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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Remarks to the International Muslim Communities Congress

Promoting and protecting religious minorities is a foundational tenet of the United States, established in our constitution domestically and mandated in statutes in accordance with our international obligations. It is part of who we are, as many of our first settlers were religious minorities from Europe fleeing persecution and came to America to enjoy religious freedom. From the beginning, our founders created space for religious diversity and established a commitment to defend equal rights for all, regardless of faith. During his first months as President, George Washington wrote to minority sects of Protestant Christianity, Catholics, and Jews promising equal treatment under the law. In his letter to synagogue leaders in Rhode Island, President Washington famously wrote that the United States will give “bigotry no sanction, persecution no assistance.”

Today, we continue this legacy by promoting the human rights of religious minorities at home and abroad. Though the Muslim community in the United States is small, it is an integral part of America’s historic fabric. My colleagues at domestic agencies work to ensure that American Muslims, like all Americans, are included in national conversations on topics such as education, economic development, and disaster preparedness.

The Department of Justice aggressively prosecutes and supports state prosecutions of acts of violence, threats, assaults, vandalisms and arsons targeting Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities, with a 93% success rate for convictions. For instance, in April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the successful Department of Justice prosecution with the conviction of three men from Kansas who conspired to detonate a bomb at an apartment complex where Muslim immigrants lived. Together, both the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security work to ensure all Americans, regardless of their faith, are treated equally and enjoy the full protection and security of our laws, by protecting civil rights and combating religious intolerance at home. For instance, the Department of Justice has taken action to protect the right of persons to wear distinctive religious dress, such as the hijab or turban.

In addition, it is a foreign policy priority of the United States to protect religious minorities abroad. We view it as critically important that governments treat all persons equally, regardless of their faith held or not held. No one should be forced to convert, or be jailed, silenced, or killed because of their beliefs. The United States welcomes the UAE’s leadership on these issues and the presence of other countries and faith leaders gathered here today to address this common concern. Unfortunately, attacks targeting religious minorities continue globally, including against Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Ahmadis, Baha’is, and Yezidis, as well as converts and people with no religious affiliation. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that almost 80 percent of the global population lives in countries with high or very high levels of religion-based government restrictions and/or societal hostilities, greatly impacting the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief.

Consequently, three out of every four persons on earth live in countries that limit their ability to fully enjoy freedom of religion or belief.

To meet this challenge, the National Security Strategy released by the White House in December stated explicitly that the United States “will advocate on behalf of religious freedom and threatened minorities…. We will place a priority on protecting members of these groups and will continue working with regional partners to protect minority communities from attacks and to preserve their cultural heritage.” During his visit to Saudi Arabia, President Trump emphasized the need for the international community to stand together “against the murder of innocent Muslims, the oppression of women, the persecution of Jews, and the slaughter of Christians.”

The United States advocates for the human rights of minorities, including Muslim minorities, because of American values and because of our commitment to international human rights. We have seen a rise in anti-Muslim discrimination at the societal level in the West, often in conjunction with an increase in migrants from Muslim-majority countries. Men, women, and children have been subjected to hateful rhetoric and hate crimes because of their perceived faith. Consequently, we have discussed with our European partners and allies ways to combat discrimination against Muslims, including with regard to practice of faith through religious dress. I personally have met with Muslim minority communities in Europe to hear firsthand their concerns and discuss ways to improve their situation.

We have also engaged governments directly when they persecuted Muslim minorities. We are particularly concerned about the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Burma and the treatment of Uighurs and other Muslims in China. In Burma, we are working to promote accountability for the Burmese government. We want to see justice for the victims, while also ensuring the establishment of conditions that will allow for the voluntary, safe, and dignified return of refugees to their homes. Another issue of deep concern involves China’s incredible restrictions on Uighur Muslims – limiting their ability to pray, to fast, to even give their children Islamic names – and detention of hundreds of thousands of Muslims for showing any sign of faith or even expressing interest in the larger Muslim world.

In an effort to work with Muslim majority countries on these issues, in March I visited the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah to discuss ways we can partner with the OIC and its members regarding these two situations. For instance, the U.S. government has sanctioned a key Burmese military commander and is enforcing a visa ban on all current and former leaders of the Burmese military. We are exploring additional measures and encourage other countries to pursue similar actions. In addition, the United States has provided more than $163 million of humanitarian assistance for the affected communities; we urge other donors to join us in providing additional humanitarian assistance. But it is not only governments who persecute. We see persistent attacks on members of Muslim minority groups from terrorists. ISIS targets Shia Muslims for just being Shia. A Shia cultural center was attacked in Kabul in December, with ISIS claiming responsibility. ISIS has repeatedly struck against any Sunni brave enough to denounce its hateful ideology—including religious leaders.

