The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
Remarks by Denis McDonough on International Religious Freedom
U.S. Policy and International Religious Freedom
Good evening. Your Eminence, Cardinal McCarrick, thank you for your very kind introduction. Even more, thank you for your leadership as one of our nation’s most eloquent voices for religious freedom and tolerance—here at home and around the world. As the tragic events of the past 24 hours remind us, we need such voices now more than ever.
Indeed, before I begin I want to reiterate what President Obama and Secretary Clinton said earlier today. The attack on our consulate in Libya—and the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans—was an outrage; an act of senseless violence without any justification. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the Americans we lost, with our diplomats and development experts who represent our nation every day, and we reaffirm our determination to carry on their work.
That includes building a world that is safer, more secure and the work that brings us together here: a world where the dignity of all people—and all faiths—is respected. This work takes on added urgency given the truly abhorrent video that has offended so many people--Muslims, and non-Muslims alike—in our country and around the world. So I want to commend Cardinal Dolan and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for your powerful statement today that “we need to be respectful of other religious traditions at the same time that we unequivocally proclaim that violence in the name of religion is wrong,” This message is being echoed by faith leaders across our country, and we call on religious and community leaders, and all people of good conscience, to continue speaking out publicly so we make it absolutely clear that hateful and divisive messages do not reflect the United States of America or our values.
So to Archbishop Kurtz, Cardinal McCarrick, Bishop Pates, Monsignor Jenkins and everyone at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—thank you for convening this discussion and for your tireless efforts to advance religious freedom around the world—not only for Catholics and Christians, but for people of all faiths. I’m grateful to be among friends, including your director of justice and peace, Dr. Steve Colecchi. On behalf of President Obama, I especially want to thank you for your partnership as we’ve worked together on a whole range of challenges, including Sudan and South Sudan, Cuba and Iraq.
To Bishop Kicanas, Carolyn Woo and everyone at Catholic Relief Services—thank you for co-sponsoring this conference and for the life-saving work you do around the world every day. In particular, I want to commend you for your mission—which we share in the United States government—to deliver urgent medical care and emergency relief to Syrian refugees, a cause that will receive renewed attention as Pope Benedict visits Lebanon.
I want to express our appreciation to President Garvey, Provost Brennan and the Catholic University of America for hosting us and for your dedication to “advancing the dialogue between faith and reason.” I actually see this tradition every day. One of your graduates, Tom Donilon, the President’s National Security Advisor, is my boss. And I can attest—Tom has a lot of faith and reason!
Finally, I want to acknowledge a leader who is guiding our efforts in this area—a minister and faith leader in her own right—our dedicated Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook. Suzan, thank you for being here.
Being with you tonight, my mind goes back to growing up in Stillwater, Minnesota—a young boy, sitting in the pews at our home parish of St. Mike’s. Back then, in my wildest dreams, I could have never imagined the journey that has brought me here today. I couldn’t have imagined traveling with then-Senator Obama to Jerusalem, home to holy sites of three of the world’s great religions. I couldn’t have imagined traveling with President Obama, the First Lady and their daughters to the Holy See, to the Apostolic Palace, to meet His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI. And I could have never imagined standing before such an august audience as this.
I come to you today as President Obama’s deputy national security advisor. But I also stand before you as a proud Catholic, deeply grateful for all that the Church has given me in my life. I’m one of eleven kids for whom Sunday, after Mass, meant afternoons at church festivals. I’m indebted to the teachers who shaped me—from the Sisters of St. Joseph at St. Croix Catholic elementary to the monks of St. John’s in Minnesota to my professors at Georgetown. As a husband, father and public servant, I’m thankful for the counsel and wisdom of my older brothers—Bill, who was a priest, and Kevin, who is a priest.
I’m also honored to serve a President—a brother in Christ—whose faith has been a guiding force in his own life. President Obama has described how his earliest inspirations were faith leaders of the civil rights movement, including Dr. King, and Catholic leaders like Father Ted Hesburgh.
