Remarks on USAID Advancing Religious Liberty from USAID Acting Administrator John Barsa on a Virtual Round Table with the Religious Freedom Institute

Monday, August 17, 2020

 
Washington, DC
August 17, 2020

MR. BARKER: Hello. I'm Jermy Barker, director of the Religious Freedom Institute's Middle East Action Team. And it's my privilege to welcome you to today's online event. We're looking forward to a great conversation on the United States Agency for International Development's role in advancing religious liberty. For those who are not familiar with the Religious Freedom Institute, RFI is committed to achieving broad acceptance of religious liberty as a fundamental human right, a source of individual and social flourishing, a cornerstone of a successful society, a driver of national and international security. In short, RFI’s work is to secure religious freedom for everyone everywhere.

Today's event will be a conversation lead by Kent Hill, RFI co-founder and senior fellow for Eurasia, the Middle East, and Islam. Leading the conversation with USAID's acting administrator John Barsa and the agency's chief advisor for International Religious Freedom, Samah Norquist. Time permitting, we will have time at the end for -- of the conversation for some questions. We've had a number submitted in advance. You can also submit questions through the chat feature below this video on YouTube or Facebook. Please feel free to post questions there throughout the event. And as we have time, we'll try to get to a few of those questions at the end. So, now it's my privilege to hand over the rest of the event to my colleague, Kent Hill.

MR. HILL: Thanks very much, Jeremy. And welcome everybody and particularly to acting administrator Barsa and Samah Norquist who's the point person for USAID on religious freedom. And I should mention at the outset, we've had a terrific RSVP for this event, well over 100 people from all over the world, as a matter of fact. And so, we welcome all of you to this. And I think that bespeaks the fact that there is a sense that religious freedom is important and not just for the religious individuals involved but for societies and for human flourishing and for -- we're going to talk about this a little bit later, national security stability and things like that. But as it turns out, we've actually had an event the last couple of weeks that's extremely troubling. Everybody knows about the terrible explosion and the aftermath of chaos that has occurred in Lebanon.

And what's particularly troubling about this is that Lebanon was one of the few places in the Middle East where a variety of religions had gotten along reasonably well, had been a democracy. There were major economic and corruption problems as we all know, but at least it was a place that many pointed to as a poster child for religious groups being able to get along together. And one of the big questions that is now right in front of us, staring us all right in the face, is whether the violence and the protest, much of it legitimate to the corruption, will lead to chaos and sectarianism which in other parts of the Middle East and the world has really spelled the end of religious freedom and the rising of extremists.

And as it turns out, the acting administrator of USAID, John Barsa, has just gone briefly to Lebanon to take a look at the situation, to talk to religious and political and other leaders. He even gave blood. That was on Twitter, I guess, that he managed to take time out to give blood while he was there. But I think we might start today by just asking John Barsa, if you could just give us a few reflections on what you saw there and particularly maybe this question, the religious leaders he talked to there and others, do you believe that they have a major role to play in calming things down and producing a more stable situation?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Over to me?

MR. HILL: Over to you.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Well, thank you, Ken. Thank you so much to you, to the Religious Freedom Institute for this invitation and for coordinating the event. There's so much to talk about in terms of not just what I saw in Lebanon, but I'm going to say this works for international, you know, protecting religious freedom. So, I'm happy to take any questions as well as prepared comments and try to cover some of what we do but happy to engage in a conversation to the extent that time allows. We're certainly grateful for our collaboration with RFI. We certainly look forward to building on this important partnership.

As Kent mentioned, I just got back from Beirut yesterday. I was there on a short visit, mostly to observe the damage from the explosion and oversee USAID's response. But what I saw on the ground shook me to the core. It's -- the level of destruction and loss of life is unimaginable. Throughout my career, I've traveled to many disaster sites and nothing I have ever experienced comes close to what I saw in Beirut. On behalf of the USAID and the United States government and the people of the United States, I offer my sincerest condolences to all of those affected by the catastrophic explosions last week. Three hundred thousand people have lost their homes, and many are still waiting to hear from missing family and friends. We are praying for the survivors and their families and stand with the people of Lebanon. This disaster could not have come at a worse time for the Lebanese people. They are already suffering from an ailing economy, and their generosity is being pushed to the limit hosting nearly 900,000 Syrian refugees. And when you consider the growing number of COVID-19 cases, the agony and despair on the ground becomes so much more worse.

The U.S. will continue to stand with Lebanese people as they grieve and cry for transparency and accountability from their government. I can't get this quote from Lebanese American writer Kahlil Gibran out of my head. It goes, "Out of the suffering have emerged the strongest souls. The most massive characters are seared with scars." It certainly reminds me of the Lebanese people as the most resilient people in the world. I met with some of those people who are part of the faith-based community in Lebanon. I was able to really understand and see their needs and challenges that they face in responding effectively to the disaster. USAID's proud to be collaborating with these organizations. They're immensely important to Lebanon as the country works to rebuild.

Support for faith-based organizations has long been one of USAID's policy priorities, not only in the Middle East region but around the world. Working with these types of organizations with extensive on-the-ground contacts and expertise is part of a new strategy that USAID is undertaking.

