USCIRF’s Tony Perkins: On China’s Surveillance State and Threats to Freedom of Religion Globally

April 28, 2020 Updated: May 5, 2020

Religious freedom is a universal human right, yet in many countries around the globe, people can’t practice their faith freely.

Is this increasingly becoming the case in India, the world’s largest democracy?

Why are the Chinese regime’s surveillance technologies not just a threat to religious minorities in China but also free people globally?

And among countries known for their egregious violations of religious freedom, how has Sudan recently made a turn for the better?

In this episode, we sit down with Tony Perkins, Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and president of the Family Research Council. He also hosts the nationally syndicated radio show, Washington Watch. We discuss USCIRF’s new 2020 annual report.

This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.

Jan Jekielek: Tony Perkins, Chair of USCIRF [U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom], such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Tony Perkins: It’s great to be with you. Thanks so much for the invitation.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, it’s a very important time of year for you and your organization, the organization that you chair. You’re dropping your annual report on the state of freedom of religion in the world right now (Report on International Religious Freedom). I’ve been looking over it. There’s some pretty interesting new things that I frankly didn’t expect, and I’m going to get you to tell me a little bit about this. … Of course, [there were] a lot of things that we did expect but that still require being highlighted. Start off, why don’t you tell me overall, based on what you found this year, what is the state of religious freedom in the world?

Mr. Perkins: Well, as we talk about this from the standpoint of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, I think it’s helpful for people to understand where this is coming from, what this body is. It’s a nine-member bipartisan commission, and so it’s a very diverse group when it comes to politics, when it comes to religion, when it comes to ethnic backgrounds. We have one mission and one mission alone, and that is to look at the state of religious freedom around the globe. Quite frankly, it’s been a real honor to serve with the other members of the commission because we’ve stayed focused on that. Even though we disagree on a number of other issues, on this issue, we are singularly focused. Our mission is to report to the President, to the Secretary of State, and to Congress, what we find.

And this year we have recommended that 14 countries be recognized as countries of particular concern. Those are countries that have this egregious ongoing systematic abuse of religious freedom. Either they’re engaged in it, or they’re tolerating it, meaning they’re allowing others to do it. Then we’ve got 15 countries that we’ve put on what is a new category for us, a new category for the Department of State, and that is a special watch list. We used to have a tier two list. Now we’ve dropped that and gone with the special watch list, which means [religious freedom violations in the country fit] two of those three categories: systematic, ongoing and egregious. Two of those three.

To the big picture, I think that one of the issues we’re seeing is a greater awareness of religious freedom. With our awareness comes this understanding [that] there’s a problem. But there’s some good news, and I’ll point to one in particular, and that is the country of Sudan. After three decades of the Islamic regime of al-Bashir [Omar al-Bashir], he was deposed by his own country. We now have a transitional government, led by Prime Minister Hamdok [Abdalla Hamdok]. [I] was with him in February, went to Sudan with a delegation, [and] met with him. They’re making surprising movement toward respecting religious freedom, and it’s very refreshing. One of the first things they did away with was a public order law, which was used to basically enforce an Islamic view on certain issues, to repress the population, primarily women. That’s been done away with. Shortly after we left in March, they did away with what’s called “church laws.” They were setting up these civil church structures to circumvent the actual churches themselves, so they could take away their property. That’s now been done away with, so we’re seeing some very amazing and encouraging signs there in Sudan.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s incredible. The cover of the report features some of these images from Sudan. I want to kind of dig into that a little bit. I know you’ve been there. Maybe you can offer a few anecdotes from there in a moment. So you have some of the usual suspects in the egregious category, your top category: there’s China; there’s North Korea; Saudi Arabia is there. I actually want to go into some of these further, but you’ve actually added a few, notably India.

