U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks at the release of the 2014 Report on International Religious Freedom at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 14. (Photo: U.S. State Department)
Persecution of Christians and other religious minorities by non-state actors, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), was a primary emphasis in a newly published U.S. State Department report.
Released on Wednesday (Oct. 14), the annual International Religious Freedom Report offered a detailed analysis of religious freedom in nearly 200 nations and territories.
Four areas of concern were highlighted in an executive summary:
1. Lack of government protection for religious minorities facing persecution against non-state actors.
The Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia were specifically mentioned as regions where groups, such as ISIL and Boko Haram, persecuted religious traditions that did not adhere to their ideology.
Persecution methods included forced displacement, execution, enslavement, rape and forced conversion.
Too often in these regions "governments stood by, either unwilling or unable to act in response to the resulting death, injuries and displacement," the report stated.
The 2013 report noted a record number of religious communities displaced due to persecution, a trend that has continued in 2014 and is one of the contributing factors in the global refugee crisis.
2. Lack of government response to social tensions and discrimination.
"Governments have the obligation to protect the human rights of all their citizens and should promote an environment of tolerance and non-discrimination," the report emphasized.
Burma (Myanmar), Nigeria, Pakistan, separatist-controlled portions of Ukraine, Sri Lanka and Syria were listed as locations where the government failed to uphold this responsibility.
3. Government-led restrictions on religious freedom.
Noted in this section were blasphemy laws in Pakistan aimed at religious minorities (with several cases of Christian persecution cited), a Sudanese court initially sentencing a woman to death for marrying a Christian (the conviction was eventually overturned), the detention of "several hundred Baha'is, Christians, Sufi and Sunni Muslims, Yarsanis and Shia Muslims professing unapproved doctrine" in Iran, and China's sanctions on Christian churches.
Also highlighted in the report were the "Protection of Religious and Race Laws" passed in Burma (Myanmar) that placed restrictions on religious conversion and interfaith marriage.
4. Government justification of religious restrictions under the guise of combating terrorism.
"In numerous authoritarian countries around the world, regimes have co-opted the language of counter-terrorism and countering violent extremisms as a means to neutralize political opposition seen as emanating from peaceful religious individuals or groups," the report explained.
These restrictions included labeling groups "extremist" to justify controlling sermon content in mosques, banning certain Islamic religious groups from meeting, and detaining members of others (some of whom died while imprisoned).
The report did contain several positive developments, including a new Egyptian constitution that more adequately protects human rights and religious freedom, as well as an improved status for Coptic Christians who have long suffered abuse for their faith.
The growing global condemnation of anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia and other expressions of religious intolerance were also highlighted.
"The message at the heart of this report," said Secretary of State John Kerry during a press conference announcing the report's release, "is that countries benefit when their citizens fully enjoy the rights to which they are entitled."
"No nation can fulfill its potential if its people are denied the right to practice, to hold, to modify, to openly profess their innermost religious belief," he continued. "I should emphasize that the concept of religious freedom extends way beyond mere tolerance. It is a concept grounded in respect for the rights and beliefs of others."
An executive summary is available here, along with detailed reports on specific nations.