Days ahead of the first-ever ministerial talks hosted by the State Department to advance religious freedom around the world, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sat down with VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching on Thursday, addressing pressing issues including the plight of Myanmar's Rohingya, the repression of Uighurs Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists in China, and Russia’s activities in eastern Ukraine. Below is an edited transcript.
Question: On the ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslims with the Buddhists being the majority in Myanmar, the purge against Rohingya sometimes is characterized by some as religious cleansing. At the same time, killing is the worst crime for Buddhism and for many religions. Would you go further to identify the Rohingya crisis as religious cleansing?”
Answer: Well the State Department made a decision at the end of last year to make the important statement about ethnic cleansing and we know that there is a religious connection there. It is incredibly important to be careful of the language that we use, so we will continue to review it but as you well know, the State Department considers religious freedom at the center of its activity, we make that a priority in all of the work that we do and in places in Asia, that is absolutely no exception.
Question: Would you consider a comprehensive arms embargo and more targeted financial sanctions against top Burmese military leaders for their involvement of the Rohingya purge.”
Answer: I don’t want to get out of hand with the president on this but you should know we take these issues incredibly seriously and your viewers should know that as well. There are many things that are under consideration by this administration. We want to see the course changing, we want to see the directional change here. We’ve not seen that yet. And so there are many things that are being considered by the United States government to ensure that everyone understands that their behavior is not acceptable.
Question: In China, the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report documented the repression against the Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists. First of all, how would you respond to the assertion from the Chinese government that some of the groups are separatists? And secondly, would you consider a travel ban or working with the Treasury Department to freeze the U.S. assets of those Chinese officials who are involved in such repression.”
Answer: So the State Department has made clear that with respect to this issue we think they are on the wrong side on religious freedom, that they are a country of concern connected to that. We understand that religious freedom is at risk in many places in the world and yet the United States has complex broad relationships with many countries, including China across economic and military and political sets of issues. Your viewers should know the United States also puts religious freedom as a fundamental human right at the very center of discussions with every country with whom we interact.”
Question: Religious freedom is a universal value as you mentioned. How would you respond to the Chinese assertion that some of the surveillance programs are to prevent a terrorist attack?”
Answer: Well I don't to want comment. Every country does work to make sure that their citizens are safe, but we should never – no country should ever use that effort – [under] the guise of a counter terrorism investigation to persecute religious freedom. Religious freedom is separate and apart from that. Every human by nature of their dignity as a human being deserves the capacity to worship in the way that they want to worship, or if they chose not to worship at all so be it. No one should be punished by their government for their religious beliefs or their religious activities connected to those beliefs.
Question: While we are sitting here, critics, including State Department’s own report, said that in Eastern Ukraine, Russia-led forces continue to occupy religious buildings of religious minority groups for the use of military facilities. You were at Helsinki. Was that a good meeting? How were Russia’s activities in eastern Ukraine being discussed?
Answer: “So I’ve seen those reports about the Russian’s use of religious facilities. That's never acceptable. It violates all sorts of central premises about nations ought to be able to use religious facilities to protect your forces, creates real challenges. With respect to Helsinki, President Trump made clear to Vladimir Putin that their activities in eastern Ukraine weren’t in Russia’s best interest. This administration has been incredibly tough. We’ve provided support to the Ukrainian forces there in southeast Ukraine, that the previous administration – who repeatedly refused to do. We think this creates a space for the Ukrainian people to have a successful election come 2019 and we are very very hopeful that that situation will resolve itself as America has made its continued commitment to support the Ukrainian people's desires.”
Question: Speaking of Russia, Mr. Secretary, there has also been a lot of concern over the Russian proposal to question former ambassador McFaul. Do you have anything on that topic?
Answer: Yeah, I’d like to stop you. It’s not going to happen. The Russians made a proposal about a number of things during the course of the conversation between President Trump and President Putin. There were suggestions, comments, thoughts by President Putin with respect to that inquiry. President trump was very clear – we’re not gonna force Americans to go to Russia to be interrogated by the Russians. There’s been a lot of noise about that, I don't know why. Just the American people should rest assured.”