Mr. Perkins: We’ve been seeing trends in India; they’ve been on what was our tier two list because of problems, and they’re trending in a very problematic and troubling way. We’re seeing this systematic, ongoing, and egregious violation of religious freedom both by the state and by non-state entities that [the state is] allowing to happen. We’ve seen the citizenship, essentially, registration law that was put into place at the end of last year, which is depriving a number of people who, for all intents and purposes, are citizens of India. But they’re Muslim; they’re coming in from other countries or they’ve been in other countries. They have to prove their citizenship [and] really it’s almost impossible to do, and it’s only being applied to certain segments of the population and disproportionately they’re Muslim. Again, we see a number of trends there that are problematic, and it is becoming increasingly dangerous in India for religious minorities.

Mr. Jekielek: One of the big topics, of course, that you’ve looked at in the past [is] Boko Haram, for obvious reasons. Maybe you can actually speak to that a little bit.

Mr. Perkins: Nigeria is a very problematic country when we see the trends there, and it’s for a couple of reasons. One, Nigeria, [the] most populous country on the African continent [with] 210 million people, [is] pretty much evenly divided between Muslim and Christian. We’re again seeing this behavior that is systematic, ongoing, and egregious, where we see certain populations being targeted. You’re reading it all the time; you’re seeing the videos of it. Boko Haram in some cases, Fulani herdsmen in other cases, are attacking churches [and] taking hostages, and the government is not doing anything about it to protect its own population.

Now, about two years ago, President Buhari [Muhammad u Buhari] met with President Trump, and President Trump challenged him saying you need to protect your population, need to protect the Christians who are being attacked. For about six months, he deployed troops to some of the more problematic areas, and we saw a decrease, but that has since gone by the wayside. Once again, we’re seeing these attacks on villages and churches. We’re seeing hostages taken [and] ransom demanded. It’s very problematic. In fact, one of my prisoners of conscience that I have adopted to try to bring more awareness to this issue in Nigeria is Leah Sharibu, who was a 15-year-old girl when she was abducted [and] remains being held by Boko Haram. She was taken—you might remember that story—there were about 105 girls from a girl’s school that were taken; some escaped initially; a few were killed; and later about 100 or so were released. She is the only one to remain being held by Boko Haram. The reason, and they’ve made this very clear, is because she would not renounce her Christian faith. And so again, we see this type of behavior and not necessarily at the hands of the government, but the government is not doing anything to keep it in check.

Mr. Jekielek: What does it mean exactly that you’ve adopted someone? Presumably, all the commissioners on USCIRF will do this, and what’s the idea there?

Mr. Perkins: It’s a program we have, because when you start dealing with numbers—I could go through all kinds of numbers here if you wanted to, but people’s eyes would quickly begin to glaze over, because numbers mean nothing—but when you start talking about people, talk about names, and you talk about stories. These are real people. These are people who have families. Leah’s father, I can relate to him, he’s a police officer. I used to be a police officer, and he was out doing his job when the school his daughter was in was attacked. I can only imagine the helplessness that her father has felt. I’ve met with her mother now a few times, and they’re just obviously distraught, heartbroken over this. That story is repeated many times over, but at least, by us taking one story, a story that we can become a part of, and we could get to know the family, and we can begin to advocate for them, we bring greater awareness to the whole issue. That’s the purpose. It’s not just to highlight one case of a 15-year-old girl in Nigeria, but rather to bring awareness to the overall threat that people are facing around the globe because of their religious beliefs.

Mr. Jekielek: There’s one very high profile case that you were involved in, not too long ago: Pastor Brunson. And so what is the situation in Turkey since? Has something changed because of this intervention, because of this work?

