Special Briefing
Michael H. Posner
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC
October 26, 2009



[Editor's Note: Secretary Clinton introduced Assistant Secretary Posner at the conclusion of her remarks on the release of the 2009 International Religious Freedom Report.]

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Thank you, Madame Secretary, for your remarks and for your leadership on this issue of religious freedom. I have recently been confirmed as the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. In this position, I’m charged with leading the bureau in which the Office of International Religious Freedom is a part.

Prior to joining the State Department, I spent 30 years with Human Rights First, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to building respect for human rights, including religious freedom, through the rule of law. Now it’s my job as a State Department official to integrate concerns for human rights, including religious freedom, into our foreign policy.

Our government’s promotion of religious freedom is grounded in our national experience and it supports our broader human rights and national security interests. Fortunately, many governments understand the importance of these issues, yet we’re fully aware that even in countries with robust legal safeguards, including the United States, we’re not immune from acts of intolerance. We mourn the death, for example, of Marwa Ali El Sherbini, a young Muslim woman who was brutally stabbed in July in Germany in a courtroom by a man filled with hatred for Muslims. And in this city, in Washington in June, a man with a history of extreme anti-Semitic sentiments shot and killed a security guard, Stephen Johns, at the Holocaust Museum.

This annual report is a massive undertaking. Its publication is a culmination of months of hard work both here and in embassies around the world. In releasing the report, we don’t position ourselves as the world’s arbiter on religious freedom, but rather as a member of a community of nations that have committed ourselves to upholding international human rights standards.

With that short comment, I want to open up for questions. Thank you.

QUESTION: Can I ask – the Secretary was quite strong in her comments about the defamation laws that – U.S. opposition to – well, perhaps not defamation laws, but I think this refers to something at the Human Rights Council. Is that – that’s correct? Can you elaborate a little bit more on that? And I thought it was sufficiently watered down or defeated that – and that that met your concerns.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: There are really two separate issues that have been raised and sometimes conflated at the United Nations. I was part of the delegation last month at the Human Rights Council, where we actually joined with Egypt in promoting a resolution on freedom of expression that did, in fact, meet our concerns. There was a debate in the context of that about how to deal with issues of defamation, and we agreed after much negotiation, much discussion, that there is a legitimate subject as to whether or not an individual, an individual of any particular faith, can be defamed and whether that kind of harassment or discrimination is to be condemned. It clearly is.

There’s a second resolution that was promoted – that’s been promoted by the Islamic Conference at the UN, which is a broader defamation of religion resolution. It’s being debated, in fact, in one form right now. And it goes, we think, too far in restricting free speech – the notion that a religion can be defamed and that any comments that are negative about that religion can constitute a violation of human rights, to us, violates the core principle of free speech which is so central to us in our own system.

QUESTION: Okay. And so that’s still alive and kicking, as it were?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: There is an ongoing discussion. There is a technical meeting going on now. I think this will be raised, in all likelihood, again at the General Assembly and again at the Human Rights Council. So we’re trying to keep the two issues separate, to be clear that free expression doesn't – that there are limits to free expression, and there are certainly concerns about people targeting individuals because of their religious belief or their race or their ethnicity. But at the same time, we’re also clear that a resolution broadly speaking that talks about the defamation of a religion is a violation of free speech.

Yes.

QUESTION: There have been clashes on Friday –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: It will help me, just so I get to know you, if you’d say your name and where you’re from.

QUESTION: Sure. Nadia Bilbassy with Embassy Television Middle East Broadcasting Center. There have been clashes on Friday between Israeli military and a Palestinian worshiper in the Aqsa mosque. And very often, these clashes lead to much wider violence. But they always circle on the fact that the worshipers don’t have access to the mosque. Is this something that concerned the State Department, something that you raise with the Israelis on a regular basis, because this been continuation for the last 30 years, more or less?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I think this issue of access to religious institutions and shrines and religious houses of worship is something that we see all over the world. We do raise it. We raise it as a matter of principle, saying obviously states have a right and an obligation to protect security; but at the same time, to the extent possible and consistent with that obligation, they ought to do whatever they can to make religious shrines, religious institutions, available for people to worship.

Yes. Tell me your name, please.

QUESTION: My name is (inaudible) from Syrian media. Secretary Clinton just indicated to the importance of the role of the governments in order to discourage the defamation of religions. Now what we see in Israel is a government that is hardline, a very hardline government that is allowing the settlers and also the military moves to be on holy grounds of the Muslims in the area. It’s not a matter of security, as you have just said, with all my respect to you, but this is actually an event that is stirring a great amount of anger across the world among one billion – one and a half billion Muslims. This is a situation where I see here a lot of objectivity in this report, and I hope that these words in this report will be actually matched by certain action and wonderful role of this Administration that would also match President Obama’s speeches to the Muslim worlds.