Members of other communities have also suffered greatly at the hands of violent extremists: ISIS has attacked Yezidis, Christians, Shabaks, and Kaka’is, and perpetrated sexual slavery and abuse of Yezidis. Christian and Hindu populations have been targeted by violent extremists in Pakistan. Boko Haram kidnapped the Chibok girls. Anti-Semitism and attacks on Jewish sites continue around the globe. Terrorists have also targeted cultural heritage sites of religious communities in an attempt to erase any evidence of a past diversity. The United States works to protect the cultural heritage of the Middle East, and we welcomed the decision by the UAE to help restore the iconic al-Nouri Mosque in Mosul.

Regarding government oppression, North Korea stands out as a particularly severe violator of religious freedom. China, in addition to targeting Uighurs with repressive policies, has harsh polices aimed at Tibetan Buddhists and Christians. In Iran, we see the jailing of Christian pastors on account of their faith, the targeting of Baha’is for mistreatment, and the forceful crackdown and arrests of Muslim minorities like the Ahwazi Arab community and Gonabadi Dervishes, Iran’s largest Sufi order. In Sudan, the government has arrested clergy and church members, denied permits for the construction of new churches, and closed or demolished existing churches. Consequently, as every community is a minority somewhere, every community is facing repression. So let us work together to defend the human rights, including religious freedom, of all religious minorities.

To protect religious minorities, whether Muslims or non-Muslims, fostering tolerance across faiths is critical. And one key to winning this battle will be education, ensuring future generations are prepared to live in an increasingly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious world. With the UAE literally at the crossroads of the world, this country has much to show others about promoting tolerance and welcoming diversity. In addition, to safeguard minorities, human rights and religious freedom must be respected.

Religious freedom at its core is about freedom of conscience, the ability of persons to hold the beliefs of their choice, to be free from forced conversions, to change faith, or to hold no faith at all. It is about the ability of persons to worship alone or in community with others, to educate children with parents’ convictions, and to share one’s faith through teaching and other communication. It truly is a universal value, a human right that belongs to every person without exception, an essential condition for permanent peace, security, and stability. Our own internal research shows countries that respect religious freedom and protect religious minorities are more stable and appear less likely to experience the development of violent extremism and terrorism. To defend religious diversity and pluralism, and promote durable and lasting peace and security, we must all work together to protect religious minorities, to promote tolerance, and to respect religious freedom.

There is good news to share. In my extensive travels since taking up this post, I have witnessed examples of increasing religious tolerance. In January 2016, I participated in the launching of the Marrakesh Declaration, where hundreds of Islamic scholars, convened by Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah and the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, discussed the rights of religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries. The Marrakesh Declaration, a consensus amongst Islamic scholars and leaders, affirmed the full rights of religious minorities per the Charter of Madina and called for equal citizenship rights for people of all faiths.

Elsewhere, just last week Muslims rallied in Germany against anti-Semitism, with remarkable pictures showing Muslim women donning yarmulkes on top of their hijabs in solidarity. I have seen Christians in Sri Lanka stand up for Muslims victimized by mob attacks, and Muslims do the same. In Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Islamic organization in the world, launched the Ansor Declaration to envision a political system that promotes “the welfare of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.” I have seen in Egypt where Muslim and Christian clerics came together for community development work. I have seen in the Gulf, such as here in the United Arab Emirates, the construction of churches to host large expatriate communities as well as Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras. The biggest challenge is accommodating the growth and providing space, either through the permitting of new places of worship or allowing the practice in private homes or hotels. The question before all of us today is what more we can do as a global community with shared values—a community that respects diversity of thought and belief—that wants everyone to be treated equally.

In the United States, we recently commemorated the 1968 death of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Christian pastor from the American south who led a historic civil rights movement for racial equality in our country. One of his most powerful quotes comes from the open letter he wrote in April 1963 from a jail in Birmingham, Alabama. Commenting on the interrelatedness of all communities he states, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Written more than 50 years ago, Dr. King’s words were prophetic, as our world is growing smaller and peoples and faiths mixing as never before. We truly are part of an “inescapable network of mutuality.” 

The United States welcomes the opportunity to work with the UAE and other countries and faith leaders to promote tolerance and to elevate the treatment of religious minorities as equals free from discrimination of any kind. We do this with the deep conviction that every person is imbued with a free conscience, that religious tolerance is an instrument for global peace, and taken together they are critical components to security, stability, and prosperity. Nothing protects religious minorities more than the commitment of each of us to the religious freedom of all people and all religious communities.

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