country, a Hindu-majority country, a Christian-majority country—whatever it is—secular country, that people would say, no, we’re all going to stand for each other’s religious freedom, and we want people in that country to push for it.
So the successes out of it have been we’ve started having those sorts of meetings in different places, the UAE and Taiwan both hosted religious freedom summits. We’ve got a series of other ones set up for this year. We’ve got these Religious Freedom Roundtables started in half-a-dozen countries so far: Nigeria, Colombia. We’ve got a series of them going where you’ve got the religious actors in the place working together to push the government to protect religious freedom—of everybody here, no matter what the faith is. And we want to keep really getting that momentum moving on forward.
DIAS: I understand on Thursday you are testifying up on the Hill for the first time for the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, and the topic is rising anti-Christian violence.
Could you tell us a bit about what your sense is of why this is happening? incidences in Sri Lanka and the situation in Iraq for Assyrian Christians—do you sense a global through line in some of these situations as they have been arising, or are the they mostly localized, really individual problems to be addressed?
BROWNBACK: That’s a great question, Elizabeth, and I’m not sure that I have the right answer, and there would be people in this crowd—many of which I know and are very thoughtful—so I’m probably not telling anybody here in this crown anything new. But you do have this really unusual global moment going on right now where the world is very interconnected.
How many of you in this room were in another country in the last month? Last week? People travel, and they are interconnected all over the world. The kind of thinking community in the world was that the religiosity of the world would go down as modernity grabbed hold of more and more places, there’d be just more secularism. It would be less religious.
And then the opposite has happened; the world has become more religious. People are—in the process of all this globalization and change, and people moving around, and then you’ve got these faiths that had traditionally been kind of, OK, the Muslims are over here, the Christians are there, the Buddhists are here, the, you know, Hindus are there. That’s just not the case anymore. Everybody is everywhere, interacting with each other in odd places that they haven’t seen them before. And so they’re saying, well, what are you Christians doing here? This is our place. Why do you care so much about this? Well, because it’s the calling of my heart. It’s what I believe. I’m a person of faith. This is critically important to me and my family.
And then governments start to figure out, well, how do we play in this space—even though the clear answer for governments in all of this is to protect the right of people to practice their faith without fear or harm. That’s the role of government in this. That’s the U.N. Human Rights Declaration that most governments signed on to, but that isn’t what they’ve done. Most governments have said, yeah, well, OK, we want—we like this religion, we don’t like that one. And we find if we persecute that one, this religion likes us more, and we can get more votes or we get more support; or, you know, these guys tend to cause trouble; or we want to stay in power, and these guys are new, and they could cause us trouble down the road. And so the governments are calculating instead of doing their job.
So you’ve seen this really incredible moment of a lot of governments getting tired of playing in this space, and are starting to back up and saying the answer really is to stand up for each other’s religious freedom. So we are getting more coming on board with that.
If you were just studying it and not seeing the carnage, unfortunately, of the people being killed and persecuted, and cowering in their houses because they are afraid to go outside because of what might happen to them—if you were just studying it, you would probably just be fascinated by the interaction taking place. But the problem of it is there’s a lot of death and destruction been going with it, too.
DIAS: Speaking of governments that may not like certain religions at this time, we’ve already mentioned the G-20 is coming up, and President Trump and President Xi are planning to meet.
You’ve been pretty outspoken on the issue of China detaining Muslims in forced labor camps and the daytime indoctrination facilities. You’ve called it a systematic campaign of oppression.
So, I’m wondering, in this environment that we’ve got right now with a lot of conflict about trade, and the vice president giving a speech about issues in China and what many people thought was likely going to be about human rights, but didn’t happen. And the government has seemed to make a decision to value trade over this human rights issue right now.
So I’m wondering, in this whole environment, what meaningful action do you think the United States can take and will actually take?
BROWNBACK: First, I want to do something that’s really unusual for me as a known conservative. I’m going to call out and praise the New York Times for their coverage of what they’ve done on—
DIAS: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you! We’ll take that!
BROWNBACK: —religion—and that’s on the record. I said it on the record. The video piece you guys did—and I don’t know who of your reporters did it—where they were showing all the cameras in Xinjiang—
DIAS: It’s remarkable. Everyone should take a look.
BROWNBACK: And if anybody hasn’t seen that piece—pull it up because they go into the major mosque in Xinjiang on Friday, the holy day, and there’s fifteen older guys there where there would normally be a thousand or more. Well, why isn’t anybody else there? Well, we’ve got all these cameras around, and we’ve got artificial intelligence systems, and we’ve got places to identify, and we know who is there, and we’ve got a social credit system that, if you get a bad social credit score, you can be limited on where you can travel, and so people don’t go to mosque on Friday. And if you get a bad social credit score and somebody pings you on your cell phone, it can go to the person that pings you on your cell phone.
