Remarks by Vice President Pence at the 2nd Annual Religious Freedom Ministerial
10:59 A.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, Ambassador Brownback, Your Excellencies, and to all of those who have struggled under religious persecution: You honor us by your presence, all.
Welcome. Welcome to the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. And welcome to the largest human rights ministerial ever held at the United States State Department. (Applause.)
We gather today as people who believe in freedom of religion and also the power of faith. As Vice President of the United States, I stand for the freedom of religion that animated the American founding and is enshrined in our Bill of Rights. But this is a special day for me as well because, on a personal level, my faith in Jesus Christ has brought meaning and purpose to me and my family every day of my life.
So I’m honored by your presence, and I’m especially honored to address you today as Vice President to an American President who has been a great champion of religious freedom at home and abroad. So allow me to begin by bringing greetings and welcome on behalf of the 45th President of the United States of America, President Donald Trump. (Applause.)
Since the earliest days of our nation, America has stood for religious freedom. Our first settlers left their homes and all they knew for the chance to, as the said, “Begin the world [all] over again.” They carved protections for religious liberty into the founding charters of our nation and our very earliest laws. And after our independence was won, the crafters of America’s Constitution enshrined religious liberty as the first of our American freedoms.
Our Declaration of Independence proclaims that our precious liberties are not the gift of government, but rather they’re the unalienable rights endowed by our Creator. Americans believe that people should live by the dictates of their conscience, not the diktats of government.
And we’re proud — proud that our long tradition of inspiring other nations to embrace religious freedom and respect for human rights has ushered in important improvements in the lives of people all over the world. And I want to take this opportunity to thank — to thank the distinguished representatives of the 106 countries who have chosen to be here today to join us in taking a strong stand in defense of religious freedom.
Free minds build free markets. And wherever religious liberty is allowed to take root, it is prosperity and peace that ultimately flourish as well.
And as we tell even our closest allies, those who reject religious freedom are more likely to breed radicalism and resentment; that it can sow those seeds of violence and it can too often cross borders.
And those who deny religious freedom to their own people often have few qualms denying those rights to others.
That’s why, under President Trump’s leadership, this administration has taken decisive action to defend our first freedom at home and abroad.
The President made a bold statement in support of religious liberty when he appointed a friend and a lifelong champion of our first freedom as our Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. And that man has now traveled the world, and his good work is evidenced in the historic turnout today. Would you all join me in recognizing and thanking Ambassador Sam Brownback for his work on behalf of religious liberty around the world? (Applause.) Thank you, Sam.
And earlier this year, our administration built on that progress by appointing Elan Carr as the Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism.
And earlier today, as you all heard, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a new initiative to create a forum for dialogue about religious liberty around the world, and we look forward to working with each of you in the newly instituted International Religious Freedom Alliance.
And with this renewed focus on religious liberty, we’ve stood with those who are oppressed for their religious beliefs around the world, since the first days of this administration.
Three years ago, an American pastor was arrested in Turkey and imprisoned for the alleged crime of “dividing and separating” the nation simply by spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In one meeting after another with President Erdoğan, I saw President Trump demand the release of this good man of faith. Through two years of imprisonment, we stood strong. And in October of last year, through the President’s efforts and by God’s great kindness, Pastor Andrew Brunson came home. (Applause.)
Pastor Brunson’s story of perseverance in the face of incredible hardship was an inspiration to people across our country and believers around the world. And we express our admiration to him from the bottom of our hearts, being an example of faith that is “like gold tested in fire.” I understand he is with us today. He is my friend. So let me just say, Pastor Brunson, welcome home. (Applause.)
It is good to be back with you for the second year in a row. Last year, it was my great honor to address the first ministerial, where I announced two initiatives and, I’m proud to report, have made great progress.
We announced a new initiative to ensure that religious freedom and religious pluralism would prosper across the Middle East: the Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program. And to date, I’m proud to report the United States has provided more than $340 million in aid to faith and ethnic minority communities persecuted by ISIS in Iraq and throughout the region.
Second, at that ministerial, we announced a new initiative to support those who fight for religious freedom and those who suffer from religious persecution: the International Religious Freedom Fund.