In 2019, we launched our new partnership initiative, what we call NPI, in Northern Iraq. It was the first time USAID has worked directly with local groups in nearly 20 years. We were looking for ways to expand similar programming and grow our partnerships with civil society groups and faith-based organizations across the region, including Lebanon.

As a Cuban American, I know firsthand how discrimination on the basis of faith can sow chaos, destroy lives, and uproot society, and divide families. My mother, a devout Catholic, was forced to flee Cuba as the nightmare of Fidel Castro's communist revolution began to cascade throughout the country. She risked her life and well-being by immigrating to the United States in search of better opportunities, but more importantly, to enjoy life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. My mother was one of the lucky ones. Christians who were unable to escape faced harassments, beating, imprisonment, and even death. To this day, the totalitarian Castro regime has continued to surveil, control, and harass church leaders and worshippers. That is why combating religious persecution means so much to me. It is deeply ingrained in my personal upbringing, and it pains me to see an intense persecution in my mother's homeland which is why, like President Trump and so many other Americans, I'm deeply concerned with the decline of religious freedom across the globe. Believers of nearly all faiths, including Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and Jews have been increasingly persecuted over the past decade.

For Americans, religious freedom is grounded in our founding documents and has always been a bipartisan issue. Under President Clinton, the International Religious Freedom Act was signed. And under President Obama, the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act was enacted. More recently, President Trump signed the bipartisan Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act, which authorizes assistance to victims of genocide and crimes against humanity committed by ISIS. He also signed the Nicaragua Human Rights and Anti-corruption Act, which imposes sanctions against violators of civil rights in Nicaragua.

In June, the president signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act. This legislation allows the U.S. to take decisive measures against the Chinese government in response to its heinous treatment of the Uyghurs and other minority communities and Xinjiang.

Finally, this past June, the president followed up on these unprecedented statements of principle by releasing the executive order on advancing International Religious Freedom. This executive order makes clear that advancing religious freedom is a major U.S. foreign policy and national security priority, one that USAID is proud to play a key role in implementing.

Our mission at USAID is to help countries continue along their journey to self-reliance. We empower countries to become more free, more prosperous, and more accountable to their citizens. When governments suppress freedom of religion, they prevent entire segments of society from making meaningful contributions to their country's political and economic development. This is antithetical to USAID's goal of fostering inclusive societies. Embracing pluralism is fundamental to ensuring stability and prosperity. USAID is committed to addressing the needs of vulnerable communities, including those of religious and ethnic minorities. Our programs aim to respond to and prevent mass atrocities including genocide.

There are a couple of areas where we're really seeing religious persecution. Most recently in northern Iraq and Syria, our efforts to focus on helping communities recover from the genocidal campaign by the so-called Islamic State. In Nigeria, we are working to protect Christian communities and other vulnerable groups from attacks and destabilization by Boko Haram, Islamic State in West Africa and other jihadists. For decades, the Rohingya have been driven out of Burma, periodically forced to flee to other surrounding countries in Muslim majority nations such as Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia. USAID, in partnership with the State Department, has provided more than $950 million in humanitarian aid for IDPs in Burma and refugees in host communities in Bangladesh.

Lastly, we remain steadfast in our support for persecuted minority groups in Xinjiang, China. USAID will not stand idly by this communist -- Chinese Communist Party that carries out abuses, targeting people who simply want to practice their customs and faith. As you can see, USAID has an unwavering commitment to International Religious Freedom around the world. President Trump's executive order on International Religious Freedom cements the important role our agency plays in carrying out this U.S. foreign policy priority.

Here's how the order does that. First, the United States will budget at least $50 million per year on programs that advance International Religious Freedom. USAID is working closely with the State Department to realize this and ensure that protecting religious freedom is a central tenet of our foreign assistance strategy. Our programs will focus on preventing attacks on religious minority communities and preserving pluralistic cultural heritage. We'll ensure our assistance addresses the political, social, and economic constraints that religious and ethnic communities face on a daily basis.

Second, the State Department and USAID now mandate that foreign service officers undergo training on how to promote International Religious Freedom. We've already gotten a head start on this. In January 2020, USAID mandated all its foreign service officers to take training on upholding religious liberty.

Third, the order states that the U.S. government will expand the availability of economic tools to support allies of religious freedom and confront bad actors. This aspect of the order will likely be carried out by either increasing our support to religious freedom programming, by realigning foreign aid to better reflect the country's circumstances or restricting the issue of visas and deploying Global Magnitsky's sanctions where appropriate.

The Executive Order recognizes that healthy societies protect religious freedom, just as they protect property rights, legal rights, and human civil rights of all kind. USAID is proud to play such a key role in one of the president's top priorities. And you'll hear from Samah Norquist soon who serves as our new chief religious freedom advisor and is leading the implementation effort.

In closing, it's truly an honor to be with you here today. RFI, its staff, and the many advocates listening in play just as important the role of advancing this cause as the U.S. government. It doesn't fall on deaf ears to say that religious freedom is under siege worldwide. USAID recognizes this troubling trend and is committed to further strengthening our efforts to advance religious liberty, and make sure that countries recognize it as a prerequisite for inclusive stability and prosperity. Thank you, again, for helping to amplify this important issue. I look forward to engaging further discussion, taking questions, and having a conversation with you. Thank you so very much.

