State Dept Press Briefing June 2, 2022

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson   fielded a wide range of question. Some excerpts

MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Quite a crowd today. You have picked a good day to turn up at the State Department, and I say that because we have a special guest, as you can see. It is my pleasure to introduce Rashad Hussain. Ambassador-at-Large Hussain is our ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. He’s here today to offer some additional remarks on the 2021 International Religious Freedom Report, and then he will look forward to taking your questions.

So without further ado, Ambassador Hussain.

AMBASSADOR HUSSAIN: Thanks so much, Ned. Good afternoon, everyone. Today we released the 2021 International Religious Freedom Report. This comprehensive resource is an indispensable part of our efforts to advance human rights globally. The stories of so many people and the persecution that they face is brought to life in the pages documenting the state of international religious freedom in the report.

The report clearly shows that governments and civil society must collaborate to address deteriorating conditions around the world. During the past year, we have seen increased repression by authoritarian governments and the politicized use of blasphemy, apostasy, and conversion laws, including against Christian communities. We’re also witnessing rising societal violence against communities around the world. We’re seeing increasing anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim attacks from Europe to South Asia.

As the Secretary highlighted in his remarks, we remain concerned about members of religious minority groups in countries around the world, including in Afghanistan, Burma, the People’s Republic of China, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Vietnam. The concerning trend lines in these countries underscore that much work remains to be done.

Yet there is also reason for optimism. We are seeing the progress that is possible when civil society, a coalition of activists, and multilateral bodies work with government, and many – in many cases when they push and when they challenge governments to live up to their obligations. And the Secretary earlier today highlighted just a few positive examples in Morocco, Iraq, Taiwan, and Timor-Leste.

I look forward to the honest, frank conversations with my foreign counterparts and civil society interlocutors that will stem from the release of today’s report. We need those conversations to generate and sustain continued progress.

I’d like to thank those of you who are joining us in person and those that are joining virtually for covering the release of this report, and for your interest to these important issues. Your advocacy is critical to continued progress.

And with that, I’d be happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Thank you. Two questions that are somewhat unrelated, if you don’t mind.

In China and Tibet, the reincarnation issue – that’s been something that’s gotten a lot of attention recently. What are the – what’s the trajectory that you see there? I mean, do you see any – do you find that there is more adamance on the part of Beijing perhaps to try to force a reincarnation process for the next Dalai Lama? How is the U.S. reacting to that? Do you find – is there a stance that the U.S. has ahead of whenever the reincarnation issue comes to (inaudible)?

AMBASSADOR HUSSAIN: Yeah. The whereabouts of the Panchen Lama remain unknown since his 1995 abduction by PRC authorities, and actually, May 17th will mark the 27th anniversary of his disappearance. And we are concerned that the PRC continues to deny members of the Tibetan community access to the Dalai Lama – the Dalai Lama-designated Panchen Lama, the second most revered figure in Tibetan Buddhism – and instead continues to promote a state-selected proxy.

So we would urge the PRC authorities to account for the Panchen Lama’s whereabouts and well-being immediately and to allow him to fully exercise his human rights and fundamental freedoms in line with the PRC’s international commitment.

I actually had a chance to attend an event here in Washington a couple of months ago commemorating the disappearance of the Panchen Lama and at that time as well worked with some of our civil society partners to urge China to end their interference in the succession.

QUESTION: Could I just ask – if you don’t mind, just something related – unrelated to that? You mentioned and the Secretary as well briefly mentioned India in the remarks. Obviously, India can be quite sensitive about criticism. I know you’re not designating CPCs at this point, but the recommendations from the Commission on International Religious Freedom – how is that decision coming to bear with India? And does the United States actually raise these issues with India despite – in addition to comments (inaudible)?

AMBASSADOR HUSSAIN: Absolutely, and you heard the Secretary’s remarks today. The remarks spoke for themselves. We continue to raise these issues regularly with our Indian counterparts. USCIRF is an important partner, and as we collect our data for our report, we take their recommendations into account as well. We are concerned with targeting of a number of religious communities in India, including Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindu Dalits, and indigenous communities as well. I welcome the opportunity myself to even visit there and continue our discussions, and we continue to encourage the government to condemn violence that we’re seeing and hold those who engage in violence against minorities communities accountable.