Mr. Perkins: Well, I wish I could say that Turkey has become a better place, but I don’t think that is the case. We continue to recommend that they be on a special watch list. We’re watching them very closely, because there still seems to be this “two of the three” [criteria]. We see this ongoing behavior by the state, and it’s somewhat systematic because they are interfering with churches, the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Church, refusing to allow them to put in place their patriarchs. They’re keeping some of the monasteries from opening, some of the seminaries and stuff from opening. So they’re continuing to track in the wrong direction. We’re watching them closely and encouraging [reform]. Part of our reason for doing this when we point these things out is to encourage the administration to bring these topics up during the course of various negotiations. [In] this case of Andrew Brunson, the administration was extremely involved and the President himself [was] personally involved in that case, which was successful. [The involvement of the administration] was the key part of the success of bringing him home.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s a level of attention that it’s very hard to bring to every one of the adopted people. Without that level of attention, is it still possible to make a difference? This is something I want to ask you about a little further, because, of course, there’s this case of Sudan, which we’ll talk about in a bit.

Mr. Perkins: That’s a really good question. Because people say, “Well, obviously the President can’t get involved in every case that exists out there,” and that’s true he can’t. And the administration can’t get involved in every case out there. In the case of Leah Sharibu in Nigeria, she’s a Nigerian girl. She’s not an American. She’s Nigerian, and in Andrew’s case, he was an American, giving more emphasis to the President, but this administration is very committed. In fact, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, [a] personal friend [of mine], has said on numerous occasions that the number one foreign policy for the United States is religious freedom, and they are committed to that in all of the policies that they pursue.

Here’s what it does do. When the President takes a personal interest in one of these cases or gets involved in one of these cases, it communicates a message to foreign leaders and to non-government leaders, terrorists, and whomever, that religious freedom is a top priority for this administration. I’ve met with various leaders around the world, some in Islamic countries that have not so good records on religious freedom issues, that have taken note of the priority placed on religious freedom by this administration and are wanting to adjust their policies. Some are more aggressive than others in changing their policies. America is a world leader. We’re an influencer, and so when we put a top priority, a top emphasis on this issue, it has an impact on other countries and their behavior.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about one of the countries that is arguably difficult to influence, which is China, which is one of my personal interests. I wanted to dive a bit deeper here before we go into the Sudan question. I looked at the report. Each country has two pages. It’s actually a good read. I’m going to recommend that people take a look if you’re interested in any country, because it’s actually quite digestible for almost anyone.

Mr. Perkins: Thank you, we did that intentionally. That’s new for this year. We wanted to make it more user friendly. And you know, if you can see two pages, you’re more likely to read it. We focus on the big picture and the recommendations that we make, so I’m glad to hear that you like that new format. We’ve actually had about a 50% reduction in terms of the pages, so that we can just make it more user friendly.

Mr. Jekielek: Headlining this, you have up to 1.8 [million] Uighur Muslims in the concentration camps in Xinjiang, which has been a big story, relatively speaking, when it comes to the China human rights stories out there. I think many people will be familiar with that. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit to that, but also to some of the other findings around China.

Mr. Perkins: Well, your initial statement is very accurate in that it is difficult to influence China on this. Although I do know that even in the trade negotiations, these issues came up, and of course, we were pushing for that to occur. You pointed out the Uyghur Muslims. You’re right. There’s been a lot of focus this past year on the Uyghurs, in part because the State Department put an emphasis on it. Ambassador Sam Brownback made a focus of the Uyghur Muslims who are in these concentration camps. A little more recently, it’s been shown that they’ve been used for forced labor in factories around the country, some with connections to US businesses. And then there’s been some more recent stories which we’ve not necessarily delved into, because we’re still gathering information.

Before I leave the Uyghurs, one point that I think maybe has not been driven home enough on the Uyghurs is the use of artificial intelligence to track their movements, not just those that are in the concentration camps, but to track the entire Uyghur population, using cameras and facial recognition software which has been the developed in China and is now being exported to other countries where you have repressive governments. That’s something to keep an eye on. That’s very troubling when you see the use of this technology combined with the social scores that some may be familiar with, where if you check out the wrong books or you go to a church too often. Because they’re tracking you, they know where you are, and they know the behavior you’re engaged in, you might not be able to buy a train ticket or an airline ticket or get a pass to go somewhere or your retirement might be affected.

