© 2023 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
WHQR's streaming is working intermittently. We are working on resolving the issue, and we apologize for the inconvenience

Tillerson Calls Out Key Persian Gulf Allies In Religious Freedom Report


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has come under fire for downplaying human rights and democracy. But today at the State Department, he vowed to promote one aspect of that - religious freedom around the world. And he singled out some U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf for their poor records on that front, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary Tillerson was criticized when he didn't hold an event earlier this year when a human rights report was released. But today he stood before cameras to explain why this report on religious freedom matters.


REX TILLERSON: Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root.

KELEMEN: He says he wanted to call out the most egregious examples, starting with ISIS.


TILLERSON: ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yezidis, Christians and Shia Muslims in areas that it controls or has controlled.

KELEMEN: And Tillerson says the protection of these groups is a human rights priority for this administration. The report calls the resettlement of refugees a vital tool against religious persecution, but officials brushed off questions about the Trump administration's moves to limit refugee admissions to the U.S. It's also not clear what more the administration will do to demand justice for victims of genocide. But at least the secretary was speaking up, says Rob Berschinski of Human Rights First.

ROB BERSCHINSKI: And I hope that it marks something of a turning point in terms of his personal investment in speaking out on human rights issues.

KELEMEN: Berschinski, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, paid close attention to the countries Tillerson singled out.

BERSCHINSKI: There are some that you might expect - Iran and Sudan. China I would put in that boat. But he also called out a few that are close U.S. allies and partners.

TILLERSON: The secretary called on Turkey to release a jailed American pastor. He accused Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th fleet, of discriminating against Shia Muslims, and he singled out Saudi Arabia for that, too.


TILLERSON: A particular concern are attacks targeting Shia Muslims and the continued pattern of social prejudice and discrimination against them. We urge Saudi Arabia to embrace greater degrees of religious freedom.

KELEMEN: That caught the ear of Farah Pandith, who was the Obama administration's special envoy to Muslim communities.

FARAH PANDITH: With Saudi Arabia, he talked about greater freedoms. And as far as we are concerned as Americans, we stand for religious freedom. If we keep allowing countries to get by, to have passes with a little bit of movement, we aren't going to get where we really need to be.

KELEMEN: Pandith, now with the Council on Foreign Relations, says the U.S. should be clear with allies and lead by example.

PANDITH: No one can possibly take this report seriously if we don't follow up with our own actions that demonstrate who we are as Americans and living by the values that we want others to live by.

KELEMEN: She says the U.S. needs to make sure that discrimination against Muslims and other religious minorities is not on the rise here at home. A top State Department official points out that the U.S. doesn't rate itself in this annual report which is mandated by Congress. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.