QUESTION: Thank you. Should freedom of religion also cover freedom from religion? And the reason I ask this is because atheists in some Islamic countries and societies could be stoned to death and ostracized. Do you have any comment on that?

AMBASSADOR HUSSAIN: Yeah. Well, when we look at the legal obligations that countries around the world have adopted as part of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, it’s for freedom of religion or belief. It’s for freedom of thought and conscience and religion, if you look at the ICCPR Article 18, for example. And we speak regularly with our counterparts, including in the countries that you mentioned, to urge them to uphold this freedom. A constant principle that we hear or a constant refrain that you may be familiar with in Arabic is La ikraha fid-deen, that there is no compulsion in religion, and so that is a principle that we share and that we continue to raise with our counterparts around the world.

QUESTION: There are many religious peoples in prison in China and North Korea right now. How is the United States getting involved in North Korea and China, where there is no religion and the oppression of religious peoples?

AMBASSADOR HUSSAIN: Yeah. Well, China continues to be one of the worst abusers of religious freedom in the world. They have engaged in genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs. They also continue their repression, as I spoke about, of Tibetan Buddhists, but also Protestants, Catholics, the Falun Gong, Hui Muslims.

We’ve taken a number of steps. China has been designated as a CPC since 1999. I alluded to the genocide determination. Congress passed and the President signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Act. As you recall, we decided not to send any diplomatic representation to the Olympics. We’ve implemented a series of financial sanctions, a number of visa restrictions as well.

And with regard to North Korea, we note there that the government continues to execute, torture, arrest, and abuse individuals that are engaged in religious activity, and there’s tens of thousands of political prisoners that are being held because of their religious beliefs, which are highlighted in our report. I’d urge you take a look at that. And we’re continuing to work with the international community to respond to what North Korea is doing as well.

MR PRICE: Let’s take a couple final questions. Yes.

QUESTION: Thank you so much, sir. Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV, Pakistan. So we heard Secretary Blinken’s speech this morning when he talks about religious freedom in many parts of the world. Countries like Pakistan, China, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and others are in CPC countries. But even after witnessing worst-ever situation of religious freedom in India, this country is still out of red list. So, what is preventing State Department to include world largest democracy in CPC countries?

AMBASSADOR HUSSAIN: Well, I think the Secretary’s statement today speaks for itself. In India, we’re concerned that some officials are ignoring or even supporting rising attacks on people in places of worship. And as I mentioned earlier in the briefing, there’s a number of religious communities that are being targeted.

With regard to the criteria that we assess when we’re making these determinations, we’re looking at countries that either engage in or tolerate or allow severe restrictions on religious freedom, and for the CPC designation, both of those factors are present. And so today we’ve issued our meticulous assessment of the current situation, and over the next six months, we’ll be making our determinations for all countries as to which of them should be included on the lists that we did.

QUESTION: The Secretary – excuse me – also spoke about the blasphemy laws in Pakistan.

AMBASSADOR HUSSAIN: Yeah.

QUESTION: So have you ever talked about this in – whenever you engage with the Pakistani authorities?

AMBASSADOR HUSSAIN: Yeah.

QUESTION: I remember you recently met with Pakistani Ambassador (inaudible) in Washington (inaudible)?

AMBASSADOR HUSSAIN: Absolutely. In fact, for a number of years at the UN, there was a resolution passed with regard to so-called defamation of religion, and Pakistan was one of the leading advocates. And our concern with that resolution is that it is an instrument that gives support or sanction to blasphemy laws, and we work with a number of countries around the world, including OIC countries, including Pakistan – Pakistan was a close partner on this – to eliminate the use of that resolution and move towards the Istanbul process, which we continue to seek to energize today.

Now, there is a number of troubling blasphemy cases that continue today and those are cases that we continue to raise, and I raise them regularly with the ambassador here. And we’re – of course, we urge the Pakistani Government, as we have seen in some cases when there’s been mob violence, the government condemning them and actually offering support for investigations in those cases. Those are positive steps, but much work remains, and we continue to be in dialogue with our Pakistani partners about that.

QUESTION: On Hong Kong, there was the arrest of the cardinal in Hong Kong in mid-May. Are there concerns that forms of Chinese religious intolerance are going to be exported to Hong Kong in the future? Do you foresee, for example, greater control over Hong Kong religious institutions in the near future?