In fact, the President first entered public service through the Catholic Church. His work as a young community organizer on the South Side of Chicago was funded in part by the Catholic churches of Chicago and their Developing Communities Project. He was inspired by the sermons and example of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. He was touched by the generosity of congregations, of different faiths—in part, he admits, because he was broke and they fed him. As President Obama has said—after growing up in a household that wasn’t particularly religious—it was that experience, working with pastors and laypeople in service to others, that brought him to Christ.
Those of you who have attended the National Prayer breakfasts or Easter prayer at the White House or our interfaith events have heard the President speak of how he draws strength and comfort from prayer. As a close advisor, I’ve also seen how the President’s faith informs both his thinking and how he confronts the challenges facing our nation.
As he’s said, “we can’t leave our values at the door.” You see this in the core beliefs that are at the root of his world view. That we are all God’s children. That we are summoned to a sense of empathy—to see ourselves in each other. That—as he said at Notre Dame— we are “bound together in service to others,” especially the least of these. That in all our work, we must be guided by that Golden Rule—that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
Foreign policy is no exception. The President has discussed how many of our initiatives—promoting the development that lifts people from poverty, strengthening the food security that reduces hunger, combating disease, working to prevent atrocities in places like Libya and in central Africa—these efforts advance American security and American interests. At the same time, they are rooted in the Biblical call to care for our fellow human beings.
I share all this because the President’s faith—and his faith journey—is the foundation for how he approaches the challenge of defending the freedom of religion around the world. And while I know this conference is focused on freedom of religion internationally, I want to take a moment to discuss what this means here in the United States. Because President Obama has made it clear that American leadership in the world starts at home, with fidelity to our values.
President Obama understands that, as a nation founded by those who fled religious persecution, freedom of religion is central to who we are as Americans. Our rights are not given to us by government, they are endowed by our Creator. We recognize, as does the Church, that we cannot live our lives to their fullest—as authentic people—without the freedom to be true to ourselves, including the right to worship as we choose.
Freedom of religion is enshrined in our Constitution, our very First Amendment. “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus—and non-believers,” the President said in his Inaugural Address, and this “patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.” We were reminded of this yesterday, as we marked the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, and again today, when the President said that “we reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.”
Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the United States is one of the freest countries in the world and one of the most religious countries in the world. From our Revolution to the abolition of slavery to the movements for women’s rights and children’s rights and civil rights—our most significant reform movements have often been led by men and women of faith.
Today, faith leaders and laypeople are at the forefront of the fights for immigration reform in our own country and against poverty, mass atrocities, human trafficking and modern day slavery around the world. So President Obama understands that freedom of religion—and the freedoms that go along with it: freedom of expression, freedom of assembly—is what allows us to advance as a nation.
This is one of the reasons the President expanded and strengthened the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships—to make sure we’re working closely with groups like Catholic Charities to better serve and lift up our fellow Americans. The strength that religion gives our nation is also why—when Americans, or their houses of worship, have been targeted because of their faith—President Obama has condemned such bigotry. He’s reaffirmed that every American has the right to practice their faith both openly and freely, and that an attack on Americans of any faith is an attack on the freedom of all Americans.
Even as we uphold the freedom of religion at home, we recognize that it is not simply an American value. It is a universal human right. It is codified in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—which 167 nations have committed to adhere to—and it is reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Freedom of religion is central to the freedom and dignity of human beings —our transcendental dignity. At the same time, freedom of religion is not only an end in itself, it is a key ingredient for stable, successful societies and a just world. We know that countries that truly protect religious freedom are more likely to develop and prosper. They’re more likely to have stable democracies. They’re more likely to protect the rights of women and girls. This shouldn’t surprise us. After all, when citizens can practice their faith freely, when they can find dignity and fulfillment in worshiping as they choose, it’s easier for neighbors and communities to come together to achieve progress together. As the title of this conference says, religious freedom is “an imperative for peace and the common good.”