One of the things—and this is the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Economist—these have all been great on covering this because I think this is the future of oppression. I think this is what it’s going to look like in the future. And this just isn’t me saying that; these are other people that are smarter than me that have analyzed it—that in the future you may not see as many people in jail, or bodies, but you may see this systematic artificial intelligence, heavy technology oppression of people where you cannot operate in the society if you are a person of faith that this—the government doesn’t like, that that’s the system that you are going to see. And that’s what you are seeing really being prototyped in Tibet initially—and the same guy that put it in place in Tibet is now doing it in Xinjiang—did it to the Buddhists, going to the Muslims, and now you’re going to start seeing that system spread out and to me this is very concerning. This is the future of oppression, and we need to stop it now.
We’ve seen these plays before when a government goes a certain negative way, and you’re thinking, well, that’s not my group that’s happening to yet. Well, yeah, they’re coming for you next. You fight for each other, and you fight for it early on, and that’s the best time to stop it is there.
I think the United States government has done an excellent job of speaking up on this where a lot of governments have not been willing to speak up on the situation, the oppression of what China is doing. This is an official communist, atheistic government that is going back to their roots and really putting down all faiths. I declared in Hong Kong China is at war with faith. And I also said it’s a war they will not win. Other governments have tried this, and you will not win this war. You may have some successes early on, but you will not win this war on faith.
The United States has been very clear in speaking out on this: multiple different administrations, we’ve held international events in Europe. We will see what comes out of the G-20 summit and the discussion between President Trump and President Xi Jinping. But this to me is one of the worst situations in the world because it represents the future of oppression.
DIAS: So when will we see the United States imposing Magnitsky Act sanctions or putting tech companies on sanctioned entity lists—this type of thing?
BROWNBACK: Yeah, and you’re seeing those sorts of ideas stew around in the Congress.
DIAS: Yeah, they’ve been talking about it for a year.
BROWNBACK: I wouldn’t say it’s been quite a year yet, but—(laughter)—
DIAS: Right? (Laughs.)
BROWNBACK: —no, it’s—the administration announces sanctions when they do sanctions, not—we don’t forecast it, so I can’t say on that.
I can say that there has been a lot of interest, and there has been a growing focus on this particular area. And the Trump administration has been aggressive on taking China on when prior administrations wouldn’t do it, didn’t do it. It’s not as if we haven’t seen some of these pieces, particularly in the trade and the intellectual property, going on for decades. And they’ve stood up and taken them on.
DIAS: What about things like granting asylum to Uighur populations in the United States? Is that something that you are pushing for?
BROWNBACK: Again, we just don’t preview items. I work closely with the Uighur population. I was with several this morning, and we’re going to continue to push and propose issues on how we can work with them.
It’s a heroic population, honestly, of what they are doing and what they have been experiencing. You’ve got a million Uighurs, mostly all Muslim in detention camps now or day facilities—a million in 2019? Didn’t most of us think these things were done decades ago, that people don’t do things like this anymore?
And some of the stories coming out of the individuals are absolutely dreadful, and the carnage and death that’s coming out of it, too. It really should show everybody to think that this is going on by the most populous nation in the world with the second largest economy that seeks to be a global leader, and they’re doing this now.
DIAS: Well, keep us posted. (Laughter.)
BROWNBACK: (Laughs.) You’ll be the—not first—(laughter)—
DIAS: Yes! (Laughs.)
BROWNBACK: Anyhow, I was going to say you’d be the first to know, but I—
DIAS: Thank you!
BROWNBACK: —probably not the New York Times. I mean, those guys—(laughs)—
DIAS: Well, we’ll keep reporting—
BROWNBACK: Fox News will be the first to know. (Laughter.)
DIAS: We’ll keep reporting on it.
Let’s move a little bit south to Rohingya. The State Department released its long-awaited report last fall on the atrocities that have been happening to the Rohingya population there. You’ve also spoken out a lot about this issue. The camps in Bangladesh was your first visit after Turkey.
Can you tell us why you think the word genocide wasn’t used in that report? And do you think that the State Department and the United States government should say that what has happened to the Rohingya is genocide?
BROWNBACK: I can’t articulate an opinion separate from the State Department. If I were still in the U.S. Senate or governor, I would be stating an opinion. I state the opinion of the U.S. State Department.
The determination of genocide is a legal determination the State Department—and Richard Haass, if Richard is still around—would know what goes through there in the legal department as issues. There have been other groups that have deemed it and have called it a genocide.
BROWNBACK: There have been other legal teams that have defined—have said the factual basis is therefore a genocide. That has not been a statement that has come out of the State Department. The secretary recently testified back in front of Congress saying that he is still looking at factual information. And the prior secretary had called it ethnic cleansing, and it had been fairly early on that he had called it that.
The situation remains. The Rohingya have not been able to return. They are boxed out of their own country. They are not welcome in their own country. They continue to be in refugee camps in large numbers in Bangladesh. They are not absorbed into the citizenry and into Bangladesh, nor are we asking that they would do.
We are asking and pushing that they be returned and allowed to return freely and safely into their home terrain. But there—the issue continues to be really looked at and worked on in the State Department.
DIAS: And can you tell us a bit about what action you might be hoping that Congress would take then on this issue?