And since then, we’ve received nearly $5 million in pledges, with donors from several countries well represented here. With your support, we’ve provided more than 435 rapid response grants to those persecuted because of their beliefs, helping more than 1,800 people directly, as well as their families and fellow believers.
For example, in Sri Lanka, we’ve given much-needed assistance to the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks. And as I said last year, America is proud to lead this program, but we ask all the nations gathered here and around the world to join us in this important fund.
Together, we will champion the cause of liberty as never before, and I believe that our combined leadership will make a difference for religious liberty for generations to come.
So we’ve made progress, but we still have much work to do. For, as we gather here today, a stunning 83 percent of the world’s population live in nations where religious freedom is threatened or even banned.
The victims of religious persecution face economic sanctions. They’re often arrested and imprisoned. They’re the target of mob violence and state-sanctioned terror. And all too often, those whose beliefs run counter to their rulers face not just persecution but death.
The list of religious freedom violators is long; their oppressions span the globe.
Here in our hemisphere, in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega and his Vice President and wife Rosario Murillo continue their assault on faith and human rights. Their regime violently suppresses dissent, assaults opponents, and condones thugs who repress and intimidate Catholic Church leaders for defending democracy and religious freedom.
In Venezuela, the dictator Nicolás Maduro is using his so-called “anti-hate” laws to prosecute Catholic clergy who speak out against his brutal regime that has impoverished millions in this once-prosperous country. Jewish community leaders report that media associated with the Maduro regime often cast coverage of Israel in anti-Semitic tones and trivialize or even deny the Holocaust.
Nicolás Maduro has brought nothing but misery to the people of Venezuela. Nicolás Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power, and Nicolás Maduro must go. (Applause.)
At President Trump’s direction, the United States was proud to be the first nation on Earth to recognize Interim President Juan Guaidó as the legitimate President of Venezuela. And since then, we’re grateful that more than 50 nations have joined us in this cause, including Greece, just last week, which became the 55th nation to recognize Interim President Juan Guaidó.
So we’re standing strong for free and democratic Venezuela. We’re also calling out the persecution of religious minorities in the greatest state sponsor of terrorism in the world, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Iranian people enjoy few, if any, freedoms — least of all, the freedom of religion. Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Bahá’ís, and other religious minorities are denied the most basic rights enjoyed by the Shia majority. And believers are routinely fined, flogged, and arrested in Iran.
Like a story of a courageous Christian pastor whose daughter is here with us today. In 2009, Iranian authorities shut down Pastor Victor Bet Tamraz’s church. But instead of fleeing the country, he continued to share the good news.
In 2017, the Iranian government sentenced him to 10 years in prison. And in 2018, they sentenced his wife to five years, and later, they charged the couple’s son to four months in prison for “spreading Christian propaganda.”
Pastor Bet Tamraz and his family are an inspiration to freedom-loving people the world over, and we couldn’t be more honored to have his daughter Dabrina here with us today. Please join me in recognizing Dabrina Bet Tamraz. (Applause.)
Of course, Iran’s leaders aren’t content to persecute only their own people. They routinely export violence and terrorism throughout the region, including to their neighbors in Iraq. To this day, Iranian-backed militias extort and terrorize the people of the Nineveh plain, which is still recovering from the days of ISIS’s brutal reign.
Now, let me be clear: The United States will not stand idly by while Iranian-backed militias spread terror. And today I’m announcing that the United States has placed sanctions on two leaders of Iranian-backed militias for all they’ve done. We will hold them accountable. (Applause.)
But the people of the United States of America have a message to the long-suffering people of Iran: Even as we stand strong against the leaders in Tehran, know that we are with you. We pray for you. And we urge you to press on with courage in the cause of freedom and a peaceful and prosperous future for your people.
So we’re standing up to the regime in Tehran. We’re also standing up for the persecuted Rohingya people in Burma. While that conflict has fallen along ethnic lines, we cannot ignore the rise of militant Buddhism against Muslim and Christian minorities that’s taken place. A brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya has forced more than 700,000 to flee across the border to Bangladesh. And though the United States has repeatedly urged the Burmese government to hold accountable all those responsible, the government has continued to imprison and harass innocent men and women.