Likewise, we know that the lack of religious freedom—or discriminating against people because of their faith--can be a recipe for instability. When people of faith are denied the opportunity to worship freely, or assemble in fellowship, grievances fester. It creates fissures and mistrust between faiths and sects. It fuels sectarianism as people pull back to the perceived safety of their fellow believers. It emboldens extremists. It can increase instability and the likelihood of violence and war. We’ve seen this throughout history. We’ve seen it during conflicts in our own time, from Northern Ireland to Lebanon to the Balkans. And we see the tensions it causes today.
In China, government policies in Tibetan areas threaten the distinct religious, cultural and linguistic identity of the Tibetan people, creating tensions and contributing to a situation where dozens of desperate Tibetans have resorted to self-immolation. In Burma, preferential treatment for Buddhists and prejudice against ethnic South Asians, particularly ethnic Rohingya Muslims, fuels tensions between the Buddhist majority and Christian and Muslim minorities. In Pakistan, blasphemy laws and failures or delays in addressing religious hostility has fueled acts of violence and intimidation and emboldened violent extremists.
Put simply, religious pluralism, tolerance and freedom can help promote stability, security, development and democratic progress. And the lack of religious freedom is itself destabilizing. As Pope Benedict observed in his Message for last year’s World Day of Peace, the absence of religious freedom “is a threat to security and peace, and an obstacle to the achievement of authentic and integral human development.”
For all these reasons, advancing religious freedom around the world is not only consistent with our values as Americans, it advances our national security interests. This is formalized in the President Obama’s National Security Strategy. The Strategy states—and I quote—“the United States believes certain values are universal and will work to promote them worldwide. These include an individual’s freedom to speak their mind, assemble without fear, [and] worship as they please.” As Secretary Clinton has said, for the United States “religious freedom is a cherished constitutional value, a strategic national interest, and a foreign policy priority.”
This starts at the highest levels, at the very top, with the President himself. Through his words and his deeds, President Obama has been a fierce advocate for the cause of religious freedom around the world—in public and in private. I know, because I’ve been there, and I’ve seen it.
On his first trip overseas as President, during his visit to Istanbul, he met with Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Aran Stesyan, Chief Rabbi of Istanbul Isak Haleva, Grand Mufti of Istanbul Mustafa Cagrici and Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Yusuf Cetin. And in his speech to the Turkish parliament, he publicly called on Turkey to reopen the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary in Istanbul—a message that President Obama and other senior administration officials have raised with their Turkish counterparts on numerous occasions.
When he went to Cairo and addressed Muslim communities around the world, President Obama memorably called for a new beginning between Muslim communities and the United States. But often overlooked was his forceful call for religious freedom in the Arab world. “The richness of religious diversity must be upheld,” he said, “whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt.” I would add that, more recently, as the Arab Spring has unfolded, including in Egypt, President Obama has been clear that “for this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely.”
Also often forgotten is that he also used his speech in Cairo to condemn anti-Semitism and denial of the Holocaust, which he called ignorant and hateful, and he called upon nations to recognize Israel’s legitimacy and its right to exist in peace. In addition, he spoke out against the practice in some Western countries of dictating what clothes Muslim women can and cannot wear. “We can't disguise hostility towards any religion,” he warned, “behind the pretense of liberalism.”
When he went to China, and spoke in Shanghai, the President was unapologetic about our advocacy for universal rights such as the freedom of religion. “They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities,” he said, “whether they are in the United States, China, or any nation.” And I assure you, when he has met with Chinese President Hu and Vice President Xi Jinping, President Obama has spoken directly and candidly about the importance of China upholding human rights, including the freedom of religion.
In fact, at virtually every stop on his travels—from Brazil to Ghana, from India to Indonesia, to the well of the United Nations General Assembly— President Obama has called upon people of all faiths to remember our common humanity; and to overcome differences of tribe and faith and sect, mindful, as he said in his Nobel address, that the “spark of the divine lives within each of us.”