BROWNBACK: I hope Congress continues their role of pushing and advocacy. When I was in the Congress I carried the genocide declaration in Darfur. That wasn’t a calling for the Congress to make, but it is an advocacy role for the Congress to act in, and I hope they continue to be aggressive in pushing these topics on forward wherever they exist around the world.
The United States is at its best when it is standing on these issues, and often the Congress is the one that leads the way in pushing these matters. The State Department gets involved in the entire reach of the world and in all the relationships, and so they’re saying that it impacts this, and it has this, and you’ve got all these debates within the apparatus itself that push and pull on the discussion. Congress has a different role in that, and I hope they continue to be aggressive in their advocacy.
DIAS: Can you tell us a little bit behind the scenes of what happens in the State Department when—as you may have alluded to—there may be a disagreement that you have with the secretary, or you are trying to work out how you practically can address these issues in a meaningful way?
BROWNBACK: You know, I found interesting the term deep State.
DIAS: Very deep. (Laughter.)
BROWNBACK: Very State. (Laughter.) Yeah, why isn’t it, you know, deep Agriculture or deep Interior or, you know, why isn’t it deep IRS, something like that, you know? I don’t know. Maybe you guys could come up with a better one, but it is a very talented bureaucracy with lots of different opinions and with a reach around the world, and all those opinions get fed in, and chewed, and pushed, and prodded, and people play fair, but they play a multidimensional game on it. And somebody may be playing chess, and somebody else is playing football, and somebody else is playing rugby here, and it all comes together, and the secretary has to make a decision on it. But it’s a world-class bureaucracy. I mean, it’s got talented people.
So when you get a fight like this going on, and you have people that have often invested their entire life—much of their life in a region or a particular country they’ve invested multiple years, they fight very hard for their position. And they fight very smartly.
I once read a book that Henry Kissinger wrote, and he was talking about how good Earl Butz was at fighting him. This was back in the Nixon era, of course. And he complimented Butz on having been trained in the best school of politics ever, the university campus, saying that this is the most talented political—because it’s not two political parties; it’s a hundred political parties, and it’s everybody in there, and they’re smart, and they fight so hard, and the stakes are small. (Laughter.) And he just said, he’s a very talented—well, the State Department’s talented at fighting. It’s very good at it.
And I say that complimentary as somebody that’s been in the political field a long time. They’re good.
DIAS: Well, speaking of things happening at the department, can you tell us a bit about this new commission that has been announced, the Commission on Unalienable Rights? What is—tell us a bit more about that, because the department already has an entire department on human rights and justice, so what is that about? And who is on the commission? What is their objective?
BROWNBACK: I’m not on it. I haven’t been a part of it. I know the secretary is very interested in putting forward. Mary Ann Glendon is the chair that’s been announced of it and is a very talented, skilled person. And I think the secretary probably at the end of the day is trying to get just at let’s define what these basic unalienable rights clearly are, and let’s put them forward robustly. But I don’t know what else is being pursued.
DIAS: What’s your sense of what those rights are? Does religion play a part of that or—
BROWNBACK: I would certainly think it would be. I mean, the secretary has spoken often about this being an inalienable right. He’s spoken often about his own faith, that these are rights that come from God, not from man, and that government’s role is to protect these rights.
So I would only ascertain out of that that he is looking at, well, let’s put these forward robustly. I can’t imagine it’s anything about limiting human rights. I’m sure it’s something about—
DIAS: On—does that include things like LGBTQ issues?
BROWNBACK: I have no idea on those. I know the secretary, a fellow Kansan, so I’m biased. I think he’s great. I know most people don’t know a Kansan personally because there’s just not very many of us around. It’s a small tribe. But he was number one in his class at Harvard Law, and he was number one in his class at West Point. So you’ve got a smart tank driver for the secretary. But he’s going to be there protecting people’s rights and seeing we do everything we can to do that.
DIAS: I know there’s a lot of NGOs here tonight and people who have devoted their lives to that work. Tell us a little bit about your philosophy and what you hope for going forward in working with the NGO community, and how—what would—what you see as most helpful for that partnership.
BROWNBACK: I am very big on that partnership. That’s why I mentioned we do a Religious Freedom Roundtable every Tuesday I’m in town, and I see several people here that come to it regularly. Jay is there. Bob Fu comes to it often. How many others of you here come to the Religious Freedom Roundtable? I see several in the room.
That’s all NGOs, and I see it as a relationship and force multiplier. So we’re going to host the ministerial. We’ll do the government part. There are going to be forty side events at this ministerial, all done by the NGO community, and many of them on topics that I love but the State Department has no position officially announced on. And I go at it, but I—you know, I didn’t say anything; Jay did it, or Bob did it. And to me, they’re just a fabulous force multiplier.
I mean, this goes back to my days in Congress where, you know, people used to talk about fighting off a lobbyist—I don’t want to deal with a lobbyist and this and that, and I always saw the outside community as these are the people you want to have help you get things done because they can do stuff you can’t do, and you can do things they can’t do. You’ve got a vote; they don’t. So I see this as just a key force multiplier.