MR. HILL: Thanks very much for that. Two or three things that you said that caught my attention. The first was the expanse of the problem. And one of the things that should have been obvious is that religious persecution affects all. It affects Muslims and China and Myanmar. It affects Yazidis and Christians and places like Iraq, but virtually every religion some place is under siege.

Number two, there is the note about the recent decision of the administration to issue an executive order on religious freedom. And yet, this has been a theme consistent with prior administrations, both Democrat and Republican. And I don't think we can emphasize enough in this time of great polarization the importance of viewing religious freedom, not just as a national security matter but as a bipartisan commitment of the American people.

And then third, you said a little bit about what we're going to talk about some more, about the actual requirements of the executive order. But I want to ask Samah Norquist a question that we start here. Samah, I remember when I was at USAID for about eight years that there was an attitude sometimes you encounter with the public, and sometimes even in government that saw USAID and DFID and other international development organizations as a vehicle to bring humanitarian assistance and systems and disasters, you know, food and shelter and medical care, and, for sure, that's a big part of what we do. But people's eyes kind of glazed over when you talked about something like democracy or even more glazed over when you talk about religious freedom. It was -- it was sort of as if, well, you know, that's kind of nice if you can pull it off, but that's not mainly your work. And that raises this question. The title of this webinar, Samah, had to do with religious freedom as one of the priorities, a major priority for U.S. government and USAID. And I want to ask you, because I know you've thought a lot about this, and now you're on point on it. How do you answer those people who really don't get it, don't understand the connection between succeeding and the promotion of religious freedom and actually doing the work that helps societies flourish? What's your answer to why it really matters that much?

MS. NORQUIST: Thank you, Kent, and thank you for having us. It's delightful to be with you all. You're absolutely right. One of my civil servant colleagues have been sort of mentoring me on how we do this kind of work and integrate it into the DNA of USAID programming. And one of the things that he brought to my attention was inclusive to the concept of inclusive development. This is how I started talking the aid language. He taught me that the North Star of advancing religious freedom is inclusive development.

The way that we're doing business right now, as you said and as our acting administrator mentioned, every religious group is under threat, whether by state actors or nongovernment actors, whether they're minority or they're majority. And there's so many places in the world that are that way. And when USAID does its work, it sometimes forgets about some of those marginalized population because we worry about some of the concepts that you mentioned. However, when you look at the work that we were able to do in Iraq -- in northern Iraq, for example, those communities were targeted because of their faith or ethnicity, whether they were Christians, whether they were Shia, whether they were Yazidis. And what the U.S. government responded, one by the H.R. 390 that you guys were very helpful in getting to the final step in providing assistance to those communities that were targeted and were victims of genocide. What the U.S. government has done is looked at some of the assistance that we do in order to make sure that we don't forget about those communities.

So, with the concept of inclusive development, it's looking at both minorities on how we bring them and give them the equal access to government assistance and assistance programs. What happened with us is that we were -- that allowed us to be within those communities and talk to local leaders and faith-based organizations that are better equipped to tell us what their needs are and to partner with us. So, a lot of that work came around. I started speaking aid, and we're looking forward to working with a lot of people in the building, civil servants, foreign service officers. I've been very fortunate to work many of them previously in the Middle East Bureau, and we were able to move the needle and looking forward to working and doing more under Administrator John Barsa’s leadership.

MR. HILL: No, I appreciate that very much. I think that's very helpful. It reminds me of something that I learned over about 15 years between USAID and World Vision where I read a lot of international development books on the cause of poverty. And, you know, the first quick response to that often is scarcity; scarcity of water, scarcity of food, scarcity of resources, and you go down the list. And then you look a little closer, and you discover that the biggest single problem is not scarcity; or to put it another way, there's a cause of the scarcity. And the scarcity is almost always exacerbated and made immeasurably worse by conflict. So, addressing conflict, addressing anything that gets in the way of stability is what will get at the problem of scarcity better than anything else.

And when you put 95 percent of your money as many international and bilateral organizations tend to do and actually the band-aid approach -- providing what is missing. It makes sense, of course, to do that. But if you don't also invest in the cause of what resulted in the injury you're putting the band aid on, you can't get at it. You just can't get at it. Administrator Barsa, I know you preside over a budget of, I don't know, 40 billion plus dollars and you're looking at problems throughout the world that deal with everything. You have -- well, I have to be very crisp here because we're going to run out of time pretty quickly. But as you survey the landscape route right now, in terms of the religious freedom part of it, the -- I think Samah mentioned it, it's the problem of pluralism as well. The challenge to pluralism, what do you see? Is that situation getting worse? And how does USAID intend to get at where the problems are getting worse at the present time?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Unfortunately, I do see the problems getting worse, part of it is -- even before the pandemic, religious freedom is being challenged all over the world by, you know, certainly the Chinese. And we're hearing already the Chinese even want to have a role in picking the next Dalai Lama. So, we're seeing challenges all over the -- all over the place. So, let me take a step back and kind of dovetail with some of what Samah are saying. Let me give you some of my personal views.