In short, time and again—personally, forcefully, in public and in private—President Obama has stood up for the freedom of religion around the world, as he did again today. In addition to meeting with faith leaders who champion religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, he’s visited houses of worship, such as the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Holy Savior in San Salvador, where he paid his respects to Archbishop Oscar Romero. And I know that when they were in Rio, the President and his family were moved by their visit to the iconic statue Christ the Redeemer, which has inspired so many people around the world.
Beyond the President, Secretary Clinton has elevated religious freedom as a diplomatic priority. Secretary Clinton raises this issue in every region of the world, at the highest levels. In addition to Ambassador Cook, this truly is a team effort. In Michael Posner—our Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor—we have a lifelong advocate for human rights, including religious freedom.
Rashad Hussain—our Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation—and Farah Pandith—our Special Representative to Muslim Communities—advocate for religious freedom as part of their engagement with Muslim communities around the world. Led by Hannah Rosenthal—who has served as our Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism—we are standing up against the rising tide of anti-Semitism. That includes a remarkable event in which we brought religious leaders—including several imams—to visit Auschwitz and Dachau. As a result of that visit, these interfaith leaders joined in a powerful statement condemning all forms of anti-Semitism, including Holocaust denial.
Our efforts have taken on a new sense of urgency because—as we all know—around the world, freedom of religion is under threat. In many countries, the pressure—the restrictions, the suppression, the persecution of and violence against religious minorities—is increasing. Today, more than one billion people live under governments that systematically suppress religious freedom—more than one billion people. It’s been estimated that the vast majority of the world’s people—some 70 percent—live in countries with serious restrictions on religious freedom.
Our most recent report on international religious freedom, released by Secretary Clinton in July, documents this disturbing and growing trend. Specifically, it documents eight states of particular concern because of their severe violations of religious freedom—Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.
With the remainder of my time tonight I’d like to address several countries that I know are of special interest to this conference. And I want to discuss the actions that the Obama Administration is taking in response—sometimes in public, sometimes in private, but always guided by our commitment to pursuing the most effective way to achieve results for those who are persecuted because of their faith.
In Asia, China continues to outlaw and imprison the worshippers of religious and spiritual groups, including unregistered Christian churches and Tibetan Buddhists. In addition to the President’s personal advocacy and engagement that I’ve already mentioned, the need for China to uphold the freedom of religion is a key element at other levels of our engagement with China. At our annual Human Rights Dialogue with China, for example, religious freedom has been one of the main agenda items. And we brought Chinese officials to meet with Cardinal McCarrick and Catholic Charities to see how religious organizations provide critical social services. Going forward, we will continue to urge China to uphold universal rights, including freedom of religion, as a vital ingredient of a stable and prosperous society.
In Burma, while some restrictions on religious activity have been eased, others remain, including the continued imprisonment of Buddhist monks. As part of our broader engagement to encourage reform, our new ambassador to Burma continues to work on behalf of justice and dignity for victims of religious persecution. In Vietnam, despite some progress, threats and harassment of the faithful continue—in particular, against Christians—and worshipers are imprisoned, including Father Nguyen Van Ly. We therefore continue to maintain close contact with religious leaders and dissidents, and have made religious freedom a focus of the U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue.
In Africa, sustained American diplomacy—including direct personal engagement by President Obama himself—helped to avert a catastrophe in Sudan and usher in the birth of the world’s newest nation, a free and independent South Sudan. And our efforts continue as we urge both Sudan and South Sudan to protect religious minorities and resolve their differences peacefully.
Meanwhile, in Nigeria both Christians and Muslims continue to live in fear of attacks by the extremist sect Boko Haram, and the incitement of communal violence at times goes unpunished. We therefore continue to engage with Nigerian religious leaders, scholars and government officials to promote interfaith dialogue, advance religious reconciliation and bring perpetrators of violence to justice.
