Protecting the Rights of Religious Minorities Around the World

U.S. Special Envoy to the OIC Rashad Hussain

Doha Istanbul Process Meeting


Human Rights




Your Excellency Secretary General Iyad Madani, Chairman of the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID) Dr. Ibrahim al Naimi, excellencies, esteemed colleagues and participants, ladies and gentlemen, Assalamu alaikum.

It is a great honor for me to be here at the start of the Doha Istanbul Process meeting, being hosted by the Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs in collaboration with the DICID. I would like to thank the DICID and Dr. Al Naimi and his staff for the excellent work that they have put in to ensure that this conference is successful. And I would like to thank the Government of Qatar for all of its efforts to promote interfaith cooperation and dialogue, and for our open and constructive relationship.

This meeting is the fourth Istanbul Process meeting, following on previous meetings held in Washington, London, Geneva, and now Doha. We are extremely excited to participate in this meeting, not only because it is the first Istanbul Process meeting being hosted by a member state of the OIC, but also because the topic and focus of this meeting are so vital to addressing the challenges of our time.

You are all well aware that there are a growing number of cases of sectarian violence and members of minority religious groups being attacked and killed in various parts of the world today. All too often, we hear of such attacks, including in places like Burma, the Central African Republic, Syria, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Iraq, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Pakistan, just to name a few.
Governments must protect all individuals from such attacks, and they must protect the universal right of all individuals to practice their religion. Resolution 16/18 provides needed guidance to governments as to how to effectively combat religious intolerance while protecting the freedoms of religion and of expression. Rather than calling for harmful restrictions on speech which tend to draw more attention to offensive materials and are often used to target political and religious minorities,

this groundbreaking resolution ended the divisive debates in the UN over how to effectively address our shared concerns over religious intolerance. Relying on governments to ban certain speech often ignores the root causes of bigotry, and many religious communities have found that improving education, interfaith dialogue, and media awareness are effective tools for combatting intolerance. The Istanbul Process that we are here participating in today is meant to promote implementation of those important measures.

This fourth Istanbul Process meeting focuses on advancing religious freedom through interfaith collaboration. In many societies, the most powerful and effective actors for change are religious leaders. We see examples of their vital work to promote peace and understanding every day. By bringing interfaith community experts together with relevant experts in government, this Istanbul Process meeting holds the promise of contributing significantly to the advancement of religious tolerance and freedom and the formation of collaborative partnership between government and civil society in promoting those goals.

As President Obama’s Special Envoy to the OIC, I have had the privilege of working closely with government and civil society – including religious leaders- to advance our shared goals of peace and prosperity. I’ve been fortunate to be able to participate in a number of inter-faith events and dialogues, including Interfaith Harmony week in Geneva. Twice I have had the honor of joining historic visits of Imams and Rabbis to the sites of the Holocaust with our Special Envoy for Combating Anti-Semitism. I travelled to Jerusalem and the West Bank with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders from the United States and Indonesia.
I traveled with senior Muslim and Coptic Christian leaders from the United States to Cairo with the simple message that Egypt must work to protect the rights of all Egyptians, including its Christian community. Earlier this year, I participated in an interfaith dialogue connecting religious leaders in the United States with religious leaders in the Central African Republic to spotlight their inspiring efforts to promote peace, reconciliation, and social cohesion. And given all the work that remains to be done there, I’m working with that group of religious leaders to plan a visit to Bangui of interfaith leaders from the United States to support peace and interreligious cooperation.

Over the past couple of years I have been involved with an initiative lead by the Islamic Society of North America and Islamic scholars in the Muslim world to issue a declaration articulating standards and protocols for the protection of full citizenship rights of minorities in the Muslim world. Think about this- the scholars have noted that Muslims themselves were once a persecuted minority in the early days of Islam on the Arabian peninsula. Now although Muslim communities are in the majority in many places, failure to adhere to principles of religious tolerance has often resulted in persecution of other religious communities, while at the same time instability has increased in those parts of the world. There have been productive meetings on this project in Tunis and Mauritania, and just two weeks ago there was a similar gathering of 250 of the top global Islamic scholars to address extremism and violence.

These types of interfaith initiatives hold the promise of promoting peace and stability throughout the world. And governments have a role to play. First, we must do no harm – government must ensure that their laws and law enforcement protect the freedoms of religion and expression of all individuals. This is, after all, our legal obligation under international human rights law. Second, governments need to work to create an enabling environment in their countries so that civil society groups and religious leaders have the space to work together. Laws restricting the ability of civil society to operate effectively cripple societies, leaving them vulnerable to instability, violence, and poverty.

The purpose of the Istanbul Process is to promote domestic implementation of resolution 16/18. This conference has brought together experts from civil society and the interfaith community, and we hope that all of the representatives of governments here, including myself, will learn from the examples that those experts will present and that we will take those lessons and apply them at home. Governments need to work on regularizing their engagement with representatives of civil society and religious groups, and to ensure that their laws and law enforcement create an enabling environment for these groups to flourish.
The United States hosted the first Istanbul Process meeting in Washington, and that meeting focused on prohibiting discrimination based on religion or belief, and training government officials, including on how to implement effective outreach to religious communities. As a result of that meeting, we have deepened our cooperation with other countries on those two issues through a cooperative and interactive program assisting governments on training local officials on cultural awareness regarding religious minorities and on enforcing non-discrimination laws to reform government policy and practice to ensure freedom of religion.

Thus far, through this program, there have been three well-received workshops in Bosnia, Indonesia and Greece. These collaborative, results-oriented training exercises have highlighted the need for increased communication between religious leaders and civil society and the governments that represent them. For some of these groups participating in these workshops, it was the first time that they were able to meet and have a constructive conversation with their governments. These sessions have also been a good opportunity for governments to discuss their activities to promote religious dialogue and tolerance with the other participants.

The workshops are shaped by local needs and include topics such as legislative reform; best practice models; prosecuting violent crimes motivated by religious hatred; metrics; and discrimination in employment, housing and other areas. They conclude with action plans for potential follow on activities and ways to keep communication lines open. To demonstrate these lessons, part of the workshops includes demonstrations of effective government engagement with civil society, as well as discussions of coalition building as tools to achieve religious equity.

We are very encouraged by the success of these workshops, and we invite any interested state to participate with us in them. This is a concrete result of the Istanbul Process that we hope to continue and expand with more and more partners.

Thank you again for this opportunity to be here today. I look forward to an engaging and substantive exchange of ideas throughout this conference. And I hope that many partnerships and collaborative initiatives result from our discussions.