So, my personal view is that every human being is a child of God, and it's been bestowed on a rich capacity and human potential. So, for a society to basically take human beings and put them aside and persecute them, I mean, any member of any persecuted religious ethnic minority can contribute so much to society from building a better light bulb, to curing cancer, developing a way to get to the planets better on. I mean, every individual has his God-given human potential. So, to have economic development fulfillments, you have to be inclusive and bring everyone on board to select and segregate groups because of the way they have their relationship with God or their deity, is crippling to a society's possibility and potential for economic political development. You deny yourself the stability and what you need to reach a -- for a country to reach their own economic and political potential.

So, our programming -- so what this executive order has done -- it has focused things. It has put a floor of $50 million. But we've been doing this for decades, so the work we're doing in terms of inclusive programming for persecuted religious groups has been taking place and will continue to take place. This executive order has elevated it and as you said, Kent, on the outset, this is a bipartisan issue.

MR. HILL: Right.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: We, as Americans, know what right looks like, and we're proud to be doing this work. And it is a challenging environment. And we're seeing increased challenges, but if we're up to the task.

MR. HILL: Yeah. You know, well, hearing you talk reminds me of something that I used to give as a lecture point in my first career as a European history professor in Seattle, Washington. And it has to do with I think of 17th century France, and there was something called the Edict of Nantes, which was an edict to toleration between Catholics and Protestants which unleashed tremendous economic power for France. And then it was revoked. The famous revocation of the Edict of Nantes which resulted in the Protestant Huguenots, being forced out of the country. These were the most economically entrepreneurial and gifted -- some of the most gifted in France. They took those skills to other countries that hurt France and helped everybody else.

But the empirical connection between the good of religion, if allowed to exist and believers were allowed to exist in practice or faith, is not just a sort of a theological, theoretical assumption or assertion. It's a fact. And, Samah, the other thing I wanted to -- I wanted to pursue with you and I apologize, this wasn't in the sort of the broad questions that we gave you in advance, but I think it's one you'll be able to handle easily. When you're asked the question, why religious freedom matters? We at the RFI often say religious freedom matters because religion matters. Now, why do we say that? There's something about religion, if it's practiced in a humane way, that is respectful of other people, that provides something that is often missing. Now, if it's true, then many of the problems in the world are caused by conflict, bitter conflict, where everybody that either side has a long scorecard of bad things that have happened to them and the desire for revenge is very, very strong. It is very difficult. If you -- if a family member has been killed or you've been the victim of a really bad thing, it's really difficult to come to reconciliation.

One of the few things in the world that can sometimes compel or empower a person to move beyond such abuse is religious -- is religious teaching. I got to learn to turn off my phone before I have these discussions. And my thought is, if conflict is so severe in the Middle East and elsewhere and you have to get -- or South Africa and you have to get to reconciliation, do you agree with the proposition that one of the reasons you want religion free is so that those people who say the future has to be reconciliation and vengeance, that perspective is going to be particularly and powerfully represented and found within religious communities

MS. NORQUIST: Thank you, Ken. As you know, I am a daughter of an immigrant. I came to this country when I was 16 years old from the Middle East. And while I am not a victim of oppression or religious persecution, I grew up and I've seen communities that were victims of that. And threats to religious freedom don't come just in a persecution. It comes in discrimination, it comes in social behavior, it comes into human rights violations, even some bullying in schools. When we -- when my family moved to this country, it was incredible for me as a young person to look around and become part of this incredible country that its first amendment was the protection of religious freedom. And for many, many years, this country was safe from any of the religious conflicts that other nations -- and we've never had that. But that's not because we didn't want to talk about religion, it was because we respected religion and the freedom of our citizens to either believe or not believe.

And what we're hoping to do through this executive order is actually fortify that concept. How does -- how does USAID do it? USAID does it by looking at strategies on how we mainstream some of the needs of those rejected communities and bring them back to the mainstream. How do we do that? We -- as an agency and with our programs and engagements with governments, is we use that convening power in order to bring our partners to talk about issues. We're not going to be there defending one religion over the other because we have programs all over the world, and the administrator and the president and the vice president have been very, very clear that this is not for one group versus the other. It's across the board. The president of the United States last June just passed through and signed the Uyghurs Act, which protects against the human rights violations of the Uyghurs. So, you can argue all that you want.

The United States and USAID is part of the three D's as you remember, defense, diplomacy, and development. And that's what our acting administration pushes us every day. And that's where role --- our role is. And if we don't address those issues on the ground with different religious communities, we're just talking to ourselves. And you might -- you better lay it all on the table in order to bring these communities back together.

MR. HILL: Yeah, just a quick follow up on that. Samah, can you say a word about how USAID actually programs in an area where there's been great conflict? How do you actually unleash through a program funded by U.S. government taxpayers? How do you actually unleash something that might make a difference?