Across the Middle East and Southwest Asia—as today’s events in the region remind us—we need to continue working on behalf of a future where people of different faiths live side by side in peace—as they have done in many cities and communities for many centuries. In Iran, we welcome the release of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who faced execution solely because he refuses to recant his Christian faith. And we continue to call upon Iran to release those in prison simply because of their religious beliefs and to end the suppression of religious minorities, including Sufi Muslims, the Baha’i and Christians. In Iraq, where recent years have seen outrageous attacks on the faithful—including Shia pilgrims and Christians—we continue to work closely with our Iraqi partners on behalf of an Iraq where all faiths and all sects are protected.
In Afghanistan, we welcomed the release last year of two converts from Islam who had been charged with apostasy and sentenced to death. And our work to build an enduring partnership with the Afghan people includes a commitment to the security and dignity of all Afghans, regardless of sect or faith. In Pakistan, we welcome the release of the young Christian girl charged with blasphemy, and we welcome the steps Islamabad has taken to recognize religious minorities and promote national harmony. Still, we continue to call on Pakistan to end the mistreatment of minorities and reform blasphemy laws.
And, of course, this Arab Spring and the transitions now underway in several countries present both opportunities and urgent challenges when it comes to freedom of religion. This includes Egypt. We were all inspired last year by the images in Tahrir Square—Egyptians coming together, Muslims and Christians, to demand change; Christians protecting Muslims in prayer, and Muslims protecting Christians during Mass. Since then, we’ve seen some signs of greater inclusiveness, including a new anti-discrimination law and the re-opening of some churches. President Morsi has pledged to be a president for all Egyptians, and we will continue to look to him to follow through on that commitment.
Unfortunately, even before yesterday’s protest at our embassy, we’ve also seen a troubling rise in sectarianism and violence. Innocent Egyptians, including Coptic Christians, have lost their lives. And while some alleged instigators of rioting and violence have been prosecuted, others have not. As we’ve seen around the world, when justice is not administered equally and fairly it deepens resentments, risks further instability and makes it harder for citizens to come work together for democratic and economic progress.
Protecting religious freedom and religious minorities in Egypt is therefore a key element of our engagement with Cairo. President Obama has raised it in his conversations with Egyptian leaders, including the right of Christians to build churches. Secretary Clinton discussed it with President Morsi and representatives of Christian communities during her visit in July. It is a constant focus of Ambassador Patterson and our embassy staff, as it has been again over the past 24 hours.
Last month, Rashad Hussain led an interfaith delegation to Egypt that included Father Moises Bogdady, Senior Priest and Hegomen at the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, and Imam Mohamed Magid, President of the Islamic Society of North America. And earlier this week I called Samir Morkos, President Morsi’s adviser on the democratic transition – and himself a Copt – to express our commitment to working with him and the Egyptian government on our shared interests.
As President Obama has said many times, the future of Egypt belongs to the people of that proud nation. So too in Syria. As we continue to support the aspirations of the Syrian people to determine their own future without President Assad, we’ll continue to call for an inclusive Syria that protects the rights of all Syrians, regardless of their religious identity. In Egypt, Libya, Syria, and all of the Arab Spring countries in transition, the United States will continue to stand for a set of principles that history shows leads to progress and opportunity. That includes the protection of universal rights, including the freedom of religion. For these transitions to succeed, and for these countries to achieve their full potential, all faiths must be respected and protected.
Closer to home, in Cuba, there has been some easing of restrictions on faith groups, but significant repression continues. For example, during Pope Benedict’s visit to Cuba in March, authorities conducted a deliberate campaign of incarceration and harassment to silence the opposition and prevent activists, journalists and dissidents from attending religious events. Worshippers, including Damas de Blanco, have been assaulted by government sponsored mobs or detained to prevent them from attending church. It happened again just last week as Cubans sought to mark the anniversary of Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity.