So this is something to keep an eye on, because it’s not going to stay contained just with the Uyghur population. Every move they make is tracked, and they even have—and I’m not going to get to the name of this program just right—I think it’s called “Family Program” [Pair Up and Become Family]. In Xinjiang, oftentimes the man may be in a prison camp, a concentration camp, an education camp they might call it. They will bring in someone to live in the home with the family. Another man will come in and live in that home on a rotating basis. Just to try to make sure that they’re being properly integrated. This is both religious and ethnic, they’re trying to basically… Words have meanings. You have to be careful how you use the words, but this is an attempt to simply eradicate the Uyghur ethnic group, which is an ethnic group. It’s predominantly Muslim, but it’s a Turkic ethnic group that they’re trying to eliminate by assimilating them in. That’s what these training camps are. [It’s] to make them forget who they were, what they believed, because they see that as a threat to the communist state.

And we see Falun Gong, which is another religious minority that is suppressed in China, in fact linked to forced organ harvesting. There’s been some reports out again. We haven’t independently gone into those reports to verify them, but [from] what I have seen, they’re very reliable. [Organ transplants have] become big business in China, and it’s primarily through these political [and] religious prisoners that this is taking place. And of course, there’s the Christian churches that are being torn down and forced even further underground, [and] the arrest of pastors. They (the Chinese regime) go after all religious groups, so they don’t discriminate in that sense. They treat them all the same.

Mr. Jekielek: Tony, one group that we don’t hear a lot about, which is also deeply affected, are the Tibetans. We had Maura Moynihan on recently discussing it.

Mr. Perkins: Yes, that is true [about] the Tibetans. By the way, they also use the facial recognition cameras to track them. So they’re really falling into the same [predicament]. They’re not quite as well known as the Uyghur Muslims, but they’re falling under the same repressive fingerprint that the Uighur Muslims have been. Although, quite frankly, the Chinese [Communist Party] has been at it a lot longer in putting the pressure on the Tibetans.

Mr. Jekielek: This is something that I think should worry everybody, because this technology that’s been developed is being exported. You think, “This is far away. This is in a remote corner of China, in Xinjiang.” It’s kind of, would you say, worse than what Orwell envisioned?

Mr. Perkins: Yes. That’s extremely important to understand, because some of this technology has been facilitated by American companies. Now it’s being exported from China, now that it’s been perfected. And who knows where it’s going to end up, who’s going to be using it. In the bigger picture here, it’s important to understand here in the United States, we have a First Amendment freedom. Now, there’s been actually a pretty vigorous discussion about that in the last month, as you had these governors put down stay at home orders and shut down churches and different things. Our First Amendment is very important. Most of these countries that we’re talking about don’t have a First Amendment. They don’t have those guaranteed freedoms, and it’s one of the things that is very defining of America.

Now, having said that, I just want to say that when we’re talking about from a USCIRF perspective and in religious freedom, it’s an international definition of religious freedom. We’re talking about going back to [the] 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, obviously, we were very critical in crafting that back in 1948. As Americans, we need to pay attention [to] what is happening around the world, because it’s a reminder of the rights we have and quite frankly why we’re privileged. We’re blessed, I should say, to have a First Amendment freedom, and why we must protect it and be very vigilant in guarding that, or else we could see something like what’s happening in China. That could happen elsewhere. It could happen here if we did not defend and protect that fundamental freedom.

Mr. Jekielek: While we’re talking about China, I came across this letter which was actually from the group that did this really deep dive into the forced organ harvesting, the China Tribunal, headed by the former prosecutor of Slobodan Milosevic. … They basically compared organ harvesting to the worst atrocities committed in conflict in the 20th century even as far as the Holocaust mass killings, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Rwandan genocide, and so forth. Now, they wrote a letter to the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, basically saying: we’re very concerned that China is going to be on the UN Human Rights Council and going to be making decisions. I know from a statement from USCIRF that you’re also very concerned. Can you tell me about this, please?