MS. NORQUIST: So, we've been -- one of the things that we've been tackling is actually working with faith-based organizations. It's not something new that USAID just we started. This is in our long history. And when you were at USAID, I was a little munchkin also at USAID, but you were a system administrator, so you were a big deal. I do remember learning about the programs that we did in Africa, particularly when it came to countering AIDS. And it wasn't working with big NGOs. It was working with the imams in Africa. And as a Muslim American, to me that was an eye-opening experience. Because to me I thought AIDS is an issue that you can't talk about. And to my incredible ignorance, I found out that we actually -- it was through the faith-based organizations and imam leaders that we were able to implement some of the most important programs that saved lives.

So, how do we do it? There are so many options. And we're looking at all the options. NPI, that the administrator mentioned in his remark, the New Partner Initiative, it opens a big door for us to utilize -- underutilize and diversify our partnership to particularly go towards those local communities that know what the needs are. It doesn't mean that we don't do the others. But it doesn't mean that that's the only way of doing business.

MR. HILL: Right. Administrator Barsa, when you think about implementing the executive order actually using the $50 million in a way that will make a difference, one of the components there has to do with training. And it has to do with the training of personnel. And I guess -- the assumption is that you might not know right off the bat what the connection is between religious freedom and stability, or you might not even know the diversity of the religious communities in a given setting. How important do you think the training component of the executive order is for achieving the objectives of the executive order?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: I think training is essential, because what we're doing with the training, it's not -- we're planting the seeds for long -- our long-term ability to address this. So, we're -- so, we have a Foreign Service officer at the beginning part of their career. What we're doing with the training, we are highlighting the importance of this. We could talk about inclusion in the broad sense of the term, but we're emphasizing that religious -- you know, religious and ethnic minorities, this inclusion is particularly important. It's particularly onerous. So, they say history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes. So, as Foreign Service officers go from country to country, the particular manifestation of persecution may differ in the specifics, but it's the broad generalities that we want people to be looking at. So, part of the training is like, "Hey, Foreign Service officer, wherever you're deployed, you need to be on the lookout for this. This is key for whatever you're facing in terms of development, you know, prosperity, civil society, democracy. You've got to get this right." So, the training is an investment for Foreign Service officers who are going to be around for decades.

MR. HILL: Yeah. The -- I remember something during the PEPFAR years in terms of the importance of -- and it's not -- it wasn't just PEPFAR. I was in charge of Global Health. We were about to stamp out polio, and we had done so in much of the world. But we had a few places where we could not get trust by the community to take the polio vaccine. And Samah, it was the Muslim imams who broke the issue wide open. Because once they said to their people, "This is a public health matter. We -- this is not -- this vaccination is not going to hurt you," that was when we got the breakthrough. Have we not had the cooperation of the religious community there, because the religious leaders have the credibility, we couldn't have achieved our polio objective.

MS. NORQUIST: Right. And if I may add, Kent. When we look at this issue, we look at -- across the board. This is not just we're trying to help one group as opposed to the other. This is how do we include these communities and marginalized communities that we forgot about before, whether they were persecuted or whether because they're discriminated against in everything we do, addressing government constraints, addressing economic constraints, educational constraints, and helping persecuted communities. So, from my own personal perspective, when it comes -- when we -- what we did in the Middle East, it actually preserved the mosaic of the Middle East.

MR. HILL: Right.

MS. NORQUIST: That Middle East does not exist without these Christian communities. And when people are trying to exterminate communities like that, that's a dangerous game that they're playing that will jeopardize the history and -- the rich history and culture of the Middle East.

MR. HILL: Yeah. Administrator Barsa, one of the things I noticed from externally looking at the -- sort of the mosaic of countries is there seems to be a connection between when a society or a country becomes more monochrome in terms of its ethnic and religious majority and the way there will or will not be protection for the minorities. And the countries that have had policies which segregate, exclude, expel, and the worst-case scenario, genocide, those societies become more intolerant overtime. Those societies, and I think this is one of the great strengths of the United States, they always use the image of the melting pot, doesn't mean there wasn't discrimination, doesn't mean that people didn't have a hard time sometimes when they came in from another part of the world. But in fairly short order, within a few years, they were usually assimilated, became part of the American tapestry. And it was that diversity which in some places tears the place apart. But in places where there's really democracy and respect and human rights and religious freedom, it actually makes it immeasurably stronger. So, getting that message out that there's a connection between protecting minorities, treasuring minorities, giving them their rights even though the majority might be Christian or Buddhist or Muslim, is key. How do you find a way to persuade people that this is an empirical fact that impacts the flourishing of societies? I mean, what can we do better to get that message out there?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: So, let me go from the broader point. And the -- your comments about the United States as a melting pot reminds me of something my mother said. As I mentioned in my comments, my mother fled Communist Cuba when she was a young lady. And so, she -- you know, the United States welcomed her with open arms. She was really able to start her life over again. So, having been through that firsthand herself, she'd like to use -- instead of melting pot, she likes to say the United States to her was a salad, where you have a cohesive whole but individual parts that have -- that retain their own essence and their own flavor. But coming together, you have this rich, wonderful dish. So, my mom always called it a salad.

So, I guess what we do is -- again, history doesn't repeat itself, but it's -- but it rhymes. So, the particular case of what is going on in China, in Burma, and Iraq, the specifics may be different, but we come with this whole, in this knowledge, even that history has shown it, your mention of trading Nazis in the experiences of France. We have shown -- I mean, history has shown time and time again the most successful economies and cultures, the ones that are a rich tapestry that have found to work in a cohesive whole with people who have different views.