How would you describe your plan to deal with this situation in Jerusalem where the Palestinians have been so very oppressed religiously and in human rights arena?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: A couple of reactions to that. One is I think if you look at the report, there is a full section on Israel and the territories which deals with a whole range of subjects involving Muslims, Christians, other religious groups.

The broader response I would have is that the Obama Administration is absolutely committed to a peace process which is aimed at dealing with the larger political-social questions that you raise. And the faster we can get the parties to the table to find a common ground and to find a peaceful path, that’s the best way to address the issue you’re raising.

QUESTION: But Mr. Netanyahu’s government is encouraging these settlers by accompanying them to go into the religious worshiping ground. This is a role of government supporting settlers and violators of the laws. Is this something that the United States finds itself in a position to advise and it’s ally and friend Israel to refrain from while the peace process is on a track where everybody is hoping that it will succeed?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Again, the subject of this report is religious freedom, and we deal at great length with a range of ways in which we would encourage the Government of Israel, as we encourage every government, to ensure that multiple religious faiths who live in that place are entitled to freedom to worship, et cetera. I think our broader – the broader discussion that you’re raising is really something you ought to take up with Senator Mitchell and with the parties. There is a bigger political discussion going on that the Obama Administration is really trying to jumpstart. And the faster we get to that, I think we’re going to be more successful in dealing with some of those underlying issues.

Yes.

QUESTION: There’s something about – on this subject?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Sure.

QUESTION: -- in perhaps a little less Human Rights Council-ish way, which is these most recent events fall outside the scope of this report; isn’t that correct?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yeah. This report goes through June of 2009. Yes.

QUESTION: What is new in this report? We didn’t have a chance to read it. What’s different from the last report?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I think there’s some interesting trends, both pro and con. We note in the report in various sections various interfaith initiatives, initiated by the Jordanians, by Qatar, by Spain and others. There really is a sense of a growing recognition that there needs to be more dialogue and more effort across faiths to figure out where our common – where’s common ground, where are differences, how do we mitigate those differences.

The second thing I would say – and again, it falls outside the timeframe of this report, but it is interesting going back to the first question – it is interesting that the U.S. and Egypt, who have been at loggerheads on a lot of the UN human rights issues, found a way not only to cooperate, but to co-sponsor a resolution on free expression which was adopted by consensus. That was in the context of a UN setting where these issues have been very polarizing. It was not lost on people that the U.S. and Egypt were, in fact, trying to take that forward-looking common approach that seeks to emphasize where we are alike as opposed to – at maximizing our differences.

On the negative side, there are plenty of individual incidents that are mentioned throughout the report. Some of the trends I see relate to blasphemy laws, tremendous interfaith tensions in many societies, more – in many places, more restrictions by government ministries on the right of religious groups to register, to receive funds, et cetera. We see that in a lot of the Central Asian republics, for example; more greater control by government officials prohibiting free expression of religion, and particularly for non-majority religions. So there’s a lot going on, the report’s very long, there’s a lot of details, but I think it’s a mixed picture. I can’t say that it all heads in one direction.

Yes, and your name?

QUESTION: Michael. Over the last number of months --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Are you Michael or am I Michael?

QUESTION: You’re Michael.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Tell me your name and where you’re from.

QUESTION: Joel Wishengrad, World Media Reports, WMR News.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Okay, thanks.

QUESTION: You’ve mentioned country by country, but specifically, the Islamic World – I’m not condemning all countries – seem to berate women. There’s some locations such as in Africa and Asia where they’ve beaten, intimidated, they consider them second class, won’t let them get an education, and it’s just – even a spillover here into the States where a gentleman ran over his daughter in an automobile, obviously wanting to kill her because she stepped from those particular, quote-un-quote, “quadrants” that they expect as parents.

Has this gone too far? You mentioned human rights abuses, but are religions themselves fomenting this and spreading it beyond control?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: No, I reject that. I think the major religions of the world are all predicated based on assumptions of humanity and ethical behavior. The fact that people take a kind of extreme view and interpret religions in a way that promotes violence and discrimination, I think, is an aberration. That’s part of the purpose of this report. I think we are all mindful of the fact that people of deep faith throughout the world are driven by and motivated by their religious beliefs. We want to encourage that. And we want to discourage people who misuse that faith in a way that’s going to undermine basic human rights.

