WASHINGTON — The displacement of people around the globe because of their religious beliefs in 2013 rose to levels unseen in years, the State Department reported.
Millions of Christians, Muslim and Hindus as well as people of other faiths were displaced by violence or threats because of their religious practice or for not holding any religious belief, said the 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom released July 28.
It cited the civil war in Syria and sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic for displacing millions of people.
Throughout the Middle East, according to the report, the presence of Christians is “becoming a shadow of its former self.”
The report found little improvement in the countries described as most likely to restrict religious rights, particularly North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan. In Bahrain, Bangladesh, Myanmar (Burma), Egypt, Eritrea, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Turkmenistan minority religious communities faced sporadic incidents of sectarian violence, the report said.
“I emphasize we are not arrogantly telling people what to believe,” said Secretary of State John Kerry in introducing the report. “We’re not telling people how they have to live every day. We’re asking for the universal value of tolerance, of the ability of people to have a respect for their own individuality and their own choices.”
Calling religious freedom a “universal value,” Kerry equated religious practice with human freedom.
Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, joined Kerry at the podium, saying that in most cases restrictions on religious practice rarely resulted from religious differences among ordinary people.
“There is usually the additional factor of cynical calculations by political forces seeking to maintain power or exploit religious differences for political ends,” Malinowski said. “Authoritarian governments, for example, often cannot tolerate independent communities of conscience beyond state control.”
Malinowski specifically cited government restrictions on religious communities in China, Sudan, Tajikistan, Tibet and Vietnam. Tajikistan is a new entry to the list of what the report categorizes as countries of particular concern.
In the way of other actions by world governments, Kerry said Russia has used a series of laws “against what they call extremism to justify crude measures against people of faith.”
Reports of violence against religious minorities were not limited to the developing world. Malinowski said his office was concerned by an 11 percent increase in anti-Muslim incidents as well as recent physical assaults against Jews in France. Despite the incidents, he commended the French government for continuing to promote interfaith understanding and oppose racist, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic acts.
While Malinowski said the number of people displaced in 2013 was the highest in years, he declined to specifically say how many people were forced to move from their communities.
“We made that statement at the front of the report because we look at places like Iraq now, Syria, of course, over the last couple of years, Central African Republic, it seems to us that in recent memory we’ve not seen the numbers of people pushed from their homes in conflicts that a religious or sectarian dimension,” he said.
The report included summaries of smaller-scale incidents in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Eritrea that forced thousands of people to flee from their communities in the face of violent attacks that included bombings and beatings, imprisonment, threats to personal safety and harassment.
Malinowski left open the possibility of economic sanctions on countries where religious freedom is restricted, saying “it’s an appropriate tool in some cases.”
“The test for me, for us, is what’s going to be effective in any particular case, and that’s a case-by-case judgment,” he said.
The report included brief descriptions of actions that protected minority religious communities also were included in the report. In particular the report pointed to Muslims stepping up to protect churches from attacks in Pakistan and Egypt and to the work of orthodox Jews in Great Britain who formed a neighborhood watch team to assist Muslim leaders to ensure that members had safe access to mosques.