So, at one point, you know, we need to ensure that our Foreign Service officers going out into the field understand the history and the importance of religious freedom. But it all has to be particular to the country at hand, which is why I'm so excited about our New Partnerships Initiative. Generally speaking, our New Partnerships Initiative is great for business that USAID, I believe, writ large working, you know, with new partners instead of the traditional organizations. I always believe the best solution is the ones crafted closest to the problems. So, I'm always going to be leaning towards those groups that are based in the localities where we're trying to meet a particular challenge. And specifically, with the New Partnerships Initiative, what we're doing is we are working with those religious organizations on the ground who understand a particular culture and who can help tailor our message of inclusivity to the language and particular culture that -- you know, where we're working. So --

MR. HILL: Yeah. I think it was -- I can't remember exactly -- I think it was the 1950s when the great Jesuit philosopher and thinker John Courtney Murray said that 95 percent of disagreement is misunderstanding.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Yeah.

MR. HILL: Now, why do I mention that? We talked about training, about religious freedom as critically important. Let me throw on the table one of the critical misunderstandings that I encountered a great deal. I mean, I know people who are working for the U.S. government encountered this as well. In fact, I encountered it one time in a State Department meeting. We were talking about providing assistance to a faith-based organization and the person across the table says, "We can't do that. That's a violation of church-state relations. We don't -- we can't -- as the U.S. government, we cannot support or have a program with a religious entity because that's supporting that religious entity." And it struck me then. I obviously disagree. But we have to be able to give a reason. We have to explain why that is not a violation of the founding principles of this country. In fact, it's actually in direct contradiction to the positive role the founders believe religion could play. Now, I have an answer that I sometimes give, and I might share it in a minute.

But Samah, do you have any recommendations on how best to address that misconception that if USAID funds go to a religious organization that's inherently problematic? And that would go to the heart of what you said, John, because it would make the New Partners Initiative really on the wrong track because some of those partners, many of them are faith-based.

MS. NORQUIST: So, the churches and mosques and any houses of worship are the closest to these communities, those small communities. They are the trusted centers for them. They're the refuge to them. And it will be really missing opportunity for us if we don't explore options to work with them. We're not providing Bibles or Quran or preaching. We're providing programs to build their capacity in order to be able to deliver to their local communities.

I'll give you an example that we did in Jordan. So, a few years -- a couple of years ago, I visited a church downtown Amman. It's the St. Joseph's Church.

MR. HILL: Right.

MS. NORQUIST: There is a wonderful priest, Priest Mario, who opened the church for Iraqi Christians that fled ISIS in 2015, provided refuge and rooms and places for these refugees to sleep. And then he brought an Italian chef from Italy that trained those Iraqi refugees on how to make pizza.

So, the courtyard in the church, when you go there, they -- the -- you-- it's -- you can go and order pizza and beer and hookah and play cards and -- whether it's Ramadan or it's not -- or during non-Ramadan days. And the servants and the cooks are all Iraqi refugees. It was one of the most incredible scenes I've seen. Here's a church providing hope, job training, and refuge to these people that escaped genocide. What USAID did, what our mission in Jordan was able to do is actually partner with a local Jordanian organization that makes cheese.

So, we created a program in another city, Karak, which is in southwest of Jordan, 85 miles from the capital, has the -- one of the most famous Crusaders castles, and has one of the most vibrant Christian communities in Jordan. We've partnered with that or a local organization to teach group of women on how to make cheese. And then we break that cheese. And then we -- they deliver it to the church to which those refugees use that cheese and make the pizza for people that goes in.

So, there are a lot -- it's one of the most incredible success stories that USAID was able to do. And we're not doing religious teaching. We're supporting and partnering with local groups. We provide job opportunities. We're empowering women. And we're connecting host community with their refugee population. So, USAID can do magic. Just people, give us the tools, and the money, and we'll do it.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Kent, I got to give you like a more recent example.

MR. HILL: All right.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: I was just in Beirut. I was with many implementing partners we're working for a long time. Many of them, religious faith organizations. I'm not going to name the organizations who I saw on the street. But when I was walking down the streets in the devastated sectors of Beirut, I saw many of these organizations cleaning up rubble and glass. It wasn't Shia rubble and glass. It wasn't Druze rubble and glass. Or Sunni rubble and glass. Or Christian rubble and glass. It was rubble and glass. So, without need, these religious groups were going in, cleaning in, pitching help, making sure the entire communities were there. And that was one of the proudest moments, seeing these groups, these religious groups helping the entire community.

MR. HILL: Right. You know, that's great. And Samah, I've been to Father Mario's pizza place. And if the proof is in the tasting, it's some of the best pizza I've had. It was great.

MS. NORQUIST: It is.

MR. HILL: But that you're hearing that the U.S. government capitalized on the generosity of a religious group that was willing to take a hand in helping people in desperate need. And as you know, the refugees in Jordan, and this was true in Lebanon and Turkey as well, are often missed by the U.N. system.