Under President Obama’s leadership, we’ve therefore worked to help give the Cuban people more independence from Cuban authorities. We’ve made it easier for Americans by removing restrictions and allowing nearly unlimited religious remittances to Cuba. We’ve made it easier for faith groups to travel to Cuba in support of the Cuban people and civil society. Going forward, we’ll continue to look for ways to help the Cuban people realize the freedom and liberty they deserve.
Beyond our efforts in specific countries, we’ve advanced the cause of religious freedom through a variety of multilateral fora. We have continued to oppose efforts, including at the United Nations, to ban the so-called “defamation of religion” because we believe that such measures, including blasphemy laws, can be wielded to silence free expression and suppress religious minorities.
Instead, after many years of stalemate, we worked successfully with governments, international organizations and civil society at the U.N. Human Rights Council to pass the landmark Resolution 16/18 to protect people around the world who are targeted because of their faith. It calls on nations to take concrete actions against religious bigotry, and it eliminates previous language that sought to penalize “defamation,” which undermined free speech and expression. Instead, it recognizes that the open debate of ideas and interfaith dialogue “can be among the best protections against religious intolerance.”
Building on this progress, Secretary Clinton and the OIC Secretary General last year brought together some 20 nations, international organizations and the Vatican in Istanbul to focus on combating religious intolerance. The United States hosted a follow-on meeting to pursue specific steps we can take—as individual nations and as an international community. And through this “Istanbul Process” we’ll continue to work with our international partners to reduce religious bigotry, discrimination and violence.
For our part—and in partnership with you—the United States will continue to encourage the interfaith dialogue that promotes understanding around the world. This includes interfaith delegations, like those I’ve already mentioned. It includes campaigns like 2012 Hours Against Hate in which we encourage young people to pledge their time to help a person of another faith, culture or tradition. It includes “interfaith diplomacy” and outreach events organized by our dedicated embassy staffs around the world. And it includes conferences like the one we are supporting in Morocco later this year, which will bring together faith leaders to address minority rights in Muslim-majority countries.
Finally, we’ll continue to encourage the interfaith cooperation that brings different religions together to meet shared challenges. As with our faith-based initiatives here in the United States, we recognize that religious leaders and organizations are uniquely positioned to serve communities in need, whether it’s health, education, development or conflict prevention.
So, for example, we’ve worked with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in the effort to eradicate polio and respond to the famine in Somalia and the drought across the Horn of Africa. Through USAID, more than 90 faith-based organizations have pledged to support the most impactful health interventions that save the lives of children around the world. And building on the President’s Interfaith Campus Challenge here in the U.S., we’re encouraging students abroad to come together, across faiths, in service to their communities.
The focus of such efforts is on the tangible benefits they deliver in our daily lives. Still, the lesson is unmistakable—our security, prosperity and dignity as human beings are advanced when members of different religions partner on common challenges. As such, faith-based organizations will continue to be indispensable partners of the President’s development agenda.
In closing, let me say that for President Obama and those of us serving in his administration, protecting and advancing the freedom of religion will remain a foreign policy priority. As he has said, this is not just an American right; it is a universal human right. And we will defend the freedom of religion, here at home and around the world. We do this, not only because it is in our national security interests, we do it because it is right. As President Obama has noted, Scripture gives us the responsibility to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.”
I, for one, am reminded of the words of St. Augustine. “Pray as though everything depended on God,” he said, “work as though everything depended on you.” In the good and necessary work that brings us here tonight—and as we mourn the violence and loss of life over the past 24 hours—I pray that the God-given rights and liberties we cherish here in America will be enjoyed by more and more people of the world. Yet I’m mindful—as is the President—that this will not happen on its own. It depends on people—of all faiths— who are willing to stand up for these freedoms when they are threatened. It depends on us. On behalf of President Obama and those of us in his Administration, we are proud to be your partners in this important work.
Thank you very much.