AMBASSADOR HUSSAIN: We did express in a statement our concerns about the arrest, and we condemn it. And we are concerned, I would say more broadly, about transnational repression, so the efforts to which China is going to to oppress religious minorities not just in their country, but minority groups that are elsewhere. We’ve seen that with the Uyghurs; we’ve seen that with other communities as well. So yes, it continues to be a concern and something that our office is watching very closely.

 MR PRICE: Ambassador Hussain, thank you very much. Thank you to your team as well.  

AMBASSADOR HUSSAIN: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Ned.

QUESTION: Yeah. How would you comment on what China has said and done about North Korea protect?

MR PRICE: We think it is important, especially in the aftermath of the most recent ballistic missile launches, that the international community, including the UN system, make very clear a statement of accountability and hold the DPRK to account for its nuclear weapons program, for its ballistic missile programs, both of which are profoundly destabilizing, represent a threat to international peace and security. Of course, the UN Security Council is the world’s preeminent forum to uphold international peace and security, and I think what Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said, when she addressed this late last month on May 26th, was that we are beyond disappointed that the council has not been able to unify in opposition to the unlawful WMD and ballistic missile programs that the DPRK has demonstrated all too frequently in recent weeks and recent months.

We encourage all member-states to fully implement existing resolutions and we’ll continue to work with our allies and partners to uphold the sanctions on the DPRK. This is very much in line with what the Secretary laid out in his remarks on our approach to the PRC last week. The same stakes are at play. What we seek to do is to reinforce and preserve and protect the rules-based international order – the rules-based international order, including the idea that no country can engage in, should be able to engage in, provocation or pose a potential threat to its neighbors.

The DPRK’s ballistic missile program, its nuclear weapons program, is a clear threat to our treaty allies, the ROK and Japan. It is a clear threat to American citizens and American servicemembers in the region. And we’ll continue to work with our treaty allies, Japan and the ROK, along with allies and partners around the world, including those within the UN system, to hold the DPRK to account.

QUESTION: I don’t know whether you saw the story about the Chinese jets buzzing Canadian aircraft that were enforcing UN sanctions against the DPRK. Has the U.S. also seen an increase in these types of Chinese provocative actions directed at U.S. aircraft or ships that were contributing to this mission of enforcing UN sanctions against the DPRK? And does the U.S. believe that the increase in these provocations, if they have been detected, is timed to overlap with any particular actions that have been taken by the U.S. or the UN in the past?

MR PRICE: Well, I would need to refer you to the Department of Defense to speak to any particular trendlines when it comes to any potential PRC provocations against our forces, our ships, our vessels. We have spoken of PRC’s provocative military activity in the region, of course most recently in – its military activity near Taiwan. We’ve called this activity destabilizing. We’re concerned because it risks miscalculation; it undermines regional peace and stability as well.

QUESTION: Sir, (inaudible) media reports suggest that al-Qaida and ISIS are getting stronger in Afghanistan and even providing advice and support to the Taliban groups. Sir, is it a concern for U.S.?

MR PRICE: Excuse me, the media report said that ISIS and —

QUESTION: Al-Qaida are getting stronger in Afghanistan.

MR PRICE: And the last part of your question was – are providing support to?

QUESTION: Advice and support to Taliban.

MR PRICE: I don’t have a comment on that particular report. I would note, of course, that the Taliban and ISIS-K are, in many ways, sworn enemies. The Taliban has made public and private commitments to keep groups like ISIS-K at bay. Certainly, we have a commitment as well when it comes to threats to the American people, threat to – threats to the homeland. Even though we no longer have a military presence inside of Afghanistan, we’re remaining vigilant to potential threats that may emerge from Afghanistan, and we again call on the Taliban to live up to the commitments it has made, the counterterrorism commitments it has made, not to allow such groups to operate with impunity on Afghan soil.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. On Bangladesh, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr. Momen provided a list of questions to the Bangladeshi-controlled media reporters to ask the U.S. ambassador in Bangladesh. In an open statement, he said nearly 100,000 U.S. citizens go missing, extrajudicial killing going on in the U.S. as U.S. security forces have killed over a thousand citizen – mostly African American and Hispanic – each year, America do not have the faith in their election process, and he also criticized the blocking Russian media, RT TV, here in the U.S.