They just don't get help. And if we don't help them in this way, they don't get help. And we don't unleash what they can do to help. I'll give you one example from my experience in government. It was during the PEPFAR years when we gave a lot of money to every kind of religious organization you can think of so long as their message supported the public health message that needed to go out to stop the spread of HIV. Now, we gave money to secular organizations. We gave money to religious organizations. There was no question of a violation of church-state.

What would have been a violation is, we're only going to help the Muslims. So, we're only going to help the Christians. We're only going to help the Buddhists. If you're willing to help anybody of goodwill and not discriminate against them because they happened to be religious, that's not only right, that's prudent. And it makes a lot of sense to do that. Samah?

MS. NORQUIST: And one thing I will add to that, Kent, and that's what under Acting Administrator Barsa's leadership, it's not -- the ultimate goal is not just the systems and the hand down, right?

It's lifting those communities and remind them that they are citizens of that country. So, we're not reminding them they're Christians, Muslims, Bahai, or Buddhists. But they are Lebanese. They are, you know, Nigerian. They are Nicaraguan. They are part of that society. And they cannot be discriminated against. And we cannot discriminate against our assistance toward those communities.

MR. HILL: Right. And just one final point on this. Beyond the ability of a faith-based group or a religious group to provide a public service that is legitimate for us to fund, it's the deeper -- and maybe this is the far more important point. If there's chaos, like in Lebanon now, and the hatred and the violence is right there on the threshold of everything, if you can get three or four religious communities and leaders together from different communities who, say, call on their own communities to play a role in rebuilding it, and they do it together, it sends such a powerful message. And then sometimes they can accomplish that which cannot be accomplished in any other way. And to turn your back on that healing of society just because they happened to be religious would be just countered through our foreign policy interests.

I think it would be better to -- we're running out of time here. And Jeremy, I'm going to ask you if you can perhaps put up on the screen a couple of questions. Maybe let's start with one, and let Samah and Acting Administrator Barsa respond to that. "What lessons can be learnt --" this may be somebody from Great Britain -- "by other countries’ donor agencies? " In other words, if USAID looks at DFID or other international bilateral organizations who are working in the space of trying to promote pluralism and religious freedom, are there some specific things that we can learn or ways that we can partner with them? I guess that would be -- okay. So, I'll let you start, Administrator Barsa. And then Samah, if you could give your thoughts on that.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Well, certainly, you know, we've talked a lot about, you know, the theory of what we're doing and why religious and ethnic minorities are critical for our development work. I'll actually turn to Samah to talk to the -- at the tactical level in terms of what other countries may be doing and how we're interacting with them. I'll turn it to Samah.

MS. NORQUIST: So, thanks, boss. The -- so, as you know, Kent, the United States hosted two ministerials.

MR HILL: Yeah.

MS. NORQUIST: One on religious freedom, one in '18 and one in '19. And that really brought the -- emphasized the seriousness of this priority to our country and to the Trump administration as a priority of the -- of carrying out foreign policy. And when we started our -- I'll speak from my experience in Iraq. When we started the work in Iraq, there were some countries that are doing some work. As you know, the government of Hungary was very, very active on the ground. But when the United States stepped in and elevated this issue and the world's attention into it, in a bipartisan manner, the world took notice. And we started seeing countries like Germany, France stepping in, whether it's with direct assistance on the ground, whether finding different solutions to address those needs that -- of those communities. So, in -- I'm very biased towards the United States. I think we have the magic wand every time -- with our leadership. It is incredible how we're able to galvanize the world and bring them on a -- in a united front to do more good on this issue.

MR. HILL: Right. I might say that I've been aware and actually involved in a major initiative of the British government. DFID has been critical that -- they're equivalent to our USAID.

In the last couple of years, they have been doing some remarkable work connecting the plight of religious minorities to the question of whether the international and national aid agencies, sometimes, if they're missed in the cracks. They don't get helped in the way they should. They're doing major studies on this. Jeremy, who introduced our session today, has been very, very involved with this. But I've been impressed with that. I've also been impressed that quite a number of countries now have followed the U.S. lead and have an ambassador for religious freedom. And that's a -- that's an encouraging sign. Because what it says to their own country into their own diplomatic core into the world is this matters. This makes a difference. This isn't a -- sort of a niche issue for religious minorities. This matters to us all. We have working with us now former ambassador of Canada Andrew Bennett, and, you know, his perspective that he brings from Canada on this and working on this. So, the U.S. is not isolated here. And I think you're right, Samah, the two ministerials which were the two biggest in history bringing Secretary of State level are very close in one place to talk about religious freedom issues. That's a first. And I -- my hope and prayer is it doesn't matter who wins the election. That that's important enough that it will continue because it is a bipartisan issue or ought to be on this --

MS. NORQUIST: And it's an American issue too.

MR. HILL: It's an American -- it is. It's an American issue too. Jeremy, another question. "How can we help with the action plan for the executive order regarding religious freedom? " This is somebody who's interested in actually seeing the executive order implemented. And I think the implication seems to be maybe from the standpoint, we maybe perhaps being the private sector or NGOs. I mean, you mentioned that I think earlier, Samah or John, I can't remember which, that USAID partners, that's the key to defending the taxpayer dollars. So, if they partner with contractors and with NGOs. So -- and you trying to get your job done on the executive order, Samah, how can other NGOs and others in American civil society be of assistance to you and the agency and helping the chief successor?