Mr. Perkins: Yes, when you look at the track record which is indisputable—maybe we don’t have all the evidence for every allegation that’s been made—but the evidence is overwhelming that China abuses human rights on a systematic basis and religious freedom is chief among the targets. And for them to be recognized by the United Nations as being a part of the Human Rights Council would be laughable, if it were not so troubling and frightening. The old saying “the fox guarding the henhouse” pales as an illustration of what is taking place here. So yes, we have spoken out against that and quite frankly, any country that cares about human rights, should be speaking out about that and doing everything they can to prevent it from occurring.

Mr. Jekielek: Do you think the US has a role with the UN or the UN Human Rights Council? This is a point of contention right now.

Mr. Perkins: I think we should use every legitimate platform available to advocate for human rights and religious freedom. I’m not going to second guess the administration that’s factoring in other elements in terms of their decision that they make on that. … There is some good that the United Nation does do on occasion, but I have to question some of the things that they do and whether or not it is worth the time, energy, and resources that we put into it.

Mr. Jekielek: You were talking about the reality around the First Amendment with respect to Coronavirus here in America. Of course USCIRF focuses internationally, and we’ve certainly observed a number of examples of this Coronavirus situation being used as cover for different kinds of human rights abuses or different kinds of nefarious activity. I’m wondering if you’re seeing any of that from the perspective of religious freedom.

Mr. Perkins: We are. …You don’t need much for those who are hostile toward religious freedom to use an opportunity to crack down on that freedom, and so we have seen what appears to be. In fact, we’ve released several statements warning that we’re watching these issues of how this healthcare crisis is being used. And I understand, we, USCIRF, understand that you have to thread the needle on this. Even though we don’t deal with the United States—we only deal with international issues—honestly, we’ve seen that that’s a difficult needle to thread here, even in the United States.

And so we’re not nitpicking on this. We’re looking for the big issues and where you see egregious behavior. We obviously understand that this is not the time to be gathering, because that facilitates the spread of the virus. You have places like here in the United States; it wasn’t the [religious] message that was targeted; it was the meetings. That’s not necessarily an issue, [unlike] when you have the message [that is targeted]. There’s been a couple of places where it was more that they use this as an opportunity to go after the message and not just the meetings.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s jump to Sudan now, because I was reading a little bit out of the report. This is kind of a success story amidst a lot of the opposite that’s certainly documented in this report. I’d like to do a deeper dive, and I know this is an area that you’re particularly focused on as well. So what have we seen happen there?

Mr. Perkins: What we saw is the people of Sudan rise up against a repressive regime. It was primarily, disproportionately, the women of Sudan who rose up against al-Bashir’s regime and galvanized the public against him to where he was removed and now we have this transitional government that was put in place. … In some ways we almost saw like a second, if you use the term, Arab Spring, where we saw another wave of this destabilization in parts of the Middle East, Lebanon being one of them. In Sudan, you see some. Even even in Iran, where you see the public stirring again, so this was not something that was fostered from the outside or from the top-down, but rather from the bottom up. Actually, a parallel would kind of be what we saw in northeast Syria, until Turkey invaded that region, where we saw this conglomeration of people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds coming together to form a government that respected religious freedom. It’s very, very encouraging for that region of the world.

In Sudan, it is and still would be an Islamic government, but with a desire to go back to the way they were prior to al-Bashir, which kind of weaponized Islam to make it a repressive regime. There’s a desire to go back. It’s both from the young and from the old. The young people really want the economic opportunities that come with freedom, and it’s quite fascinating to watch. The United States can facilitate it in a couple of different ways. They’re changing all of their curriculum, in their books, their elementary through high school, to have more of a study of religion, because they want to teach religion, but it’s more of a study of religions, as opposed to a theology of Islam, which is very encouraging, and they’re moving very quickly to get that done.

