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How Promotion of Religious Freedom Can Help Prevent Extreme Violence

September 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Are recent waves of religiously-motivated or sectarian violence part of a larger worldwide trend? Gwen Ifill talks to Suzan Johnson Cook, U.S. ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, about the importance of promoting religious freedom around the world.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: In addition to last week’s church bombing in Pakistan, Christians have also been targeted recently in Egypt and at last week’s mall attack in Kenya. Is this merely a coincidence or is there a wider trend?

To explore that, I’m joined by U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook.

Welcome again, Ambassador.

SUZAN JOHNSON COOK, U.S. ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom: Thank you. So wonderful to be with you. Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: We saw what Fred wrote about or broadcast just now just about Pakistan. Is this something which is a worldwide problem?

SUZAN JOHNSON COOK: Well, it is a worldwide problem.

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As ambassador for international religious freedom, my portfolio is 199 countries of the world. And so we see it frequently. First, though, I want to send my condolences for those who were the victims of attack, those who lost loved ones. We certainly want to send our condolences and sympathy.

It is not just recent. It’s been throughout the world and throughout history. And it opens up the whole conversation of religious freedom. We have it in our Constitution that we have the right to believe what and when we want to believe, how we want to express that, but in many parts of the world, that is not true.

So we hear stories of people being persecuted, even killed for their right to believe. And so what you saw is something not recent, recent in Pakistan in terms of what’s hitting the news, but it’s ongoing in many countries in the world.

GWEN IFILL: And is it just Christians who are targeted, or are other religions as well?

SUZAN JOHNSON COOK: Many religions are targeted as well, religious minorities all over the world.

And part of my portfolio is to protect religious minorities and urge governments to protect religious minorities where they are. It’s also to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes and also to promote respect for different faiths.

GWEN IFILL: How do you do that, especially if you look like you are maybe someone imposing U.S. values in other parts of the world?

SUZAN JOHNSON COOK: Well, we certainly don’t go to impose.

But there’s the universal declaration of human rights. And we make sure that the standards — that our international agreements are adhered to. So it’s not about imposing United States standards, but adhering to the international standards.

So, part of it is, we use all the diplomatic tools that are available to us, diplomacy, where I have visited now 26 nations of the world. We use public diplomacy, where I talk here around the country about issues of religious freedom. And we have an annual religious freedom report that comes out. And it shows the trends of all 199 countries each year.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you. You have a term of art which is called countries of particular concern.

But nowhere on that list is Pakistan or Indonesia or Nigeria, where we have seen attacks, or Syria, or Kenya, as we saw last week. So are you speaking to the right flash points?

SUZAN JOHNSON COOK: Well, there are eight countries of particular concern at this particular time.

And at any time, countries can be designated. That is, the president has given the authority to the secretary of state. What we do in my office is, I’m the chief adviser to the president and to the secretary of state. And we promote religious freedom, but we also monitor religious freedom.

And so in each country, we are always monitoring it, and we give that report to the secretary. At any time, the designation can be made.

GWEN IFILL: But in some of those countries I named and others which are of particular interest, Chinese, Eritrea, Iran, these acts are committed with impunity. And you don’t have enforcement powers to force these governments to act.

SUZAN JOHNSON COOK: Well, one of the things we look at in our office are some of the systemic causes for religious freedom. That’s one of our long-term challenges.

Impunity is one of them, also looking at laws that may need to be rescinded or repealed. We want to look at what is happening in terms of protection for religious minorities. In some places, it’s Christians being attacked, like Egypt and the Coptic Christians. Other places, it’s Iran and Iraq, where Iraq, you have Sunni and Shia Muslims and sectarian violence. Iran, there are Christian pastors who have been jailed for their belief.

We were very successful. And part of important is also lifting up places that are successful. We were successful last year in helping Pastor Nadarkhani, one of the Christian pastors who was in Iran, with multilateral input, be able to be freed. There is now another pastor there, Pastor Saeed Abedini, who is in prison. And, again, we’re using our partners and our multilateral as well as our bilateral partners to do that.

GWEN IFILL: Is there are a connection between this kind of religious tolerance, freedom, and global security?

SUZAN JOHNSON COOK: Very much so.

We have found where there is religious freedom, there is more stability. And where there is the absence of religious freedom, there is more chance for religious extremism, extremist violence. And so there’s definitely a connection. So, we try to integrate religious freedom into our foreign policy and into our national security.

GWEN IFILL: But we see — still see the attacks happening.

SUZAN JOHNSON COOK: We still see it.

It’s one of those things I think — I was in television here when I started WJLA. And I produced a show called “Headliner.” We were able to put people on the front page of every story. Religious freedom is really the opposite, because people’s very lives are at stake. And so we don’t always see it verbally. We don’t see it each day in the headlines.

But, behind the scenes, there are sometimes some non-measurable means of success. For example, last week, I was in Liberia, which is a success story. And there, 10 years ago, the women, the Muslim and Christian women came together and said, it is time for the fighting to stop. War because of religious issues has to stop.

And this year, President Johnson Sirleaf signed her 10-year agreement in terms of, we’re going to uphold religion freedom. So, sometimes, we see measurable success and we can uplift that, and, sometimes, we can’t measure it. So, we have to continue with our efforts for promoting religious freedom around the world.

GWEN IFILL: Suzan Johnson Cook, ambassador at large for international religious freedom, thank you for joining us.

SUZAN JOHNSON COOK: Thank you for having me