Acting Administrator John Barsa’s Remarks at Hudson Institute Event on Religious Freedom

Speeches Shim

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

[As Prepared]

Thank you, Nina, for inviting me to join you today. As you know, today marks the 22nd anniversary of the signing of the International Religious Freedom Act, an Act that has served as the cornerstone for U.S. foreign policy to advance and protect religious freedom.

Before I begin, I would like to thank you and the Hudson Institute for your consistent attention and leadership on the issue of religious freedom.

Religious freedom, it is often said, is America’s first freedom, from which all other freedoms flow. Religious freedom is not only a God-given right, but an American value enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

I am fortunate to lead an agency that is promoting religious freedom in our work every day.

Defending and promoting religious freedom for all is a top priority of the Trump Administration, and one that we at USAID take very seriously.

USAID has been at the forefront of providing much needed support—whether through humanitarian relief to communities reeling from violent conflict, or development assistance to people who are discriminated against and systematically oppressed.

Since 2018, the U.S. has invested more than $400 million in Northern Iraq to rehabilitate critical infrastructure, such as schools, health clinics, and power stations. We’ve done this so that residents who fled the genocidal violence of the so-called Islamic State can return to their ancestral homes. We have partnered with faith-based organizations like Samaritan's Purse, Catholic Relief Services, and Yazda to carry out this important work.

To maximize USAID’s donor coordination and ability to achieve holistic results in the most afflicted areas in Northern Iraq, we signed Memoranda of Understanding with the Governments of Hungary and Poland and with the Knights of Columbus. We focused on these entities in particular, because of their on-the-ground presence and expertise. These partnerships allow us to coordinate our assistance and to ensure the return and recovery of communities of faith. They help our impact to reach even farther.

For example, the Government of Hungary has been very active on the ground in Iraq through their program "Hungary Helps." Hungary Helps works with religious and community leadership to provide assistance to those in need and to help them rebuild. We’re grateful for their partnership and their important contribution.

And our New Partnerships Initiative is making it easier to work with USAID. Through NPI, we’re working directly with local Iraqi organizations, including many faith-based organizations, for the first time in over 20 years.

Our nation’s commitment to religious freedom was most recently reaffirmed by President Trump’s Executive Order to advance international religious freedom.

The executive order directs the State Department and USAID to expand our existing efforts and to realign foreign aid to better reflect individual country circumstances when it comes to international religious freedom. The order further directs us to train our Foreign Service Officers on the importance of incorporating religious freedom into Agency programs.

The need for an executive order on international religious freedom has never been more timely and important. It reaffirms our strong commitment to push back against violations of religious freedom around the world. And it makes the distinct connection between the protection of religious freedom and America’s national interests and security.

For example, consider the atrocities taking place in China against people of faith. Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities are detained in re-education camps, and the Chinese Communist Party is working to erase both their faith and their traditions. China’s Christian communities face persecution as well.

The CCP is demolishing churches, banning the Bible, and paying bounties for unregistered house churches. The CCP is revealing its true character as it uses every tool of authoritarianism to crack down on the free practice of religion in China.

Our efforts to respond to religious persecution represent more than a policy. They represent a principle on which our nation was founded. And when it comes to international development efforts, the U.S. Government is the largest donor. Because of these values and this influence, America can and must hold international bodies, such as the United Nations, accountable. When they are failing to track and respond to violations of religious freedom, we have a duty to speak up. When member states persecute their own religious communities, we must demand accountability.

Around the world, USAID will continue to work with partners who demonstrate a commitment to building democratic and inclusive societies. We will promote open markets, free of corruption and discrimination. We will champion access to health care and education for all. And we will do all of this with the goal of building the kind of self-reliance that will enable our partner countries to move beyond the need for assistance.

However, none of these goals are possible if a nation’s leader demands that their citizens abandon their most deeply held beliefs. None of these benefits are possible when people of conscience see their lives ruined, or taken away, because of the faith they practice.

There can be no sustained development when houses of worship are destroyed or believers are herded into internment camps. There can be no hope of a brighter future or of self-reliance when an entire nation is dominated by tyrants, enforcing their own version of the truth.

In closing, I am reminded of a story about the Dalai Lama. As a young boy, he kept a model of the Statue of Liberty on his bedside table. On his first visit to the United States, he went to see the statue in person. That this prophet of our time saw hope and inspiration in America’s greatest symbol of freedom should not surprise us.

Nations are judged based on their principles and values. We in the United States will remain committed to being a bastion of freedom and a beacon of hope to those who have suffered for remaining true to their faith. From China and Iraq to Nigeria and Burma, America will continually fight for religious communities to have a voice in their countries.

Thank you again, and I look forward to your questions.