Uzbekistan and the role of international religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy

A Q&A with Ambassador Sam Brownback

July 15, 2019

Jeff Pickering from our policy staff in D.C., recently visited the State Department to sit down with Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback. The interview covered the ambassador’s recent success in the story of Uzbekistan and the role of international religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy.

Jeff Pickering: What is the role of the U.S. ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom?

Ambassador Sam Brownback: Stand up for religious freedom around the world. That’s what we do, and that’s the role of this office.

JP: What is the history of this office in the State Department?

AB: It was created 20 years ago by an act of Congress, the International Religious Freedom Act. It was really, in essence, Congress forcing the executive branch to address issues of religious freedom. A lot of us in Congress at that time were getting cases of religious freedom brought to our office from constituents and constituent organizations. We would advocate for people who were in jail in far-flung places around the world. This act really tried to institutionalize the issue of religious freedom as a topic of foreign policy for the United States. 

JP: How is international religious freedom a foreign policy priority of the United States today?

AB: We see it—this administration—sees it as foundational. You get this one right, and you’ll have less terrorism, more human rights, more freedoms of assembly and speech, and more economic growth. So for us in this administration, we look at this religious freedom like blocking and tackling in football. You really need to get this right if you’re going to do anything else. And if you don’t get this right, you’re probably not going to be able to do these other things—human rights, economic growth, etc.—well either.

JP: What progress have you seen in the religious freedom space abroad since assuming your role as ambassador?

AB: I’ve been pleased. We’ve seen some country-specific efforts that have been rewarded. Uzbekistan is off the Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list. We’ve seen international engagement broaden on this. We hosted the ministerial on religious freedom, which was the first of its kind. The United Arab Emirates also hosted the first regional ministerial in Abu Dhabi on textbook materials and how textbooks shouldn’t denigrate minority religions. The Saudis were there, and the Pakistanis, and some others that have been, in some cases, quite awful on this issue. Taiwan also hosted the second follow-up in Taipei earlier this month. 

JP: Let’s talk about the story of Uzbekistan. You’ve been very involved in the ongoing efforts in Uzbekistan. How did your office engage with that country in particular?

AB: Chris Seiple (a religious liberty advocate and President Emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement) contacted me early on and said, “I think they’re ready to change.” He had been contacted and was working with them. I was skeptical, the office was skeptical, because they had been on the CPC list for a long time. But they wanted to do it to be able to grow their economy, which was the right way to look at it. So I reached out to them, and they started to make tangible steps. We engaged further. Now they’re on the watch list still, but they’ve made substantial progress, and we hope they’ll continue further and get off the watchlist.

JP: How did Uzbekistan move from the CPC list, which they were on since 2006, to the watch list?

AB: They did a number of steps. They let 1,500 religious prisoners free. They took 16,000 people off the blacklist that wouldn’t allow them to travel, many of which were there for religious affiliation purposes. They registered two churches. They hadn’t registered a church for a decade. They had not allowed minors to go to religious institutions—neither mosques nor churches—and they allowed minors to [return]. They stopped raids on unregistered churches. There were a number of house churches, and if they found them, they would just raid them and arrest people. They stopped the raids. And then they passed a religious freedom road map resolution that they asked the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) to come and do a report on Uzbekistan. He did. After he wrote it, they passed a resolution basically implementing the report. But that’s not law yet. Part of the resolution requires them to pass a new religion law. They’re in the process of drafting that. They’ve made a number of steps, but they’re still not there, and that’s why we have them on the watch list.

JP: That’s a story of diplomatic success. What have you and the State Department learned from working with Uzbekistan that can be applied to other countries?

AB: There needs to be motivation more than just shame. Prior, we were just using shame to say to the world that this was a bad actor on religious freedom. That just doesn’t motivate many people. Uzbekistan is doing this because they want to grow their economy, they want to appear better to the west, they want to be seen as a country open to human rights. And we agree with them that this is one of the things they need to do. We’re going to more countries and saying to them, “If you want to address your economic issues, grow your economy. If you want to address your terrorism issues to have less terrorism, one of the key things you need to do is provide more religious freedom to your people.” And then it’s a self-motivator at that point because most countries want their economy to grow, and they certainly want less terrorism. So, it has to be in the country’s self-interest.

JP: Are there any other countries you’ve identified as those with potential to make similar progress?

AB: I was just back from Pakistan. We just put them on the CPC list. I’m telling them, “Look, my desire is to get you off that list. But to do it, you’re going to have to make some serious changes. And if you want to grow your economy, these are things you’re going to need to do. If you want less terrorism, which you certainly do, this is something that will help you.” We’re starting to see some of those countries engaged, saying, “You’re right. This has not been good in our country.” They don’t like the international negative publicity of saying this about minority faiths. Every faith in the world is a minority religion somewhere, including the one in that country. It is very much global communications.

JP: Ambassador, what motivates you to come to work and to travel all around the globe to do this, to take on these daunting efforts?

AB: You see these people, when they get out and they’re free, and all they ever wanted to do is to practice their faith peacefully, it is so rewarding. We’re the only country in the world, really, that just puts a high enough value to fight for this. Some of the European countries do as well. I shouldn’t take this away from that, but, for us, it’s personal. It’s in our founding. It’s what we are as a people, and we’re passionate for it. And we’re passionate for it around the world. And I’m delighted to carry that passion of the American people for it.

JP: Is there anything else you would like to share about Uzbekistan, the plight of persecuted Christians or other religious minorities, and the state of international religious freedom more broadly? 

AB: I hope that people who read this don’t just read it and say, “Well, I’m glad something is happening,” or, “Too bad not more is happening,” but rather will engage themselves. And there are ways to do it. They can do it through the Southern Baptist Convention. They can really, in almost every community of any size in the United States, find a diaspora from somewhere that is probably persecuted. I’ve run into it everywhere. They can find somebody locally who’s from Rwanda and knows of a bunch of house churches that were closed down. Just get engaged, find out what’s taking place, invite a speaker to their church, see what they can do to rebuild a church that’s been destroyed. I’ve seen countless Americans do stuff like that, and it is very effective. They don’t have to have the government there doing it. It involves some getting activated, but there’s no shortage of people that need their activism. 

Sam Brownback is the ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom.

Jeff Pickering

Jeff Pickering is the director of the Initiative on Faith & Public Life, a project of the American Enterprise Institute. AEI is a leading public policy think tank in Washington, DC and the initiative exists to equip Christian college students for faithful engagement in public life. Jeff moved to Washington … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24