I would say also – and I’m very mindful of this, and this ties back to the defamation of religion debate at the UN – I think there is a very deeply felt feeling in large parts of the Muslim world that we in the West – in the U.S., Europe in particular – have not been as attentive as we need to be in cases like that of the German – of the Egyptian woman I mentioned in my opening statement who was stabbed in a German courtroom. It isn’t to say that governments perpetuated that or caused it to happen, but I think we need to be very attentive to the reality in which people of the Muslim faith find themselves in many of our countries in the West, and the kinds of discrimination that they face.

So I think this report is a very universal, ecumenical report. It’s in the spirit of President Obama’s Cairo speech that we really are reaching out. We’re looking for partnerships. We value religion. We value the ability of people to express their faith. But we want to distinguish that from discriminatory and violent extremists who basically misuse faith.

Yes, tell me your name again.

QUESTION: Yes, Diana Molineaux, Radio Marti. You referred to Cuba here and it says that various religious groups report that few restrictions on politically and so on. Do you see a real improvement, something that you can attribute to the change in leadership in Cuba, or it’s just coincidental? What – how do you see it?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: What I would say as a starting point, and this is true of many of the reports, this report takes a slice of a bigger picture. The overall human rights situation in Cuba remains poor. There is still a great deal of repression and difficulty for human rights advocates and others to express their views, to participate publicly. It’s a closed society. There may be marginal change going on, but the overall picture is really grim.

This piece of that larger description says that basically, there has been a gradual softening in terms of the ability of Christian, Catholic and other religious groups to operate in Cuba. But it’s against that larger backdrop of a society that still denies human rights on a daily basis.

QUESTION: So you do not see other improvements in the human rights scene?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: That’s really – again, we will come out with – if you pay attention, in February, you can come back and ask me that question when we do the Human Rights Report.

QUESTION: Okay.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yes.

QUESTION: Andrew from Reuters. I see China’s still on the list of Countries of Particular Concern, and obviously, President Obama will be traveling there next month. I’m wondering if you could, for us, sum up in a nutshell your views of the current state of religious freedom in China, and what you either think or hope this report might do in informing how the White House approaches the Chinese on this issue. Are we to – do you think we can expect to see religion featuring – religious freedom featuring sort of openly in the dialogue between the President and the Chinese leadership?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I think it will be a part of the U.S.-Chinese dialogue for a long time to come. It is a – there are a range of issues, and it’s, again, a mixed picture, but it’s still a picture where there is – there are a number of very troubling developments. I would say uppermost in my mind are the treatment of Buddhist religious leaders in Tibet.

The government tends to conflate religion and religious belief and practice with broader issues of autonomy and political independence. Buddhist priests that – and monks that raise human rights issues are targeted. And the same thing is true in the Uighur Autonomous Region with Muslim clerics and others. The government has cracked down very severely since the violence there some months ago against religious leaders and others of the Muslim faith. So those are, to me, two very serious issues that are going to continue to be on the bilateral agenda. They’re tough issues. They’re, for sure, among the most difficult.

I think there’s another issue which is the treatment of the so-called house churches. There is a growing – one of the encouraging things to me in China is that there is a growing – rapidly growing Christian community. A percentage, but not a majority, are in recognized – churches recognized by the state. But somewhere between 50 and 90 million people practice Christianity in unrecognized churches that are not registered in many cases.

And so what we’re trying to do is encourage the Chinese Government to recognize and allow people of faith, of various faiths, to practice. That’s also part of the dialogue as far as I’m concerned.

QUESTION: Can I get one more thing clarified?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Sure.

QUESTION: Sorry, I’m Matt Lee with AP. This doesn’t actually – this is not the designation of Countries of Particular Concern; correct? When is that – that’s done? When --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: So there is a – in a way, a two-part process or multipart process. This report will inform our judgments about Countries of Particular Concern, and the Secretary will make those judgments. Last year, Secretary Rice made that judgment in January. We’re going to begin that process right now and do it as expeditiously as we can.

QUESTION: Yeah, she actually did it on the – like, as she was walking out the door of the building.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yeah, that may be. You may be right about that.

QUESTION: It was the last working day of the – but when --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: But we’re eager to at least get it done by January, and I’d like to say sooner. In the next couple months, we’re going to undertake that. But I should say, and I think there’s been some misunderstanding about this, there is not a day where you can do this. We have the ability throughout the year to make designations or remove countries from being that designation.

QUESTION: So a country that is in this report is – that you describe as a CPC could, in fact, be taken off?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yeah. We have not in – this report has not made judgments about Countries of specific – of Particular Concern. We’re going to use the information we’ve now gathered and disseminated to help inform our next judgment, and that, as I say, is coming in the next few months.

