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Remarks at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom

Alex M. Azar II
The Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom
July 17, 2019
Washington, D.C.

Religious freedom lies at the heart of human flourishing, and supporting development for every country on earth means supporting stronger protections for faith, too.

As Prepared for Delivery

Thank you for that kind introduction, Kirsten [Evans], and thank you to Secretary Pompeo, Administrator Green, Ambassador Brownback and the many colleagues at the Department of State and USAID who are making this Ministerial happen.

It is a true honor to speak to so many leaders with such an admirable record of fighting for fundamental, unalienable human rights, extending freedom and charity around the world, and healing societies by uplifting lives. I am humbled to be here.

I would also like to thank the Secretary of State Pompeo for his leadership in the area of international religious freedom and for elevating this right to the prominence it deserves. A tremendous amount of credit must also go to Vice President Pence, who has raised awareness of the persecution of religious minorities.

While all of us come from different backgrounds, we share a common goal of defending and preserving religious freedom for all people across all nations. This goal is one of the most important and noble aims one can work toward in government service or civil society.

In the United States, we credit much of our success as a country to the abundance of civil liberties we enjoy. Those liberties were one of the reasons why my grandfather came to this country from Amioun, Lebanon, 99 years ago. He was seeking freedom—not just freedom to work and prosper, and but also freedom to live his faith without persecution.

The particular struggles he faced as an Arab Christian and as an Orthodox Christian are not the stuff of history—they remain real challenges for some of you in this room, and I feel a special kinship with all of you.

Some of you may be able to see that today I am wearing a pin for the Arabic letter “noon,” which many Americans took to wearing in solidarity with Middle East Christians during the worst days of ISIS. The symbol, noon for “Nazarene,” was used by ISIS to mark the doors of Christian homes and businesses for destruction. Today, ISIS has been destroyed, and I am proud that the Trump Administration remains committed to helping Christians and other religious minorities receive the help they need to rebuild.

That is just one group of religious faithful, among so many millions of people, in so many places, who are currently being persecuted for following the dictates of their consciences. Each of us is here to help change that.

The United States is proud to take the lead on this issue because it runs deep in our heritage.

This is a priority not just at the State Department, but everywhere across our government.

That is why, at my department, the Department of Health and Human Services, we embrace and defend communities of faith and their rights in the work we do to improve the health and well-being of Americans and all people of the world. I want to mention a few examples of how HHS has done that.

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR—a humanitarian effort that has saved millions of lives.

When combating a disease like HIV/AIDS, religious and community-based groups are essential not just because they provide a huge share of the world’s healthcare services, but also because they are often highly trusted by communities, which is essential in combating a stigmatized disease.

That is why PEPFAR, and HHS’s work in it, has placed a special emphasis, from the very beginning, on working with religious institutions at all levels—including some institutions represented here today.

PEPFAR supported Catholic Relief Services, for instance, in implementing what was known as the AIDSRelief program. AIDSRelief supported a rapid expansion of HIV care and treatment services for poor and underserved people in ten countries across Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. It served over 700,000 people, including more than 390,000 who enrolled in antiretroviral treatment through nearly 300 facilities.

By 2013, AIDSRelief was able to hand over its responsibilities to more local organizations—a tribute to the strong foundation that religious organizations were able to draw on.

Our commitment to ending the HIV epidemic worldwide has never wavered.

Recently, Vice President Pence announced that the United States, through PEPFAR, would invest $100 million to address key gaps in our global strategy.

That will include an effort called the PEPFAR Faith and Community initiative, on which Ambassador Birx collaborated very closely with HHS’s Office of Global Affairs. Earlier this year, President Trump announced an initiative to end the HIV epidemic here in America, which will also draw on faith leaders to reach marginalized communities and combat stigma.

We have drawn on communities of faith in many other areas, too.

HHS played a major role in the response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the worst Ebola outbreak in history. The outbreak cost so many lives that cities simply did not have the necessary resources to safely bury their dead.

In Sierra Leone, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that cemeteries were often composed of hand-dug graves, which were too shallow to prevent the spread of Ebola. As a result, entire families were often kept from witnessing their loved ones’ funerals, and were not allowed to visit their graves.

In response, our staff worked with the government and local leaders in Sierra Leone to create burial procedures that were safe, effective, and respectful. Perimeter walls were constructed around cemeteries, families were ensured access to religious leaders for emotional and spiritual support, and traditional burial practices were kept intact.

In Muslim communities, for instance, bodies were sanitized and prepared by burial teams, dressed in traditional clothing, and then wrapped in burial shrouds.

Similar work has continued during the current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is one of HHS and the Trump Administration’s top global health priorities. In the DRC, USAID has engaged with Catholic clergy to promote safe and dignified burial practices that will help stop the outbreak’s spread.

Protecting religious freedom around the world also requires defending it within global, multilateral institutions. It has become the norm at too many United Nations agencies to push agendas often at odds with religious faith.

Many countries, in their constitutions and their laws, include protections for faith, family, and life.

But for years, many smaller countries felt intimidated and browbeaten into changing either their laws or their cultural or religious norms that protect the unborn and the family.

My Department has spearheaded efforts to fight back. At the annual meeting of the World Health Organization this past May, HHS brought together a diverse coalition of nine countries, representing over 1 billion people, on a joint statement that strongly supported women’s health and made clear that the U.N. and wealthy nations should not be pushing abortion advocacy and anti-family sex education policies on any other nations. Countries have a sovereign right to be respected on these sensitive, fundamental issues.

Our efforts to preserve and promote religious freedom abroad stem from our efforts to do the same at home.

Domestically, we’ve thought carefully about how to protect the practice of faith in implementing statutes, rules, and regulations that are necessary for public health and safety.

Such rules sometimes burden religious Americans’ ability to live out their faith.

That is why we have not just a constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, but also have particular laws to strike this balance.

For instance, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act requires any generally applicable laws that burden religious freedom to serve a compelling government interest and accomplish it in the least burdensome way possible.

One way we have implemented these laws has been protections for Americans who have a religious or moral objection to health insurance that covers certain procedures. Under guidance issued after passage of the Affordable Care Act, the previous administration required health insurance plans to cover contraceptive services even when doing so violates the religious beliefs or moral convictions of organizations sponsoring the coverage.

This requirement even included organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order that cares for elderly Americans of limited means.

The Trump Administration stood beside the Little Sisters of the Poor and so many other groups and individuals and provided them with the exemptions they deserve under the law.

We also issued a rule to enforce approximately 25 statutes that protect health professionals’ right not to provide procedures which violate their consciences, and created a division within our Office for Civil Rights specifically devoted to Conscience and Religious Freedom.

I tasked that division with, among other jobs, enforcing laws that Congress specifically applied to international HIV/AIDS funding.

In closing, I want to reiterate why we are so committed across the U.S. government to defending religious freedom.

As I’ve just laid out, there is often a practical justification: Religious communities provide so many essential services to vulnerable people in America and around the world. Supporting better health and social development around the world requires working hand in hand with faith leaders.

But that partnership also represents a step forward for human development for another reason: Religious freedom lies at the heart of human flourishing, and supporting development for every country on earth means supporting stronger protections for faith, too.

So I would like to thank each one of you again for being here and for courageously defending the conscience rights of all people.

Together, we can help millions secure and exercise their fundamental human rights and contribute to the full flourishing of all nations.

Thank you so much for having me here today.

Content created by Speechwriting and Editorial Division 
Content last reviewed on July 17, 2019