And then around the world, the NGO community is going to be the one that’s going to bring these governments—they’re going to make them open up to religious freedom. It won’t be the United States government. We’ll put pressure, we’ll continue to stand for it.
DIAS: Tell us more about that.
BROWNBACK: Well, it will be the NGO community. So if the majority religion in a nature, along with a whole series of minority faiths, and the atheist community—standing up for their religious freedom, too—come together and say, we all believe in religious freedom, and we think you, government, ought to stand for everybody else’s faith here. And by the way, we’ve got a bunch of people getting killed over here, and you’re not doing anything. That will bring pressure to bear on those governments.
DIAS: Even in really—in repressive regimes?
BROWNBACK: Well, some are harder than others, but we saw the NGO community on the various democracy revolutions really play a huge role. And I think the faith community coming together can play this huge role of expanding religious freedom in places—in oppressive places around the world. But they’ve got to come together, and they’ve got to stand for each other. Even though you don’t agree on any of the theology of it, you set all that aside and say, but we do—I do believe in your right to be free to practice your faith, and I’ll fight for it.
One of our honorees this year of our International Religious Freedom Award we’ll give at the ministerial is a Muslim cleric. He was a local imam in a country that’s pretty evenly divided. And the Christians were being attacked by some real radical Muslims in the area. And he took them into his mosque. There were over two hundred of them. He pleaded with the attackers not to kill them, on his knees, and said, kill me first before you kill them. Kill me first. And they didn’t do it, and these two hundred Christians are still alive. And you go, God bless you, man, that’s the thing to do. And you want to honor that because you are going, would I be man enough to do that in a similar situation? They’re not after me; they’re after somebody else. But I’m going to—I’m going to put my life on the line for him.
DIAS: There are many NGOs working very hard right now at the southern border of the United States, and evangelical groups like World Relief have been pointing out that many of the migrants and refugees entering the United States are evangelical Christian, Pentecostal, Catholic. And it’s interesting to me that many of the president’s core supporters—and you know, the president ran on a platform that included not persecuting Christians, and yet, the rhetoric and action on the southern border hasn’t seemed to take that part of the equation into account. And I’m wondering how you understand that, and if you see that what’s happening on the southern border of the United States as a religious freedom issue as well.
BROWNBACK: Well, I haven’t, and maybe people want to fault that, and I would respect that. I’ve seen it as a border issue, an immigration issue. I’ve got a long history of dealing with immigration issues as an elected official, and that record is as it is. But I haven’t seen it as an issue like that.
And these come up in various settings. They come up in the U.S. southern border, they come up in Europe in the border in its south. It comes up in really quite a few different places. But we—I haven’t dealt with it as a religious freedom issue, and we’ve generally tried to view it as an immigration issue.
And and you can fault me for that, and I accept it. But here’s the point. When we created this religious freedom act and position—and I was in the Senate when we did it, and I was one of the key sponsors of it, we purposely kept a number of topics out of this space, and we purposely did that because it was an agreement. There is one country in the world we don’t rank on religious freedom, we don’t do a report on in our space. There is one country in the world we don’t do a report on, and it’s the United States, and that was because we couldn’t agree because religious freedom is a robust debate domestically, as you all know. And it’s got many cases going on at the Supreme Court of various ilk and iterations.
Well, OK, so you get in Congress and you say, let’s pass a bill, and we’re going to rank the—and then, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, because we don’t agree. Well, that’s the same way with an immigration issue. This is a very contentious issue, and so if we’re going to get something through, we can’t put that in the bill, and that’s why the mandate of this position is narrow in focus and generally very bipartisan because we do agree on this set of issues. That’s my lecture.
DIAS: I have one more question for you and then I think like to open it up to the room for questions, so begin thinking about those.
But in my reporting, as I talk to many different religious leaders, I hear a refrain that tends to come up, and I wanted to ask you about it. I hear people who are concerned that this administration—whether intentionally or not—prioritizes Christians and persecution of Christians. And I’m wondering how you understand that. And I think of the examples that the president has highlighted of success cases—Andrew Brunson in Turkey, I remember the North Korea defectors at the State of the Union. And there—with that in mind, and with the—I mean, I don’t see those kinds of examples from other religious traditions of people who are persecuted. How do you understand that?
BROWNBACK: I reject the notion. As you noticed, my first trip I’m at the Rohingya refugee camp.
DIAS: And Andrew Brunson, yes.
BROWNBACK: I’ve advocated in Xinjiang.
DIAS: I don’t necessarily mean your work and your advocacy, but the administration as a whole and the president’s priority.
BROWNBACK: Yeah, but I’m part of the administration, and I’m tip of the spear on the religious freedom space. I worked the Brunson case, but I worked these other cases. I work with Jay on Hindu issues. I work with people here. I’ve seen my good friends—with Sheikh Bin Bayyah that—my very first speech is with Sheikh Bin Bayyah who is one of the leading Muslim clerics in the world. I work with the Jewish community. And we really do try to be very broad based in including everybody, including the atheist community, and the concerns, and the individuals that are locked up because they are in a country because you have to have a faith, and they don’t want to.