They’re also working to abolish the blasphemy and apostasy laws, which would be a huge step forward, giving more religious freedom, allowing people to, according to the 1948 Declaration of Universal Human Rights, the ability to change their religion. So some very, very encouraging things [are happening]. Now, we took them off of the CPC [Countries of Particular Concern] list for the first time since we’ve been doing this report, but put them on to the special watch list, because this is a journey. We’re not there yet, but we see very, very encouraging signs. The Prime Minister’s a really nice man who has dedicated himself to seeing Sudan move forward.

Mr. Jekielek: How fascinating. So blasphemy is saying the wrong thing against a sacred figure, or a teaching. [What is] apostasy, for the benefit of our viewers?

Mr. Perkins: [Apostasy] is to change your religion. Blasphemy could be as simple as asking a question. In the Protestant religion and at least for Baptists, you call that a business meeting. That was a joke. The issue is that questioning the Islamic faith could be blasphemy in many cases. Now it can be more extreme, but it can be as simple as that. Apostasy would be: if you were Muslim and then you changed your faith. That would be apostasy. You can’t do that. Changing those laws, which I think about 62 different countries have, would be quite a significant step forward toward religious freedom.

Mr. Jekielek: Another thing that came out of this report which frankly I wasn’t expecting, and this is an issue very close to me. My father-in-law survived the Buchenwald Concentration Camp [and] is one of the few survivors around these days. I’m going to read what was written in the report: “Four in ten young European Jews considered emigrating due to antisemitism in the past year.” What? When I read this, I just simply couldn’t have thought. Is this real? Where’s this happening? This is shocking.

Mr. Perkins: Yes, it is shocking. We had a hearing on Capitol Hill regarding this, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Antisemitism, who presented said, “Look, we need to be paying…” I asked him, “So why is this important? Because I know why it’s important, but I ask you: why is it important?” And he said it is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to religious freedom. If we turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to antisemitism, that’s just the beginning, and it will end up someplace we don’t want to go. It’s not going to confine itself just to the Jewish faith. It ultimately will feed its hatred upon all faiths. This is a growing problem. It’s a growing problem domestically, again [that’s] something that we don’t get into, but it is a growing problem internationally. In Europe, we’ve seen attacks on Jewish synagogues. It’s something that we must address. Elan Carr, who is a special envoy for anti-semitism for the United States has testified before our committee, and they’re being very aggressive in dealing with this and encouraging other countries to do the same.

Mr. Jekielek: This is almost half of the young Jewish people according to the study. I haven’t looked at how the study was conducted, but that’s really a huge number. So there’s something more. There’s some attacks on synagogues, but is there some kind of climate of discrimination? What’s happening there? And where’s this happening?

Mr. Perkins: Well, it is happening in places like France. We’re seeing in other parts of Europe, [like in] the UK, the Labour Party has been taking positions that would appear to be antisemitic. When you begin to look at it, and especially if you don’t know history… It’s important that you personalized this because of your father-in-law, so you know history. … This is a part of the solution, by the way, is that we teach history as it pertains to what happened to the Jewish people in World War II what the Germans, Adolf Hitler and others, did to the Jewish population; that the Holocaust was real. We teach that for the reason of not repeating it. If you go through Yad Vashem or you go through the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., you see how history does repeat itself. You look at the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) and other things, that’s very similar to what happened in the late 1930s in Germany. So that’s a part of the call, both from the UN and from the Special Envoy from the United States, to make sure that we’re teaching our young people what this is, and what happened so that we don’t repeat it.

Mr. Jekielek: This is interesting, because this is the more philosophical discussion I wanted to have with you, which is “why does this matter to me? Why should I care?”

Mr. Perkins: That’s a really good question, because we have to answer that question, so that people will pay attention to this issue. We’re coming at this not from a standpoint that the United States is the gold standard or we have all the answers. This is a Universal Declaration of Religious Freedom. Now, I would say that America is a country that people want to come to in part for the freedoms that we have, including religious freedom. So we have to be cognizant that that freedom could be lost, and we have an obligation, I believe, because we have freedom, to advocate for those who don’t have it.

