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April 26, 2023

CG Hicks' Remarks on International Religious Freedom and Statesmanship

  Good evening.  Ewaratan bash.  A salam Alekem.  Thank you, President Sharp, for your kind and warm introduction.  The University of Kurdistan – Hewler is an impressive institution, and I am happy to be here with you tonight.  Thank you also to the faculty, students, and program staff, including representatives of the Religious Freedom Institute, who contributed to the seminar program on international religious freedom.

  I am honored to speak to you tonight about statesmanship and religious freedom.  U.S. Secretary of State Blinken underscored in his remarks to the International Religious Freedom Summit earlier this year, that “Freedom of religion is a bedrock American value.” 

Freedom of religion or belief has been central to the American experience since our nation’s founding.  A cherished American value, our experience compels us to advocate for vulnerable and underrepresented people around the world.  The United States maintains its unwavering support to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief for all.

We are committed to working with civil society and governments, including the members of the International Religious Freedom of Belief Alliance, to confront global challenges, including blasphemy and apostasy laws or other efforts to criminalize forms of speech and expression, discriminatory laws and abuses by authorities, or excessive and onerous government regulation of religion and religious life.  Whether by shining a spotlight on the worst offenders and abuses of religious freedom or seeking justice for victims and accountability for perpetrators of abuses or violations of religious freedom, we must work to advance international religious freedom together.

In Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, the United States advocates for religious freedom through our collaborative engagements and close partnership with senior officials from the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central Government of Iraq on issues of concern to religious and ethnic minorities, such as security, civil documentation, political representation, economic opportunity, peaceful co-existence, and the enduring defeat of Daesh.  We also support religious freedom in Iraq through humanitarian and development assistance valued at over $400 million in 2022.  These programs support faith-based NGOs that provide assistance to internally displaced persons; civil society organizations led by religious ethnic minorities that are preserving Iraq’s rich and diverse cultural heritage; and the international and Iraqi efforts to document, memorialize, and address the atrocities committed by ISIS against Yezidis, Christians, and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups.

The success of the U.S, government’s advancement of religious freedom around the world lies in effective statesmanship.  So, what do I mean by statesmanship you ask?  In “A Time for Statesmanship,” an article by Daniel Stid published in the U.S. periodical National Affairs, effective statesmanship is defined by Aristotle’s four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, courage, and temperance.  

     While the validity of Aristotle’s virtues endures, the author adds a fifth essential virtue that is of relevance to Kurdistan and the topic of religious freedom: magnanimity.  Magnanimity is the ability to have forbearance and generosity toward perceived opponents, competitors, or groups. 

     This generosity of spirit reminds me of the prophet Muhammad’s guidance that “you do not do evil to those who do evil to you, but you deal with them with forgiveness and kindness.”

One of my favorite examples of statesmanship, which was born out of a deep and abiding spirituality and religious faith, and which exemplifies the high virtues of statesmanship, was the life and legacy of American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dr. King was an extraordinary man: a religious leader, a civil rights advocate, and a community organizer who used his brilliant mind, loving heart, and eloquent voice to change America.  

There are also many other American leaders who have lived the virtues of statesmanship, including General Colin Powell and Secretary Madeline Albright, two great American diplomats and statespersons who cared deeply about Iraq and Kurdistan.  Powell was known at the State Department for his thirteen rules of leadership, including my favorite: “It can be done.”  And Madeline Albright, a staunch advocate for the Kurds during the difficult 1990s, demonstrated stateswomanship as she helped our Kurdish friends and counterparts to move past their internal rivalries and differences to strive together toward a brighter future.  

  Freedom of religion is the very first freedom in the First Amendment to the American constitution.  It’s enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a fundamental right for all people, no matter where they live, and no matter what they believe.  That right, to think and worship in one’s own way, to follow one’s conscience, is, I believe, inextricably linked to the American creed and the formation of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.    

Last year, our Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, Rashad Hussein, was sworn in.  He and our team in the Office of International Religious Freedom have been working alongside many world leaders to address discriminatory policies and laws, to advocate for those who have been unfairly targeted, and to help encourage peaceful coexistence and respect for all.  I hope you will take a moment to read our upcoming 25th annual International Religious Freedom Report, which provides a comprehensive review of the state of religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories around the globe, illustrating how the U.S. government has advocated for this critical right.  

In closing, I’d like to speak directly to the students in the audience tonight and share the following quotes that give me inspiration as a statesman:  

From the Jewish Talmud – “The end result of wisdom is good deeds.”

From the Swiss Theologian and Catholic priest Hans Urs von Balthasar – “What you are is God’s gift to you.  What you become is your gift to God.”  

And finally, from the great Mahatma Ghandi – “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Thank you for your participation this evening and for your interest in the important topics of religious freedom and the role effective statesmanship plays in bringing about positive change in the world.  

As you rise in your careers, please be true to your faith and beliefs by being civil, courageous, and compassionate to everyone you meet in life.  Find ways to serve your community.  And always keep in mind the five virtues of statesmanship.   Thank you. Zor supas! Shukron!