So I just—I really reject it. I understand the narrative.
DIAS: Even with the Muslim ban? I think part of what I hear is how do you—how can you speak out about what’s happening in China, in Xinjiang Province and also have a policy about banning people from immigrating from a majority—some Muslim majority countries?
BROWNBACK: I think you can say that these are separate issues. One is an immigration issue, as we’ve been discussing earlier, and another is a religious freedom issue. And I—by the way, how many Muslim countries have spoken up about Xinjiang?
DIAS: Did Turkey do something recently?
BROWNBACK: Yes. Give me another one.
DIAS: This is when I’m going to default that I mostly cover American religion—(laughter)—but I’m trying very hard—(laughter)—
BROWNBACK: No, you’ve gotten a hundred percent so far. That’s it. And I’ve been pushing a number of Islamic countries, why aren’t you standing up for this community? And I had one Muslim leader honestly say look, the Chinese play rougher than you guys do. That’s why. And, you know, I thanked him, and I said, at least don’t undercut us and say everything is fine in Xinjiang, but this country, for all our flaws, has an awfully good record on this account. This country, for all its flaws, includes half of the staff in the world that works religious freedom cases who are in my office, and the other half are spread in all the other countries around the world.
We’ve held the first ever religious freedom summit of a ministerial ever held last year. We’re going to do a second one this year. It will be a gangbuster. I’m sure there are things we need to do better, more broadly. I am a committed follower of Jesus, so I want to confess my faith to you, but that doesn’t keep me from fighting for everybody else’s faith—(applause)—and I’m going to, and I’m going to keep doing it. And this administration will, too, so—
DIAS: Is there a microphone for questions?
Could we do the front—the woman at the front table? Yes, in the blue scarf. And will you please introduce yourself, and say your name and where you—what you are representing?
GAER: Sure. I’m Felice Gaer from the American Jewish Committee.
Ambassador, there has been a lot of concern about the rise in anti-Semitism in this country and globally. The U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion has announced, for the first time ever, that he is—that there will be a report, a global—a report on global anti-Semitism.
GAER: He sent out a questionnaire. He has had responses from more than thirty different states. The United States has a story to tell on this issue. The United States hasn’t sent in a reply.
Can you commit here that the U.S. will send a reply to the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion, a post created by the advocacy of the United States?
BROWNBACK: I can tell you I will ask, and inquire, and push about it. It’s out of my office. Elan Carr is the envoy that deals with anti-Semitism. He’ll actually deal with that, but we’ll raise it. And I can’t imagine why we wouldn’t do it, but I can’t commit State Department to it. It’s in another shop.
GAER: You know, there hasn’t been any cooperation with any special rapporteur of the U.N. since a year ago when the U.S. withdrew from the U.N. Human Rights Council. This is a good issue and a good time to change that.
BROWNBACK: Yes, that’s a good point.
In the back table, yes, first the man the person shaking their hand. Yes. (Laughter.)
RADTKE: Hi. Rob Radtke with Episcopal Relief and Development.
You ended your remarks by talking about how you are a committed follower of Jesus Christ. In many of the faith traditions in this room have—
BROWNBACK: I want to admit I’m flawed at it, too, OK, please?
BROWNBACK: So if you are going at my sin areas—(laughter)—have at it. There are plenty of them.
RADTKE: But you framed a point, which is many of the faith traditions in this room have a deep commitment to the settlement of refugees, and one of the things that this administration has severely cut back on is the settlement of refugees. And I wonder how you reconcile that with faith traditions—not just your own but the rest of them—and whether you see the administration reevaluating that over time.
BROWNBACK: Thanks for the question. Again, it’s not in the bailiwick I’m in, and we’ve had these issues come up often at the Religious Freedom Roundtable, particularly on the resettlement out of Iran and the Lautenberg resettlement issue, and I don’t know if you were citing to that or others would—maybe some of you have worked on that. This is a congressional program that resettled minority faiths out of Iran through Austria that the grid was tightened on the review of the people coming out. And it was actually tightened in the prior administration than in this one. And so there have been fewer that have come out even though historically I think it has been about fifty thousand resettled out of Iran into this country—Baha’is, Jews, Christians, Muslims of different than the majority sect in Iran.
But there’s a whole series of things that my faith animates in policy arenas—life issues, but it doesn’t mean I work or I care any less about those. But I’ve got a particular portfolio, and it’s a narrow portfolio, and it’s a specific one, and it’s a big one. And that’s the one I work in, and the others I leave to other people, and I pray. I know that would be unsatisfactory to people, but this is the role I’m in, and it is a specific set one so that it can remain a very bipartisan and unifying force.
I think if you were at our Religious Freedom Roundtable that we do—and we’ll get regularly a hundred and twenty people of all different stripes there—you would find very strong support for religious freedom at it and diverse thoughts on a whole bunch of other issues, including refugees.