MS. NORQUIST: Thank you for the question. So, one of the things that we are trying to be more active and is actually when we talk to new and underutilized partners, is work with them and showing them how they can become partners with us. How do -- I'm sorry?

MR. HILL: The New Partnerships Initiative, for example?

MS. NORQUIST: Yeah. The -- so, many of those local, little groups don't know how to apply for grants, don't know what their regulations are, what the requirements are. So, one of the things that -- for example, we -- when we were -- when we initiated the Iraq NPI is we actually might -- one of my team members and I went to Erbil and met -- and did a demonstration for what -- how to apply for sense number and all the wonderful bureaucratic things that I still don't understand. But it also allowed them to see why we have so many requirements and regulations.

MR. HILL: Right.

MS. NORQUIST: Some of them are good, and some of them are not. But it's to protect our -- some of them are mandated internally, and some of them are mandated by Congress. So, because of our responsibility towards the taxpayers, we always have to be transparent. We always have to be by the books, which is how we do it. But how can people come and talk to us? Tell us how we can help. There's a lot that we need to learn. And as I mentioned, that working with our colleagues, of civil servants, and Foreign Service officer, and even contractors is how we talk about this issue. This is not for one group versus the other. This is not for one political party in the U.S. versus the other. This is an American value. And this is how -- when Americans want to see how goodness they do, that is one of the ways that Foreign Assistance can provide to communities that don't have the opportunities that we have in the U.S.

MR. HILL: Right. You know, that certainly makes sense. I remember in the 1990s I was in charge of the Balkans not long after the Balkan War. And we put out a $10 million program, which was a little different than other programs. We told folks, "Now, tell us how you're going to, you know, work on this particular project. We actually -- obviously, in the wake of communism and the inter-religious conflict, you've got tremendous conflict here. We will entertain proposals from anybody, secular or religious, as to what might restore the spiritual, moral capital of your society." And at first, there was this complete silence. That's a much harder question than "How are you going to dig a well in this town?" This required a lot of thinking. And one group came up with an interesting idea. They said, "What if we had a national program in Albania that would highlight each week or each month a citizen who has done something selfless or generous or promoting reconciliation?" And so, we funded this television program. It became the number one watch program in Albania. People were so hungry for the good news that citizens are not just special interest groups who are only at each other's throats. They are sometimes individuals who care about other people, people outside their tribe, their religious group, as citizens. And it sort of started something going that was worth -- and I think sometimes we have to do more thinking about, what do we actually do to cultivate those values that can matter?

There was a former USAID mission director, and I'm trying -- Lawrence Harrison was his name in the 1990s. He was way before our time, Samah and John, but he had five different missions in Latin America. And when he got out of government, he asked himself the question, "What did I learn from my year -- USAID years? " And you know what is -- he wrote a book entitled Culture Matters. And what he meant was underdevelopment and scarcity and poverty are connected to values. If you don't find a way to access sources of community spirit and values, sometimes religious communities are the places that spawn this, we know they can also spawn hatred, but they can spawn the values and virtues that can help. If you don't find a way to address cultural issues, the poverty issues will be with you forever. And I think USAID has shown more courage over a number of administrations and most places in the world to ask those deeper questions about how to achieve development by a promotion of values.

MS. NORQUIST: And inclusion.

MR. HILL: And inclusion -- well, of course, that is a value, isn't it? The whole value of inclusion and pluralism and religious freedom, it's all based on what you talked about earlier, Samah, is the American experience at its best and figuring out a way to, you know, modestly but to firmly talk about that. Any last comments before we draw this to a close?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Well, certainly from my end, I can't emphasize enough the value and the appreciation we have for our relationship with you, Kent and RFI. This is -- these are challenges that are going to be with us for a while. But we're -- we can make a positive difference. We can change the world working together. I'm very proud to have people like Samah and so many talented professionals here on the team at USAID in the field making a difference. I am truly blessed to be in this fight along with you. So, thank you so much for all that you do.

MR. HILL: Thanks, sir. Samah, any last words?

MS. NORQUIST: For me, first of all, thank you for having us. It's always a pleasure to work and learn more from groups -- advocacy groups like yourself. I am very humbled to be in where I am, from a daughter of an immigrant to be part in serving the American people and the president of the United States. And I'm very fortunate to be working with John Barsa, because he truly believes in this issue and continues to empower us to do that kind of work.

MR. HILL: Well, thank you very much. And this has been a great conversation. A lot of issues that I think are very important have come up. And I think what we all must work and particularly labor for is that the truth of the importance of pluralism and religious freedom is it's got to be seen in this country that is so polarized as a bipartisan issue, something that doesn't depend on who's president, something that USAID and the State Department and others promote no matter what, because it's part of our national security strategy. And it's not just the moral thing to do, it is the right thing to do. So, thank you both for participating. And thanks to the many people who have signed up and watched this on the webinar. So, thank you.

Last updated: September 25, 2020

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