Yes.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) with Turkish daily Hurriyet. Regarding Turkey here and the executive summary, it says authorities continue their broad ban on wearing Islamic religious headscarves in government offices, as well as in public schools. So what are you saying? Are you saying that the ban on headscarves should be lifted in Turkey?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We’re saying that this is one of the issues of how people express their religious identity, and I think as a general matter, our intention, our hope would be that societies would find a way to allow people to express their religious attitude, their religious belief in nonviolent ways. I don’t know that we’ve got a government position on headscarves, but it – I think raising that in the report suggests that we are trying to encourage, in a general way, governments to find – look, revisit questions about symbolic representations of religion that are nonviolent, and to the extent possible, encourage people or allow people to make those decisions for themselves.

Yes. Tell me your name.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Secretary Clinton and other senior government officials have continuously praised King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for championing religious dialogue. At the same time, the State Department, you know, put them on the CPC list, and the religious freedom situation in Saudi Arabia is getting worse, especially in the past few weeks where the official ban on Shia mosques have been – and has been revealed. And do you see that as counterproductive? You’re doing – you’re saying one thing and at the same time the situation is getting worse, not better.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I think we do distinguish between King Abdullah’s intentions and his personal initiative, which we support and encourage; but at the same time, if you read this report, as you say, the broad state of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia remains a subject of great concern. People aren’t allowed to openly practice their religion if they’re not Muslim. There is still a religious police that interrupts people even in private settings. And there is a sense that – and we have still the concerns about the textbooks which continue to be disseminated not only in Saudi Arabia but around the world – the madrasas, for example, which still contain things that we consider beyond the pale.

So yes, we believe and we support and we encourage the intention of King Abdullah; but at the same time, if you read this report, there is ample reason for very serious concern about the state of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia.

QUESTION: On the issue of the textbooks, for eight years the Bush Administration failed to make any progress. Our organization have been on the lead on the textbooks issue, and there hasn’t been a single change for eight years. Do you have a plan or timetable for effecting change? The textbooks of Saudi Arabia, it includes annihilation of the Jewish people and the Jewish faith. So I mean, is that going to be a priority for this Administration and for yourself?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I don’t consider myself an expert on this, but I understand there have been some changes made, and I would be glad to talk to you afterward to get chapter and verse on that. This is a high priority for us. We’re going to continue to push. We’re not satisfied that enough’s been done. So to the extent you can help inform me and others about the particulars, this is something we’re going to really be very diligent about.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: This is Lalit Jha from Press Trust of India. Coming to South Asia, two countries are not mentioned doesn’t reflect in this, Sri Lanka and Nepal. In Sri Lanka, there have been ethnic conflict and there has been reports about religious intolerance from that country, Tamils and ethnic Sinhalese.

And on India, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, which was the congressionally mandated report, in this report earlier this year, a couple of months ago said that India – it expressed concern about religious freedom in India, but your report doesn't mention about that. In fact, it gives generally respected category to India, which is one of your higher categories. And you mentioned about the progress that India has made about religious freedom. So do you differ from those reports?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yeah. Are you looking at a summary? What --

QUESTION: Yes. It’s --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yeah. Because the report is like this thick, so I think you’ll find references to the countries you mentioned, but we just didn’t put it in that statement.

I think on India what I would say is, again, it’s a mixed picture. The government at a central level is quite committed and it’s also, as you know, a very diverse – religiously diverse society, where, in fact, a lot of religions were born and nurtured. I think at a local level we have some concerns, and there are some specific instances mentioned in the report. The response to violence, for example, in one case where a Hindu religious leader was killed and there was a spate of violence that affected mainly a Christian population – 40-some people killed. So we are very mindful that there are still inner religious tensions within the society, and I think our focus would be on the lack of response at a local level rather than a national – the national policy is good. It’s a question of how it’s implemented at a local level.

If there are no more questions, thank you. One last question and we’ll stop.

QUESTION: Just in order to introduce, I’m Hussein from Saudi Information Agency. I just ask you about the discrimination of religious discrimination in Saudi Arabia and give you two case, the case of the Turkish (inaudible) that were freed by only a phone call between Saudi Arabia and Turkish government, and about (inaudible) his name is (inaudible), who he still now in the jail for 17 years and he is facing the death at any time. So do you have any (inaudible) about this case?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I don’t know those cases. I’d love to get more information. For all I know, there may be some reference in the report. I can’t – I don’t remember them offhand. But if you just give me the information, I’m glad to follow up.

Thank you all for being here.

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PRN: 2009/1069