Administrator Samantha Power at the 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit

Speeches Shim

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Thanks, Adam, and good afternoon everyone. It is a privilege to address you at today’s inaugural summit.

I want to thank Ambassador Sam Brownback and IRF Summit 2021 Committee co-chair Katrina Lantos Swett for convening this multi-faith coalition to discuss an issue that defines the lives of people worldwide: religious freedom. When secured, a person’s freedom to worship as they wish, is a source of boundless enrichment.

Today, in 56 countries around the world, people are silenced, persecuted—or subject to worse—for their religious beliefs. And religious freedom overall is on the decline; two billion more people live in countries with high restrictions on religious freedom than just a decade ago. 

This gathering also comes at a time when the very technologies that were once lauded for their potential to protect human rights—from satellite imagery to mobile video capture to the internet itself—are now being used to undermine those rights and restrict religious freedom. 

Heinous abuses of religious freedom and broader human rights are reflected in the horrific account of repression, violence, and genocide that we heard earlier today from Tursunay Ziyawudun—but also in the account of another survivor of the People’s Republic of China’s brutal repression: Zamrut Dawut. 

Like Tursunay, Zamrut is a Uyghur woman from Xinjiang. In 2018, she was told to report to a local police station before being interrogated, shackled with a black hood over her head, and led to a detention camp where she was forced to change into prison clothes in front of male guards. The prison cell she was held in for 62 days was so crowded, the women took shifts lying down to rest. 

Zamrut has three children. She and her husband dreamed of having a fourth, but after her release, she was told that she would undergo a surgical sterilization or face further detention. She chose to forgo her dreams of a larger family. 

“They want the extinction of the Uyghurs,” she told The Washington Post, recalling the forced operation. 

Zamrut is one of millions of Uyghurs who has been detained in Chinese “reeducation camps,” so called, forced to recite propaganda, subjected to sexual humiliation, and often raped or forcibly sterilized as part of the Chinese government’s efforts to erase Muslim culture in Xinjiang. 

Despite the deprivations that Zamrut and her family faced, they were in some ways lucky. They were granted permission to visit Zamrut’s father-in-law in Pakistan who had fallen ill and, in 2016, they sought refuge in the United States. Most Uyghurs are denied passports and monitored closely by government officials, making such an escape impossible. 

It is difficult and heart wrenching for survivors like Zamrut and Tursunay to share their experiences with the world, and it is dangerous to be outspoken about the abuses endured by their people. 

But there is nothing more powerful and irrefutable than living testimony to show us the stakes of why it is so critical for all of us to stand up on behalf of religious freedom. Central to every major religion is a yearning for connection to the divine and the sacred practices that bring us closer to it. 

But the potential for true freedom, self-determination, and equality rests upon the ability of governments to uphold universal human rights, regardless of how their people worship or to whom they pray, whether they’re Coptic Christians in Egypt, Baha’i in Iran, Rohingya Muslims in Burma, or Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. 

I’m speaking to you today as a proud daughter of Dublin, Ireland where, when I was a child, The Troubles loomed nearby, and what remains a region where faith and sectarianism can divide communities that have so much else in common. 

I am also proud to serve a President whose faith has guided his life in public service; who believes in a calling to serve, not to be served—a calling to promote justice, healing, and hope, and to confront hatred with good deeds. 

I am proud to lead an agency that is unequivocally committed to protecting religious minorities and defending human rights. 

The fight for international religious freedom is not just a reflection of who we are as Americans, but of strategic national interest to the United States and a key foreign policy objective. It’s why I met with Tursunay and other Uyghur activists in my first week as USAID Administrator, to hear directly from them about their experiences at the hands of the PRC. 

We know that when countries promote religious freedom and protect religious minorities, democracy is more stable, communities are more likely to develop equitably and prosper, the rights of women and girls are more likely to be protected, and overall quality of life improves. In fact, Pew research indicates that GDP growth rates in countries where religious restrictions and hostilities decreased, grew at double the rate of countries where restrictions substantially increased. 

We also know that countries which stigmatize or oppress religious minorities or restrict the opportunity to worship freely, are more prone to instability and conflict. A report that USAID commissioned shows a clear pattern: denying religious freedoms is associated with higher levels of social conflict and violence. In fact, countries with high government restrictions on religion are more than twice as likely to witness social conflict as those with low- or no restrictions. 

Whether in China, Burma, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, the United States has made clear that lasting peace will require freedom of worship and access to holy sites and places of worship for people of all faiths.  