DIAS: The gentleman right in front of me here, yes.
AHMAD: Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad with the Minaret of Freedom Institute.
I’m going to accept your invitation to defend another faith community. The separation of immigration issues from religious freedom issues may not be so clean. I’m thinking about the Unitarian who gave water to an illegal immigrant and is now being prosecuted by the U.S.
Now I know you said State Department doesn’t want to criticize the United States, but if you want to be consistent, if you want people to follow your lead, you’ve got to do the lead. And I think you, as a Christian, know the story of the Good Samaritan and the importance of giving aid and comfort to the stranger.
So my question is do you not think that it is important to defend the religious freedom of this man?
\BROWNBACK: OK, let’s say we get into that. You are going to start losing any sort of bipartisan support that you have for the narrow issue of religious freedom, and, on top of that, my mandate is in this space. This is my legal authority. The position I’m in wasn’t created by State Department; it was created by statute, it was created by Congress on this narrow space. And I think we have to continue to try to maintain what we can of a bipartisan support for it, and I accept the criticism.
DIAS: The gentleman at the—who was behind the first gentleman who spoke. Thank you.
ISAAC: My name is Ephraim Isaac, and I am Jewish. But my question is about the persecution of Christians, particular the Copts in Egypt.
ISAAC: I have gotten huge amount of literature that there has been the killing of many, many Christians in Egypt and also the burning of churches, and I am surprised that you didn’t even mention that because this is one of the most serious areas of the persecution of Christians.
BROWNBACK: It is. We put out our religious freedom report Friday, and it’s our global report where we cover every country but the United States, as I noted. And the numbers of Copts killed and what has happened to the Coptic Christians in Egypt was covered extensively in that report. It is a very dangerous place.
But there are a number of countries I didn’t mention to you. Nigeria is maybe one of the most dangerous places in the world for Christians. You get a number of Muslims who are being persecuted we talked about in Burma and China and a number of other countries.
Unfortunately I could go a number of places around the world—Pakistan, India. The Indians, of all people, were really ones that they had taken the most umbrage at the report, and we were saying, look, we’re just factually reporting what took place here. This is what happened here. And they took umbrage at being criticized.
And if you want to criticize the United States, we’ve had killings in synagogues, we’ve had killing in churches, in mosques in this country, and these things are happening everywhere.
DIAS: I’ll just pop in there. You know, you mentioned the United States being the one country that’s not in the report. I mean, do you think that it’s time to revisit that as a question?
BROWNBACK: I would leave that to the Congress, and I don’t think they would come up with an answer for you.
DIAS: OK. (Laughter.)
Straight in the back, the woman in the very back, yes.
BROWNBACK: Remember that when the founders set the system up, it was intentionally hard to pass something, and they set up a system that is hard to get a bill, a law through. It’s very hard.
If you are a legislator for a lifetime and you get five major pieces of legislation through, you are a rock star as a legislator. Most get—maybe—one of a decent nature through in a whole career. So the fact that this position exists, and it was the first one created in the world like it, and you’ve got a bunch of others in the world like it—and now we’re really going to be hosting the global meeting on religious freedom, hats off to Congress. I mean, God bless them.
DIAS: Yes, in the back.
STEINBERG: Yes, thank you, Ambassador Brownback. It’s an honor to speak with you. My name is Naomi Steinberg. I am the vice president for policy at HIAS, the international Jewish refugee agency, and I’ve appreciated the opportunity to raise the issue of those Iranian religious minority refugees at the monthly roundtables that you have. So I thought I would change cities and change locations and push you a little bit more on it here in New York. So I was pleased to hear you mention it.
I guess I just wanted to ask if there is any assurance you can give that these conversations are still taking place at the highest levels within the State Department because when the report was released at the end of last week, and Iran was labeled as a country of particular concern again, there seemed to be no additional discussion about what we can really do about this. And this resettlement program is a concrete example of what we can do to help rescue thousands of Iranian religious minorities, and it has just been on pause for so long. And we have been doing everything we can to try to get it started again.
So I’m wondering what assurances you can give to see what we can do to unlock this situation.
BROWNBACK: I don’t know if there is much. When I first came into this job, this issue was laid at my desk quickly. I grabbed ahold of it. It was, at the time, much of a dispute between the attorney general’s office and another bureaucracy, but it wasn’t State. It was really a dispute between two other agencies that was going on, each of them having a piece to the puzzle, each of them not trusting the other’s information, and nobody able or willing to break through the log jam.
And I haven’t found a route through that yet, and it has been one that has been discussed, looked at, talked about significantly, and I can’t say that there is anything further that I see that’s moving on it. Maybe there will be.
DIAS: The woman right here in the front row, and then you can bring the next mic—where’s the other mic? Can we get it ready over here? Thank you.
DALLAS: Hi. I’m Kelsey Dallas. I cover religion for the Deseret News in Utah.
I wonder if you can talk about your office’s relationship with Congress right now. They just had a hearing there today about the state of religious freedom, efforts to reign in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and so I wonder if that negativity about religious freedom domestically has affected your international efforts.
