WASHINGTON (AFP) — Conflicts and repression around the world in 2013 triggered the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory, a US report said Monday, revealing millions had fled their homes.
“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 United States said in its annual International Religious Freedom Report.
“Out of fear or by force, entire neighborhoods are emptying of residents.”
From the Middle East to Asia and stretching into parts of Africa and Europe, “communities are disappearing from their traditional and historic homes and dispersing across the geographic map. In conflict zones, in particular, this mass displacement has become a pernicious norm.”
The 2013 report, prepared by the State Department, singled out Syria where it warned that after three years of civil war against President Bashar Assad “the Christian presence is becoming a shadow of its former self.”
“In the city of Homs the number of Christians dwindled to as few as 1,000 from approximately 160,000 prior to the conflict.”
Amid Egypt’s political upheavals as the military ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, in June, and moved against his Muslim Brotherhood, Christian churches, homes and businesses were looted and torched.
“Islamist-led mobs carried out acts of violence, intimidation, compelled expulsions, and punishment against Christians, especially in Upper Egypt,” the report said.
But there were also attacks on Shiites led by Salafist after “months of government and official Islamic anti-Shiite rhetoric.”
A million people fled the fighting in the Central African Republic last year, where at least 700 people were killed in sectarian violence, and in Myanmar mob-violence in Meikhtila province caused 100 deaths and over 140,000 people were displaced.
“North Korea again stood out for its absolute prohibition of religious organizations and harsh punishments for any unauthorized religious activities,” it said, while countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan put severe restrictions on people following religious groups “that did not conform to the state-approved religion.”
Governments must fight intolerance
The report deals with events in 2013 and was written before thousands of Christians and other minorities had fled the Iraqi northern city of Mosul amid last month’s jihadist onslaught led by Islamic State insurgents.
But the State Department still found that last year in Iraq there were “reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.”
“When governments choose not to combat discrimination on the basis of religion and intolerance, it breeds an environment in which intolerant and violent groups are emboldened,” it warned.
In China, “the government’s respect for and protection of the right to religious freedom fell well short of its international human rights commitments.”
Beijing “prosecuted family members of self-immolators, imprisoned and tortured Falun Gong practitioners, continued its harassment of members of house churches and unregistered Catholic bishops and priests, and sought the forcible return of ethnic Uighurs who were seeking asylum overseas.”
Chinese officials also detained students, monks and laypeople in Tibetan areas and there were reports of the torture of Muslim Uighurs.
Militants in Pakistan killed more than 400 Shiite Muslims in 2013 in sectarian attacks, and more than 80 Christians died in a church bombing, while the authorities continued to enforce blasphemy laws.
Restrictive laws against “extremism” were also used in Russia to target the activities of minority religious groups, and continued “to grant the Russian Orthodox Church a privileged position.”
“Rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in parts of Europe demonstrated that intolerance is not limited to countries in active conflict,” the report stressed, adding that many Jewish communities in some European countries were considering emigrating.
But the report also noted that amid “the darkness of religious strife lay inspiring and unheralded acts of interfaith solidarity.”
Following the Peshawar church bombing “resilient Muslim community members formed human chains around churches during services in a show of solidarity and to stand up against senseless violence.
“In Egypt, Muslim men stood in front of a Catholic church to protect the congregation from attacks. And after an increase of mosque attacks in the United Kingdom, a local orthodox Jewish neighborhood watch team began assisting Muslim leaders to ensure safe access to mosques and alert them to possible attacks.”