It’s especially urgent that we address religious freedom today, as COVID-19 has given further cover to repressive regimes to abuse human rights. Governments have taken sweeping actions to control the spread of the virus, restricting in-person gatherings, including religious gatherings. Some restrictions were of course necessary, but the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom annual report revealed that already marginalized religious minorities faced even greater levels of stigmatization, harrassment, and discrimination, as they were often accused of causing or spreading the virus.

I know there are those who see religious freedom as first amongst rights and others who seek to defend religious freedom, belief, and conscience as part and parcel of a comprehensive commitment to human rights. But what has become even more clear in the past year is that religious freedom is only as secure as its co-equal rights. The freedom to speak freely, to assemble and associate freely, to advocate your cause to political leaders and to live free from slavery or torture. These rights––these principles––are interdependent; religious freedom cannot exist without them. And it is our responsibility to advance them all. 

It remains incumbent on us all to demonstrate that democracy can only function and deliver when it includes, protects the rights, and hears the voices of all people. And because the United States is no exception, we must continue to grapple with our own legacies of inequity and oppression.

Put simply, persecution or violence against communities, because of their religion or belief is symptomatic of a broken system. Religious pluralism, tolerance, and freedom yield stability, security, room for sustainable development, and democratic progress. 

President Biden has put development on equal footing with defense and diplomacy within America’s broader foreign policy agenda to maximize our efforts in support of persecuted and marginalized communities. 

Each day, in coordination with our Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, dedicated development professionals at USAID respond to human rights violations, work to prevent atrocities and preserve culture, and protect religious freedom for all people.  

In countries with a grim history of religious violence like Bosnia and Herzegovina, USAID facilitates dialogue among interfaith leaders and coordinates lessons in Bosnian high schools to combat prejudice and mitigate fear of “the other.”

In Iraq and Syria, where ISIS has perpetrated genocide against Yazidis and horrible atrocities against Christians, and Muslims, driving the largest and most complex humanitarian crisis of our time, we are on the ground delivering aid and support through stabilization programs in governance, essential services, and economic recovery to help religious and ethnic minorities targeted by ISIS.  

In Sudan, we have supported the transitional government’s efforts to end severe religious freedom violations. Today, Sharia law is no longer the primary source of law; a provision has been adopted to guarantee the freedom of belief and worship; and in 2020 the transitional government adopted the Fundamental Rights and Freedom Act which repealed the apostasy law, ended flogging for blasphemy, and banned female genital mutilation.

In Sri Lanka, we have worked with religious leaders to reduce religious and ethnic tensions across the country. They’ve formed interreligious committees to provide trainings on pluralism and diversity, transitional justice workshops, and mediation forums. In five years, the project has reached more than 13,000 community members, and successfully mediated more than 80 percent of accepted cases.

And in places where religious and ethnic minorities are specifically targeted––like today in the Tigray region of Ethiopia and in the case of Rohingya Muslims in Burma––the United States is driving diplomatic outreach to push reconciliation, to promote human rights, and to promote respect for pluralism while using our renewed engagement on the Human Rights Council to remind those responsible that the world is watching. 

We are also defending religious and ethnic minorities through girls’ empowerment programs that promote inter-religious reconciliation, anti-corruption initiatives that bolster good governance and protect minorities, and infrastructure initiatives to try to rebuild safe spaces for communities to gather and to worship. 

And we are rallying the international community to combat the disturbing rise in virulent and violent attacks against Jewish people and we are working to forcefully resist anti-Semitism wherever it rears its ugly head and to find and support partners to do the same. 

There have long been divergent approaches to advancing international religious freedom, but there is common ground in recognizing that it is a clear, distinct human right and central to the stability and peace of this world that we all share.

Enshrined in the Constitution, our commitment to religious freedom and tolerance is at America’s very foundation, and the Biden-Harris Administration is dedicated to its protection and advancement at home and around the world. 

Today’s inaugural summit allows us to live up to that commitment: to elevate our engagement with faith leaders, to embed interfaith dialogue in our diplomatic efforts, and to bridge differences so we can stand together against the tide of fear and violence perpetrated by those who seek to repress religious freedom. 

And this Summit allows us to honor the role that our faith-based partners at USAID play, often the people who are closest to the communities we serve. They don’t just embrace the idea that every person has equal worth and individual dignity, regardless of their religion, they help advance that dignity in concrete ways every day. And they work to allow those communities a chance to live, love, speak, and pray freely. 

Going forward, we will keep standing for religious freedom around the world. We will remain humble and grateful for the freedoms we cherish here at home, and pray that through God’s grace and wisdom, we have the capacity to affirm dignity and to secure freedom for more people around the world. It's been an honor to be with you and I thank you for all you’re doing. Now lets work together on this vital cause.

Thank you so much.

Last updated: November 30, 2022

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