State Department religious freedom report focuses on terror groups

A man holds an anti-Taliban sign along with others during a peace rally in Lahore on Jan. 5, 2015. (RNS Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mohsin)

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WASHINGTON (RNS)—Secretary of State John Kerry released the annual International Religious Freedom Report and called terror groups the world’s greatest threat to religious freedom.

The report, considered the most comprehensive accounting of religious freedom violations worldwide, covers nearly 200 countries and territories. But nonstate actors—terrorist groups—are now “the principal persecutors and preventers of religious tolerance and practice,” Kerry said at a State Department press conference.

kerry religious freedom425Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the rollout of the 2014 Report on International Religious Freedom. (State Department Image)He called out these groups by name, topping the list with the Islamic State but referring to it as “Daesh,” a term with derogatory undertones used by other governments and many Arabs. Kerry continued by listing similarly violent groups—al-Qaida, al-Shabab and Boko Haram.

“All have been guilty of vicious acts of unprovoked violence,” Kerry said, describing the groups’ murder and enslavement of the innocent. “Children have been among the victims.”

Kerry released the report alongside David Saperstein, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, who has been on the job for 10 months and highlighted other worrisome trends.

Blasphemy and apostasy laws

Saperstein decried blasphemy laws and apostasy laws in countries including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan.

“The United States uniformly opposes such laws, which are used to oppress those whose religious beliefs happen to offend the majority,” Saperstein said. “Such laws are inconsistent with international human rights and fundamental freedoms, and we will continue to call for their universal repeal.”

He also pointed to governments that abuse their citizens “for simply exercising their faith or identifying with a religious community.”

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Prisoners of conscience

“We see this dramatized by the plight of countless numbers of prisoners of conscience,” he said, and spoke of his travels to Vietnam, where he “saw firsthand how religious groups are forced to undergo onerous and arbitrary registration process to legally operate.”

The report this year did not include the listing of Countries of Particular Concern, but that list will be released soon, a State Department spokesman announced. The countries currently on the list are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

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