Like a young Rohingya woman who is here with us today. When she was just 18 years old, she was thrown in jail for the simple crime of being the daughter of a political activist who dared to challenge the old military regime. For seven years, she and her family endured deplorable conditions, but they never lost faith in the freedom that was their birthright.
Eventually, she was released. And since then, she’s gone on to earn a law degree and a master’s of laws from the University of California-Berkeley. Now, she’s a leading advocate of empowering women and girls all over the world. She’s an inspiring woman, and we’re honored to have her with us today. Please join me in recognizing Wai Wai Nu. Thank you for your example and your leadership. (Applause.)
The United States has urged the Burmese government to hold accountable those responsible and make it clear that these mass atrocities must never happen again. But, so far, our words of admonition have seemed to fall on deaf ears. And that’s why this week, the United States of America placed visa sanctions on Burma’s top two military leaders — the commander in chief and his deputy — as well as two commanders of light infantry brigades. We will hold them accountable. (Applause.)
So we’re standing up to the malign regime in Iran and pressing for accountability in Burma, but the United States has also spoken out against religious persecution in the People’s Republic of China. And we do so again today.
China’s oppression of Tibetan Buddhists goes back decades. As part of its efforts to oppress Tibetan Buddhism, back in 1995, Chinese authorities captured the legitimate Panchen Lama, then just a 6-year-old boy, and neither he nor his family have been heard from in the 24 years since.
And in Xinjiang, the Communist Party has imprisoned more than a million Chinese Muslims, including Uighurs, in internment camps where they endure around-the-clock brainwashing. Survivors of the camps have described their experiences as a deliberate attempt by Beijing to strangle Uighur culture and stamp out the Muslim faith.
Religious persecution in China has also targeted the Christian faith. But in one of the greatest ironies in the history of Christianity, in today’s Communist China, we actually see the fastest growth in the Christian faith that we have ever seen anywhere on Earth in the last 2,000 years.
Just 70 years ago, when the Communist Party took power, there were fewer than half a million Chinese Christians. Yet today, just two generations later, faith in Jesus Christ has reached as many as 130 million Chinese Christians.
The truth is, faith is breaking out all across China — even in the streets of Hong Kong. As the pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai told me earlier this month, when young people encounter police in the streets during the protest marches that have drawn millions, he said those young people often sing songs of worship and praise. As he said, they sing, “Hallelujah to the Lord.”
Chinese authorities may ban the sale of Christian Bibles, but that hasn’t stopped China from publishing more Christian Bibles than any other country on Earth. Chinese authorities may ban the construction of Christian churches, but that hasn’t prevented China from building more Christian churches than any other country in the world.
China’s experience is just more evidence of a time-worn truth: The pathway through persecution lies in the faith and resilience of the persecuted.
Like that of a pastor of a large, unregistered church in Guizhou, China. On December 9, 2015, Pastor Su Tianfu was placed under house arrest after Chinese law enforcement raided the Living Stone Church. Later, he and his fellow co-pastor were charged a fine of up to a million dollars for collecting illegal donations from their church parishioners. And just last year, he was sentenced to one year in prison.
His courage in the face of such relentless persecution is an inspiration to freedom-loving people all over the world. And we’re honored to have with us today his courageous wife, who has been with him every step of the way. So join me in recognizing Manping Ouyang. We are honored that you are with us today. And we are inspired by your faith. (Applause.)
The United States is engaged in ongoing negotiations and discussions over our trading relationship with China. And those will continue. But whatever comes of our negotiations with Beijing, you can be assured, the American people will always stand in solidarity with the people of all faiths in the People’s Republic of China. And we will pray for the day that they can live out their faith freely, without fear of persecution.
But for all of the challenges that believers face in China, the treatment of people of faith in North Korea is much worse. As the United Nations Commission on Human Rights reported, and I quote, “The violations of human rights in the DPRK…constitute crimes against humanity…the gravity, scale, and nature of which has no parallel in the contemporary world.”
Open Doors has identified North Korea as the world’s worst persecutor of Christians for the past 18 years. The North Korean regime formally demands that its officials act to, in their words, “wipe out the seed of [Christian] reactionaries.” And possession of a Bible is a capital offense.