BROWNBACK: No, it hadn’t, and I work at that quite a bit, and we try to make sure that it doesn’t because, as you know and as I’ve mentioned here, there’s this huge debate going on domestically about defining religious freedom, and the Supreme Court is the one that’s going to end up doing it. And they are going to end up doing it in some detail I think because the cases keep maturing up, and the Supreme Court keeps taking them because the First Amendment and this definition is one that the Court is seeing the country really wrestle with—and should—and that’s where these things should go. So it hasn’t hit this space because, I think, there’s just so much death, and imprisonment, and killing going on.
I’m going on the Hill tomorrow. I’ll have meetings there. One of them is going to be about how the LDS community is being treated in some other countries. But I’ll meet with Democrats, Republicans, and they’ll have different flavors of issues, and so you kind of go, well, this is more of a Democrat flavor here, this is more of a Republican flavor here.
But they have been really good about standing by each other and with each other on the international because the scope of the fight that—here we’re debating about now in particularly in light of this set of issues and this group versus that group, how are we going to accommodate and deal with this. Globally it’s about people being locked up, and killed, and communal violence, and it’s at a very rough, difficult level.
One of the things I think we honestly need to do and see as the international community is some basic definition of what religious freedom is on a global basis for various countries. So not anything at the very high, esoteric level but one of the things is you don’t lock people up for their faith if they are peaceful practitioners. This is a basic right of religious freedom. You don’t get locked up.
You don’t kill people for being of a minority faith. You don’t kill people for conversion to or from a faith. This is just a basic religious freedom right.
There is no definition anywhere in the world about just the basics of what this thing should look like. Now here I’m not talking about the definitions of what the Supreme Court is going to—just you don’t get locked up for being a person of faith if you peacefully practice your faith. It’s basic.
So that’s one of the things I really hope we can move forward with in our space is getting some of those basics defined and some global acceptance to it.
DIAS: Thank you.
MESSINGER: Ambassador Brownback.
Q: Ruth Messinger, global ambassador, American Jewish World Service. I want to thank you for your comments about NGOs and ask you not to go quite that far. We know we cannot do it alone.
And we were successful in naming, and shaming, and stopping much—not all, but much—of the Darfur genocide, significantly because we had your help on the Hill, and I want to thank you for that. And we had you as a voice, and you helped to bring in the State Department. And we now work—we work in nineteen countries but we work extensively on behalf of the Rohingya. The situation is no different except that there are over a million Rohingya in Bangladesh in situations that I gather you saw so you know that it’s going to kill people.
There are NGOs working and working together. There is a piece of bipartisan legislation for Burmese rights and accountability that will provide sanctions, and humanitarian aid, and international justice, and what we need is a voice from the State Department in behalf of the religious freedom of the Rohingya. That’s a question.
BROWNBACK: I appreciate the passion, and you’ve got a gentleman over here that knows the situation even better than you do, I think, and it’s desperate. And the report that State Department put out, I interviewed the people that did the report and talked to them as the report was put together. It’s horrible.
When I was there, I randomly caught just children and asked them—it’s hard for kids to lie—maybe they can stretch the truth, but I mean a five-year-old doesn’t usually lie and doesn’t know how to, fortunately. And I—the twenty kids I talked to, there was only one that had not seen a close friend or family member killed, raped, or stabbed. Only one.
MESSINGER: Yes, but you were effective on the Hill because you had the support of Samantha Power and people in the State Department, and I’m asking you that the State Department, the secretary of State, and the executive branch of government go into the Congress to support the Engel-Chabot bill and make a difference for the Rohingya. (Applause.)
BROWNBACK: Got it.
DIAS: In the back table in the center, and then the second microphone, can we just do hands again? The second microphone, I want to get it in the middle here, if possible.
ELSAYED: Shaker Elsayed of the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Virginia. I want to thank you, Ambassador, for being with us tonight. It is very enlightening to hear you directly and listen to your struggle with your department.
One of the things I think we need to really focus on is the fact that definitions help us proceed, and lack of definitions help us dilute the issues whenever we want. I wonder if you could address the issue of your morality as a Christian vis-à-vis your job as an American in the State Department with the limitations that you have vis-à-vis the dreams, the hopes, the things that you want to do. We need to hear your voice.
BROWNBACK: I’m not quite sure how to answer the question, what you’re putting forward. There are things that the—I’m pro-life. The Supreme Court has set out a series of laws and rules that define where you can have—and people in this room would probably have different opinions on this. But the Supreme Court has set out a series of opinions, some of which I agree with, some of which I don’t.
I’ve been a governor, I’ve been a senator, I’ve been a congressman, and I disagreed with it, and I did everything I could to fight against some of those and for some of them, but it doesn’t mean you leave the playing field. OK, that’s the limitation, that’s the field, and that’s where it’s set, and that’s where it’s going to be, and this is how we decide, OK? I’m going to—live within those limitations.
