The Cable

Tillerson Blasts ISIS for Genocide in Religious Freedom Report

America’s top diplomat also called out allies including Saudi Arabia and Turkey for violating religious freedom.


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accused the Islamic State of genocide during the release of an annual State Dept. report on religious freedom Tuesday.

“ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide,” Tillerson said, calling out the group as well for “crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing” against religious groups including Christians, Yezidis, and Shiite Muslims.

“The protection of these groups — and others who are targets of violent extremism — remains a human rights priority for the Trump administration,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson made his remarks during the roll-out of the State Dept.’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, an annual Congressionally-mandated study to gauge threats to religious freedom in 199 countries around the world.

The release comes as the Trump administration has faced growing criticisms of cozying up to dictators and sweeping human rights issues under the rug in recent months. Tillerson pointedly told State Dept. employees earlier this year that values shouldn’t be an “obstacle” to U.S. foreign policymaking. This month, during a visit to the Philippines, he sidestepped criticizing the country’s controversial drug war which has led to thousands of extrajudicial killings. He also caught flak for not personally unveiling the State Dept.’s yearly human rights report in March, as many of his predecessors have.

While Tuesday’s report recognized the need for resettling refugees fleeing religious persecution, it made no mention of the Trump administration’s suspension of refugee entry to the United States.

“Every year, unfortunately, there are way, way more refugees than any country can take,” Ambassador Michael Kozak, senior advisor at the State Dept.’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, told press on Tuesday when pushed on the apparent inconsistency.

The report also does not include a self-assessment of United States, Kozak said. “I would put our record on religious freedom up against anybody in the world,” he said.

In an unusual step, Tillerson also called out U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, for “egregious and troubling examples” of crackdowns on religious rights and freedom.

Tillerson said in all, some 80 percent of the world’s population live in restricted or hostile environments when it comes to freedom of religion. “Religious persecution and intolerance remains far too prevalent,” he said.

The State Dept. is also getting a new envoy for international religious freedom: Sam Brownback, the controversial former governor of Kansas who “[left] a financial train wreck in his wake” as governor according to the editorial board of the Kansas City Star.

Trump formally tapped Brownback to be the State Dept.’s new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom last month. Tillerson hailed his nomination on Tuesday, calling him “the highest-ranking official ever to take up this important post.”

“We look forward to his swift confirmation,” Tillerson said.

Correction, Aug. 16, 2017: The International Religious Freedom Report does not include an assessment of the United States. Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article mistakenly stated it did. 

Photo credit: ERIK DE CASTRO/AFP/Getty Images


Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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