So you can be confident, as President Trump continues to pursue the denuclearization of North Korea and a lasting peace, the United States will continue to stand for the freedom of religion of all people of all faiths on the Korean Peninsula. (Applause.)
The United States stands with all victims of religious persecution. And the America people have them in our hearts and in our prayers, whether it be North Korea, China, Burma, Iran, or all around the world.
But today, I’d also like to draw attention to four men who have faced down enormous pressure to stay true to their faith and whose release, even now after a long captivity, would help restore the reputation of the countries that have detained them.
In Eritrea, the 90-year-old patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Abune Antonios, continues an already 12-year-long house arrest because he refuses to ex-communicate critics of the government in his church.
In Mauritania, the blogger Mohamed Cheikh Mkhaïtir, is still being held for criticizing the government’s use of Islam to justify discrimination.
In Pakistan, Professor Junaid Hafeez remains in solitary confinement on unsubstantiated charges of blasphemy.
And in Saudi Arabia, blogger Raif Badawi is still in prison for the alleged crime of “criticizing Islam through electronic means.”
All four of these men have stood in defense of religious liberty, in the exercise of their faith, despite unimaginable pressure. And the American people stand with them.
And so, today, the United States of America calls upon the governments of Eritrea, Mauritania, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia to respect the rights of conscience of these men, and let these men go. (Applause.)
While religious freedom is always in danger in authoritarian regimes, threats to religious minorities, sadly, are not confined to autocracies or dictatorships. The truth is, they can and do arise in free societies, as well, not from government persecution, but from prejudice.
In Europe, where religious freedom was born as a principle and is enshrined in law, anti-Semitism is on the rise. In France and Germany, things have gotten so bad that Jewish religious leaders have warned their followers not to wear kippahs in public for fear that they could be violently attacked. And attacks on Jews, even on aged Holocaust survivors, are growing at an alarming rate.
Regrettably, the world’s oldest hatred has even found a voice in the halls of our United States Congress. So let me say it clearly: Anti-Semitism is not just wrong; it’s evil. And anti-Semitism must be confronted and denounced wherever and whenever it arises, and it must be universally condemned. (Applause.)
I met just this last week with Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein from Chabad of Poway, the California synagogue that was the scene of a tragic shooting in April of this year. He was still wearing the bandage from a wound he suffered during the attack. His courage was incredible. And while I was there, I also met the hero who chased the assailant out of the synagogue. And meeting him only confirmed in me in an old truth that faith inspires heroes. That’s why faith always triumphs.
But to all of the victims of persecution who are here with us today, know this: The American people are with you. We are with you. The people of the United States are inspired by your testimony and by your strength. And it steels our resolve to stand for religious liberty in the years ahead.
The American people will always cherish religious freedom. And we will always stand with people across the world who take a stand for their faith.
We’ve gathered here, 106 nations strong, because we believe in the freedom of conscience, the right of all people to live out their lives according to their deeply held religious beliefs.
We’re here today because we are, and will forever remain, dedicated to the principle that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among them are life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are not the birthright of Americans; they — they’re the birthright of the human race.
And I promise you, under this President, we will always respect the sovereignty and diverse cultures of every nation in the world, but as we do, America will continue to aspire to be that city on a hill that John Winthrop wrote about so long ago.
We’ll always continue to stand for the freedom to live, to work, and worship according to the dictates of your conscience. And freedom of religion will always be an American anthem.
And so, today, I thank you for being present here today, for the many nations represented here, and for your solidarity with us and your determination in your nations to advance the cause of religious liberty.
I leave here today with renewed confidence as I see all of you. And, properly, I close with faith — faith that we will make progress on behalf of religious liberty in the years ahead.
You know, inscribed on the Liberty Bell, which was given to the United States of America by France shortly after we won our independence, are ancient words. It reads: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land [and] unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
Americans and liberty-loving people throughout the world and throughout our history have done this. And I believe with all of my heart that as each of us in all of the nations represented here renews our commitment to proclaim liberty throughout all our lands, that all faiths and freedom itself will flourish, for “where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”
So thank you all. Thank you for your stand. And may God bless all who yearn for freedom and labor beneath persecution for their faith. May God bless all of your nations. And may God continue to bless the United States of America. Thank you. (Applause.)