If I can borrow from a kind of Western Christian mindset—which is predominantly what America has historically operated from—in the Christian faith, everyone has a choice. You can’t force someone to make a choice. God himself, you read back to the beginning in Genesis, gave man a choice whether to follow him or not. We can’t make people make a choice, but we certainly can advocate for them to have a choice. That’s where religious freedom comes in—that we advocate for every man, woman, and child to have an ability to choose whether or not they want to follow God and how they will do so. That’s been a guide stone for the United States all these years. And again, I go back to something you said earlier, that we sometimes take for granted this freedom that we have in this country, and I think it’s helpful by focusing on the plight of others and helping them, it reminds us that our freedoms here need to be protected as well.

Mr. Jekielek: So Tony, the report has a number of recommendations. I’m wondering if you could highlight a few of the things that you think are key for our viewers to know.

Mr. Perkins: Well, they’re specific to the country in most cases. For instance, some countries like Afghanistan, which is on our special watch list, we’re concerned there because of the capacity of the Afghan government to provide protection for religious minorities. One of the things we encourage in that country—and a couple of others, Egypt, being one of them, I believe—is to help those governments better protect the religious minorities, the houses of worship, regardless of what they might be, to be able to put both physical security and other means here, so that people can go to their houses of worship, regardless of what faith they are, in safety and security.

We also advocate for the use of the Global Magnitsky Act, which was passed in 2017, which allows the US government to put sanctions on individuals who are violators of religious freedom. And frankly, the administration has used that quite well in this past year. About eight individuals were targeted with the Magnitsky Act provisions in 2019. There’s also recommendations, in Sudan, to help with the publishing of their new textbooks. [In] Saudi Arabia, speaking of textbooks, we continue to push to encourage the revision of their textbooks which they are supposed to have been doing for quite some time, and they’re a little slower. Maybe they can take their leads from Sudan. They seem to be jumping right on it. So it varies from country to country, but I would say the overarching recommendation that we make in almost every case is that in discussions—I go back to Afghanistan, for instance, since our country has been in negotiations with the Taliban and reached an agreement with them—that in all dealings with these foreign countries that religious freedom is a part of the conversation.

Mr. Jekielek: Is there anything in particular that you could draw out as a win for USCIRF itself over the past year, let’s say, or something that lasted longer?

Mr. Perkins: Yes, actually. Since the inception—this was our 21st year—we’ve been advocating for a position, and it was created actually under the International Religious Freedom Act, a position in the White House, working with a national security adviser that focuses strictly on the issue of religious freedom. That has been vacant up until about two months ago. That position for the first time has been filled—another indication of the priority that this administration places on religious freedom. You might recall last fall at the United Nations [for the] first time ever [there was a] speech on religious freedom, the President designated $25 million to the protection of houses of worship and religious sites. That was something that we had been advocating for and encouraging to take place, that the State Department would begin to train and provide equipment and resources for the protection of these sites because of all of these attacks on houses of worship. That is on its way to being set up, so another win, and then of course we had a part to play in helping (we’re not there yet) on this journey with Sudan. We’ve had a part to play in that, so some positive developments along the way.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s really, really encouraging to hear. Any final words before we finish up?

Mr. Perkins: I just thank you for focusing on this issue, because especially given what we’re all focused on right now with the Coronavirus, we sometimes lose track of some of the other issues. This is a big issue, that people everywhere and every place at all times have an opportunity to freely express themselves or not express themselves in their religious beliefs or convictions. We have been given a lot in this country in terms of freedoms, and we should use our freedoms not only to protect our own but to advocate for the rights of others to enjoy and experience those freedoms as well.

Mr. Jekielek: Tony Perkins, such a pleasure to have you on.

Mr. Perkins: Thank you very much.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 
 
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