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New report says 2013 was 'the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory'

Published: Tuesday, July 29 2014 9:30 a.m. MDT

Secretary of State John Kerry, joined by Rabbi David Saperstein, nominated to become ambassador at large for international religious freedom at the State Department, left, and Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, speaks at the State Department in Washington, Monday, July 28, 2014, during a news conference to announce the 2013 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. The U.S. says millions of people were forced from their homes because of their religious beliefs last year. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Cliff Owen, ASSOCIATED PRESS

A new report from the U.S. State Department details the status of religious freedom around the world, painting a grim picture of what it calls "the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory."

The 2013 International Religious Freedom Report cites violent conflicts in countries like Syria, as well as ongoing discrimination against religious minorities and government-sanctioned attacks on members of unpopular sects in countries around the world, in its description of an international environment in which the ability to practice faith freely is in scarcer supply than previous years.

All religions are impacted by the violence, according to the annual update on the State Department's work to address religious freedom issues, with minority communities particularly at risk. In Pakistan, for example, militants killed more than 400 Shia Muslims in attacks throughout the year, while the Chinese government persecuted leaders of Catholic communities. The report also calls attention to anti-Semitism spreading throughout Europe, breeding in online discussion groups and chants at sporting events.

"When 75 percent of the world's population still lives in countries that don't respect religious freedoms, let me tell you, we have a long journey ahead of us. We have a long way to go when governments kill, detain or torture people based on a religious belief," Secretary of State John Kerry said in his remarks about the report.

The State Department is mandated by Congress to produce an annual assessment of the state of religious freedom in every country. The 2013 report is designed to inform foreign policy decisions throughout the next year.

'Countries of Particular Concern'

The report includes an update to the State Department's list of "Countries of Particular Concern," defined by the International Religious Freedom Act as a list of countries where there are "particularly severe violations of religious freedom."

The updated list includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Turkmenistan is a new addition, as developments within the country's borders during 2013 escalated concerns at the U.S. State Department. Kerry named several examples of growing violence in Turkmenistan, including laws passed to prohibit religious expression in public places and imprisonment of Jehovah's Witnesses who ask to be excused from military service due to their beliefs.

The other eight countries have been cited for extensive religious freedom violations in the past. Kerry's comments emphasized the spirit of persecution these countries' governments have nurtured or, at the very least, allowed to persist.

"North Korea stands out again in this year's report for its absolute and brutal repression of religious activity. Members of religious minorities are ripped from their families and isolated in political prison camps," Kerry said.

Religious minorities are constantly at risk in countries that closely regulate the practice of religion — countries that can include U.S. allies and foes alike. "Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan put severe restrictions on members of religious groups that did not conform to the state-approved religion(s), while in China, Cuba, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, religious activity was only lawful if explicitly authorized by the state," the report noted.

Updating the list of countries of particular concern is an important aspect of the annual religious freedom report, but naming problematic countries isn't the same thing as taking steps to end the violence, Kerry said.

"This effort isn't about naming countries to lists in order to make us feel somehow that we've spoken the truth. I want our CPC designations to be grounded in plans, action that help to change the reality on the ground and actually help people," said Kerry.

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