Report: Millions forced from their homes due to religious beliefs

BY Larisa Epatko  July 28, 2014 at 3:02 PM EST
Muslim women prepare for their morning prayers ahead of an Eid celebration in Burgess Park on July 28 in London, England. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Muslim women prepare for their morning prayers ahead of an Eid celebration in Burgess Park on July 28 in London, England. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Last year saw the largest displacement of religious communities from their homes in recent memory, according to a new U.S. government report assessing countries’ religious freedoms in 2013.

The annual report issued by the State Department says, in some cases, entire neighborhoods are emptying because people feel threatened over their religious beliefs.

Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski said differences in religious beliefs don’t tend to flare up naturally among citizens. Rather, it’s political forces seeking to maintain power who try to exploit the countries’ religious differences for their own ends.

Some of the report’s findings show:

The report “makes some countries, even some of our friends, uncomfortable,” said Secretary of State John Kerry at Monday’s press briefing.

Problems in Pakistan include blasphemy laws that punish certain Muslim sects. Religious practices in Saudi Arabia are “severely restricted,” and its citizens have reported incidents of harassment and discrimination, according to the State Department’s report, now in its 16th year.

Meanwhile in Iraq, extremist groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, are punishing people for not adhering to their strict version of Sharia law.

Malinowski said even when dealing with non-state actors, such as extremist groups, the United States still holds the governments of their host countries to a “high degree of responsibility.” “Often governments through repressive practices enable the non-state groups to arise and flourish,” he said.

Freedom of religion is at the core of what it means to be American, said Secretary Kerry, but the U.S. isn’t trying to impose its views on other countries. “We’re asking for the universal value of tolerance.”

At the beginning of his remarks, Kerry gave an update on his efforts to broker a “humanitarian ceasefire” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said those efforts are continuing despite previous ceasefires falling apart, mostly due to confusion over how long they were supposed to last: four, 12 or 24 hours. Now, the U.S. government is working with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian factions, and other involved countries on clarifying the length of the ceasefire to give enough time for negotiations.

Also on Monday, President Obama nominated Rabbi David Nathan Saperstein as ambassador at large for international religious freedom. He is currently director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center.

In his new post, which requires Senate confirmation, Saperstein would head the Office of International Religious Freedom, which issues the annual report.