Worldwide increase in religious communities fleeing persecution

(AP)
Pakistani Christians during a protest to condemn a suicide bombing on a church, in Peshawar, Pakistan - the deadliest attack ever in the country against members of the Christian faith.

In 2013 the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory, according to the US State Department International Religious Freedom Report released on Monday.

The report highlighted numerous religious conflicts and specific attacks, as well as governmental abuses of religious freedom taking place around the world.

"In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs," the report said.

It gave particular mention to the war in Syria, where "as in much of the Middle East, the Christian presence is becoming a shadow of its former self."

Sectarian violence in the Central African Republic, and anti-Muslim violence in Burma were also noted, as well as government-imposed restrictions in North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan.

Major incidents that were mentioned in the report included the bombing of a church in Peshawar, Pakistan, last September, in which 80 people were killed.

However, the report did acknowledge inspiring acts of inter-faith solidarity. Following the Peshawar attack, members from the Muslim community formed a human chain around churches during services. In Egypt, Muslims stood in front of a Catholic church to protect the congregation from attacks.

Secretary of State John Kerry has welcomed the report, saying that working on religious freedom is an important part of the United States' global diplomatic engagement.

"This report is a clear-eyed objective look at the state of religious freedom around the world, and when necessary, yes, it does directly shine a light in a way that makes some countries – even some of our friends – uncomfortable. But it does so in order to try to make progress," said Kerry.

The Secretary of State also announced countries of particular concern as a result of the report. These were Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

While most of the countries have been on the list since 2006, it is the first time that Turkmenistan has been listed.

The restriction on registration for religious groups and the limitations on importing religious literature were among the concerns in Turkmenistan.

There were also reports of torture of people who had been detained for religious reasons, including Jehovah's Witnesses, whose beliefs prevented them from complying with military service.

The report, which is in its 16th year, assesses each country on its government's protection of religious freedom as well as incidents of religious intolerance.

In the UK, there were 193 anti-Muslim incidents recorded by May 2013. There were also 529 reports of anti-Semitism, a decrease from the previous year.

The murder of Fusilier Drummer Lee Rigby in London on May 22 was also mentioned as an incident of suspected Islamist extremism.

On Monday the Obama administration also announced the nomination of Rabbi David Saperstein as America's first non-Christian Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom.

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