I’m an employee in the State Department, I’m an ambassador for the United States. I no longer speak just for myself; I speak for the country. The State Department establishes positions, we fight internally. Some of you have been—I see Mark Lagon. He has been in the State Department, knows exactly what I’m talking about. You don’t always agree with everything that comes out. You feel pretty good at days when it comes kind of close to where you are, and other days it doesn’t come, and then you keep in the fight. But it doesn’t mean you throw in the towel or you just say, well, it’s all bad. You just keep at it. And that’s what I’ll continue to do.
And no, we’re not perfect, and this administration isn’t, and this country isn’t, but this country is the best standard for fighting for these issues of anybody around the world. I’ll put us up against anybody on that, flaws and all, and we’re going to keep trying to get better.
DIAS: In the middle, please. Thank you.
CASPER: Thank you, Ambassador. Jayson Casper, Christianity Today.
A few sentences ago you mentioned the issue of conversion as one of the basic rights of religious freedom. In recent years a number of Muslim countries have hosted and issued encouraging statements on religious freedom in general. A number of these have seemed to stop short of the issue of conversion as being a particularly articulated right.
From your conversations with leaders behind the scenes, can you give your sense of whether or not it is simply reflective of the situation and the sensitivity of the issue in many of these nations, or is there a reluctance on the part of the leaders to push forward this issue where they may have a conviction of their own in one way or another?
Please don’t reveal any private conversations where they are discussing things that are difficult, of course, but your general sense across the border, in what direction are these meetings moving? Is this something that is going to see progress, even in the years to come, as the envelope continues to be pushed further and further down the line?
CASPER: Thank you.
BROWNBACK: That’s a great question.
You know, politicians are politicians, and I’m still a recovering one, so I think what you see in a lot of leaders is—what I’m picking up from a number of them, and maybe some of them are just tickling my ear some, too, but I do think that there is this growing recognition of it’s just not good for us—governmental leaders—to play in the religion space, picking one, helping one, not this one; persecuting this—or letting these people get killed or roughed up and not—that more and more of them are saying, this isn’t good for us. This isn’t good to grow our economy, this isn’t good for us fighting terrorism. Most countries, they want to grow their economy, they want to grow, they want to have more opportunity for their people. They want less terrorism, and that they’ve been kind of dangling and working in this religious space in a way that tries to help them maintain political power has not been good for us. The right answer is just to let it be open and we protect everybody.
Now, having said that, there are mile markers that—you don’t just leap to a place like that. You generally gradually put to it, and you try to put a stake out there far, and then you hook on to it and try to pull your country along to it.
And I think you are seeing more and more people try to edge that way. I don’t know that you will see it happen quickly. I would doubt it. I would love to see it happen quickly. But I think you’ll see more—and particularly if we could start to get some international consensus on what basic religious freedom means, then you would put more pressure on governments. And I hope we get more of the business community engaged in this, too, to where that they would say, you know, we’re just not going to be as willing to invest in places that won’t be open.
So I think we’ve got a route forward, and I think we have a moment where more countries are interested in this because of the economic growth and the security issues—more than the religious freedom or even personal convictions.
DIAS: I think we have time for just one more question. May we pass the mic to the woman in the middle over here? Thank you.
DIAS: What is your name?
HUSAIN: I’m Sarwat Husain and I’m from CAIR—Council on American-Islamic Relations, Texas.
And the question was asked that about the Muslim ban. I really want to understand your stance on it because what I heard was, look what the other Muslim countries are doing. I did not get clear where do you stand on the Muslim ban because our organization works with the civil rights of the Muslims and many others, also. Even today we are seeing the cases where the families are broken, where the husband or the wife when they go back home to visit and they are not allowed to come back.
So the Muslim ban is hurting the Muslim community, and there’s a very serious issue. I really want to understand what your stance is on it.
BROWNBACK: Yeah, my stance is, is that it is a domestic issue and this office doesn’t take a stance on domestic religious freedom issues. And that is by statute that we don’t do that. So I have no authority in this space. And I know it’s an unsatisfactory answer, but that’s how the office was created, and that was the authority given to the office—is not on domestic issues.
DIAS: Well, on that note—(laughter)—I’m—
BROWNBACK: May I say one thing just in conclusion? One is, thank you, and these are good, they’re serious, they’re tough questions, and I’m sure that a lot of it is unsatisfactory on answers.
I would urge you to continue to be advocates for people of faith wherever they are, and whatever is happening, and whatever situation is pulling on your heart, wherever it is around the world. This is the nation, flawed as we are, that stands the most for these issues. And we do things inartfully at times, but if we don’t advocate for whatever the situation you are looking at, most chances are it probably won’t get advocated for in places around the world. Whatever that situation is, and however tired you may be, and however long it may be going on, just please keep your shoulder to the plow, just keep going at it because this is an unusual place, and it’s got a big mission. And I hope you don’t grow weary in doing that. And God bless you for your interest in it.
Whether you agree or disagree with things I’ve said, I really do admire and appreciate your continued passion. And it’s needed because so many people do need it, as many of you have spoken to me about. So thank you for doing that.