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U.S. Report: Nonstate Actors Inflict 'Significant Damage' On Global Religious Freedoms

A boy stands amidst Muslims performing the Eid al-Adha prayer in Karachi on September 25.
A boy stands amidst Muslims performing the Eid al-Adha prayer in Karachi on September 25.

WASHINGTON -- The United States says rebel and terrorist organizations like the Islamic State (IS) extremist group caused "significant damage" to religious freedoms and committed "by far some of the most egregious human rights abuses" across the globe in 2014.

The U.S. State Department says in its annual International Religious Freedom Report for 2014 that such nonstate groups imperiled religious liberties not only in the Middle East, Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa, but also in areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

"The heart of this report is that countries benefit when their citizens fully enjoy the rights to which they are entitled," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told an October 14 briefing timed with the release of the report.

"This is not a hopeful theory. This is a proven reality," he said. "No nation can fulfill its potential if its people are denied the right to practice, to hold, to modify, to openly profess their innermost beliefs."

The report says that IS militants in Syria and Iraq last year carried out mass executions "and kidnapped, sold, enslaved, raped, and/or forcibly converted thousands of women and children" who opposed the group's "religious dogma."

It cites the precipitous decline in the security situation in Iraq and the control of large swaths of Syrian territory by nonstate groups like the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front as exacerbating the dire state of religious freedoms in region.

In eastern Ukraine, meanwhile, Russian-backed rebels that control parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions "have kidnapped, beaten, and threatened Protestants, Catholics, and members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, as well as participated in anti-Semitic acts," the report says.

Fighting between Kyiv's forces and the separatists in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 7,900 people since April 2014, though a cease-fire has largely held since early September.

The report also says religious minorities in Crimea "have been subjected to harassment, intimidation, detentions, and beatings" since Russia's 2014 forcible annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula, which was condemned by more than 100 countries in a vote at the UN General Assembly.

Members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and Muslim Tatars have been the primary targets of these abuses in Crimea since the Russian takeover, the report says.

In Pakistan, groups designated by Washington as terrorist organizations used attacks and threats of violence to intimidate religious groups, while attacks on religious gatherings and leaders resulted in hundreds of deaths in 2014, the report says.

It also accuses Pakistani authorities of often failing to investigate and prosecute those who commit religiously motivated violence.

The report also calls anti-Semitism "a major problem around the globe," citing an increase in anti-Semitic incidents recorded in numerous countries in 2014, including a "wave of anti-Israeli sentiments that crossed the line into anti-Semitism" in France and Germany during the summer of 2014.

"The surge in anti-Semitism in Western Europe during 2014 left many pondering the viability of Jewish communities in some countries," the report says.

It also expresses concern about what it calls the "increasing use" of combatting terrorism as a pretext to restrict religious freedoms.

The report specifically accuses Central Asian governments of cracking down on "peaceful religious activities" under the guise of battling extremism.

In Uzbekistan, the government deemed Islamic groups extremist without referencing their purported violent activities, and members of several of these groups were detained and, according to their families, died while in custody, the report says.

In Tajikistan, meanwhile, individuals linked to religious groups categorized as extremist also continued to face arrests unconnected to suspected violent activities, according to the report.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights earlier this month slammed the Tajik government for its crackdown on the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, whose members have faced a string of arrests in what rights groups call a politically motivated campaign.

"As much as we oppose the actions of terrorists, we do not agree with the governments that use those crimes as a pretext for prohibiting religious activities that are in fact nonviolent and legitimate," Kerry told the October 14 briefing in Washington.

"Those who misuse the terms terrorist and extremist are not fooling anybody, and trying to dictate an artificial conformity of religious expression is not a prescription for harmony, it is a prescription for frustration, anger and rebellion," he added.

The International Religious Freedom Report is released annually by the State Department in an effort to attract global attention to the problem of repression of religious freedom.

"The world has learned through very hard experience that religious pluralism encourages and enables contributions from all, while religious discrimination is the source of conflicts that endangers all," Kerry said.