Foreign minister circulated this message a day after the U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas spoke on the U.S. priorities of human rights, democracy, and media freedom, and he said that they want free and fair elections in Bangladesh. What you would say about this authoritarian regime foreign minister remarks? And one more on Bangladesh.

MR PRICE: Well, we have a robust partnership with Bangladesh. As part of that partnership, we’re in a position to raise a number of issues, a number of shared interests, but also concerns. And we do regularly raise human rights issues with the Government of Bangladesh. We do that publicly, as I’ve done before, but we also do it privately. We urge for the strengthening of democratic processes and political institutions, the rule of law, protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, workers’ rights and safety, and the protection of refugees as well.

We have worked with the Government of Bangladesh to strengthen these rights and protections. We have provided more than $8 billion in assistance to Bangladesh since its independence. In 2021 alone, USAID provided over $300 million to improve the lives of people in Bangladesh through programs that expand food security, economic opportunity; improve health and education; but also promote democracy and good governance, as well as protection for the environment and increased resilience to climate change.

So, we’ll continue to have those conversations with our Bangladeshi partners.

QUESTION: One more on Bangladesh. Countrywide protest going on against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for her recent remarks on dropping opposition leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and the microcredit pioneer – Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus into the river from Padma Bridge. She claimed that Muhammad Yunus uses U.S. influence to stop the World Bank funding for the bridge construction, so they should punish – get punishment like this. She wants to drop them from the Padma Bridge to the river – into the river. See, she openly remarks, and countrywide protest going on. And ruling party (inaudible) alongside of the law enforcers agency the attacking of the peaceful demonstration. So what is your comment on this?

MR PRICE: As we do around the world, our comment is that the freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, the right of individuals everywhere to protest peacefully – that is a universal right. It applies equally to the people of Bangladesh as it does to those anywhere around the world. We call on governments around the world, we call on security services, security forces, civil forces as well to respect that right, to allow for individuals to assemble peacefully to make their voices heard.

QUESTION: I’m just wondering if I could get a quick question on Turkey. What signs do you see, if any, that Turkey’s president is willing to dial back opposition to Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership applications?

MR PRICE: I will let the Turkish Government speak to their position on this. As you know, the NATO secretary general was here yesterday. He and Secretary Blinken had an opportunity to speak to a range of issues as it pertains to the NATO Alliance. One of those issues was the upcoming summit and the candidacies of Sweden and Finland to join the NATO Alliance, something we remain confident that can be completed swiftly. We are in discussions with our Turkish allies. We’re also in discussions with our Swedish and Finnish partners. Of course, yesterday there were extended discussions with the NATO secretary general on this topic as well. This is not a bilateral issue between the United States and Turkey or between the United States and Sweden and Finland, for that matter. But as a member of the Alliance, as an Ally and partner to the countries in question, we are engaging as appropriate to see to it that the consensus, the widespread consensus within the Alliance for a swift accession of both Sweden and Finland, is something that we can realize in short order.

QUESTION: Thank you. On the Taiwan, about the one-on-one economic framework between U.S. and Taiwan, there is backlash from China. What is your comment? Why Chinese (inaudible) – isn’t happy with this framework, economic framework?

MR PRICE: Well, you’re referring to the fact that yesterday we did announce the U.S.-Taiwan Initiative on 21st-Century Trade. This initiative is held under the auspices of AIT here in – AIT in Taipei and TECRO here in Washington. And we intend to explore ways we can deepen our economic and trade relationship and deliver concrete outcomes for our workers and businesses. In the days and weeks ahead, we will and we do intend to move quickly to develop a roadmap for possible negotiations, followed by in-person meetings in Washington, D.C.

This is a broad framework. The areas of the initiative include trade facilitation, regulatory practices, agricultural trade through science and risk-based decision making, anti-corruption, supporting and enhancing our small and medium-sized enterprises, outcomes on digital trade, labor rights, the environment, standards, state-owned enterprises, and non-market policies and practices.

I can’t speak to the PRC’s reaction. What I can say is that everything we do in the context of our unofficial relationship with Taiwan is done pursuant to our longstanding “one China” policy, which of course is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three U.S.-China joint communiques, and the Six Assurances as well.

Thank you all very much.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:38 p.m.)