Sam Brownback, the United States ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, pursuing an agenda of peace and building peace around the region of Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania. ” He recommended two really major tools in the region, in all the countries and regionally: religious freedom roundtables in each of the countries and regionally, and these would be gathering all the activists, or the religious activists, and involving the political leadership as well, in regular discussions around religious freedom topics to guard and guarantee each other’s religious freedom operation in that nation. A number of religious topics are coming up in the region. Many of these are very young democracies. There is lots of work to be done to really get the groundwork set for long-term democracy and civil society, and I think these religious freedom roundtables can help particularly on religious-oriented topics.
Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference by Sam Brownback, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.
Ambassador-at-Large Brownback: My name is Sam Brownback, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. I’ve just finished a weeklong, 10-day tour throughout the Balkans and then a conference yesterday that we did on the topic of religions as a tool for peace. The whole effort, the trip, is really focused on trying to get the major faiths in the region engaged – engaged – in some places more engaged than other places, and really pursuing an agenda of peace and building peace in the region.
This is no news to anybody there, but the nature of the Balkans conflict has been centuries-long, much of it centered around a division based upon different faiths, where the attempt and the focus here is to get these faiths engaged, fully engaged, as instruments for peace.
I was in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and I’m calling you from Albania, where we did the conference. The conference was yesterday, continuing today, with religious and political leaders from throughout the region. The conference was hosted by President Meta of Albania, the president of Kosovo, leaders of the parliament and administration in these various countries, and then also leaders of the various faith communities: Islamic, Jewish, Christian, of all types.
I really am – I think we’re at an unusual and a very hopeful moment right now for the region. There is calm in the region. There are active faith communities. In some places they’ve started to work together to build these sort of relationships that are necessary to build for long-term peace. Unfortunately, religion is often used as an implement of division in this region and not as a tool of peace, but I think we’re at the beginning of something being quite different here, and I’m very hopeful with the meetings that I’ve had with all of the faith leaders and with the political leaders that this is a moment we can do such a thing.
I recommended two really major tools that we want to see start up in the region, in all the countries and regionally: religious freedom roundtables in each of the countries and regionally, and these would be gathering all the activists, or the religious activists, and involving the political leadership as well, in regular discussions around religious freedom topics to guard and guarantee each other’s religious freedom operation in that nation. A number of religious topics are coming up in the region. Many of these are very young democracies. There is lots of work to be done to really get the groundwork set for long-term democracy and civil society, and I think these religious freedom roundtables can help particularly on religious-oriented topics.
The second item is more difficult and – but I think maybe even more important: encouraging all of the religious leaders to go together to the sites of the atrocities in a spirit of reconciliation, repentance, forgiveness, as an effort really to heal the land and heal the souls. Too often, this region is defined by conflict, and conflicts often that happened centuries ago but remain still vivid in people’s minds. Those need to be addressed or they will bubble back up in future generations or future politicians will poke those raw nerves of religious tension and use this as division once again, where it’s been a point of division often in the past.
So this is a long-term effort. I think, though, the time is right. I think the leadership is right in the region, both religious and politically, for such a – such a move. And this is something that can produce, then, a long-term healing, sustainable peace, and can be a model for some of the interactions of the Abrahamic faiths around the world. So I’ve invested really quite a bit of time and effort in doing this, and will over some period of time to come, to build that long-term, durable foundation for peace.
Question: What are some of the lingering challenges that you see in the region to religious freedom?
Ambassador-at-Large Brownback: The lack of legal framework still. Many of these countries, as I mentioned, are young democracies and so they don’t have the framework set up yet for registering different faith communities. Property issues is a major issue, as many of them – well, all of them were in a communist system where property was confiscated and then, now, how is the property re-divided?
I did – again, in a very hopeful sign, I saw a great deal of different religions being practiced, and most cited no difficulty, no problems in actually operating, very low levels of communal violence, maybe some graffiti or vandalism but no organized communal violence, which is a great cultural and civil society operating effectively to let people freely practice their faith. But the governmental systems really still need to catch up to provide the legal framework for these faith groups to operate freely.
Question: When you visited Hungary quoted to praise the efforts of the Hungarian Government’s helping persecuted Christians in the Middle East, but we hear about persecution and intolerance against Christians in Europe too. There are attacks against churches and the freedom of speech is also limited for Christians. What do you think about the reasons for this phenomenon, and which European countries should do more to combat anti-Christian and anti-Semitic incidents?
Ambassador-at-Large Brownback: Unfortunately, there is a rise in the West for anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Christian rhetoric and action, and it’s throughout Europe. We have it in the United States. I think really the key on this is that anytime these sort of things rise is that the government response is swift and sure, where people – the government officials will say, “This does not represent the values of our country, of our people. We’re an open, free society – people are free to believe whatever they choose to believe, or to have no beliefs at all.” But I think the government response has to be very strong in that. And if it’s people advocating for violence, I think there needs to be a sure response there and pushback against it. But these are features I think that democracies really have to speak out strongly against.
And then there’s also – I think our societies are in – I don’t want to say moving anti-religious, but I think they need to be welcoming to people of faith in these societies and saying this is a good thing that people have this freedom of religion, and they should feel free and welcome, and we should have an open society for this to be freely practiced. This is something else that governments could encourage.
Question: What are going to be your next steps or what are the outcomes that you seek from this trip?
Ambassador-at-Large Brownback: Well, next steps, really the two-fold is we’ll follow up with trying to establish more of these religious freedom roundtables, number one. Got about 20 of them – about 20 are stood up around the world, and we’ll work in the region to see those or some type of interfaith dialogue. Some countries in the region already have a robust interfaith dialogue and some don’t have anything, so we’ll work to get those stood up in all the countries in the region. And then I’d like to see the initial trip planned to one of the sites of atrocities by the various faiths going together. I’d like to see the first one of those happen.
I did work like this with reconciling with Native Americans in the United States. I traveled as a U.S. senator to one of the sites and I did that as governor as well to where the Trail of Death for the Potawatomis was. I went there and I went to the Sand Creek Massacre site in eastern Colorado with then Ben Nighthorse Campbell – he was a U.S. senator that was part Native American – in a reconciliation, a repentance, forgiveness ceremony. And I hope the first of those can be stood up to happen in the first half of this next year.
Question: What is your position on the law of freedom of religion in Montenegro, and do you expect it to be adopted? And can such a concept of law reconcile all religious communities in the country?
Ambassador-at-Large Brownback: We don’t have a specific position on the law other than we want to see every – all the religious communities engaged in an open and transparent processing in developing and passing the law. We had robust discussions about this law, and a number of the faith communities were not pleased with the drafts of it, so I’m hopeful that they can have, again, very clear, specific discussions and dialogues before passing the law, not just pushing something on through that the major faith communities have major issues with.
So we hosted – the embassy there and myself with it – a good discussion with the political leadership and religious leadership, and we really want to encourage a process that engages that religious community and their deep concern is transparent in what the bill’s final form and the amendment process looks like, and one that everybody then afterwards can feel some satisfaction with that this will address the needs of their community.
Ambassador-at-Large Brownback: I do believe that the Balkans will be either a model for how the Abrahamic communities can engage with each other in a world where we have a number of conflicts brewing that need to have a robust engagement by the faith community in a positive way as instruments for peace. I think the Balkans will be a real story, either a good model or a bad one, on how the Abrahamic communities can function together in open societies now and in the future. And it’s my prayer and hope and my effort will be to see that this is a positive model for how we can have the religious communities strongly engage as instruments for peace.