Millions displaced by religious violence last year, Kerry says

US Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks while releasing the 2013 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom July 28, 2014, at the US State Department in Washington, DC. Kerry on Monday said that international efforts to agree a truce between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza must lead to the disarmament of Hamas. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Millions of people were forced from their homes because of their religious beliefs last year, the U.S. government said Monday, citing the devastating impact of conflicts in Syria, Iraq and the Central African Republic.

Secretary of State John Kerry called the displacement of families and devastation of communities from sectarian violence a troubling trend in the world, as he launched the State Department 2013 report on religious freedom.

"Freedom of religion is at the core of who we are as Americans," Kerry said, calling the report a "clear-eyed, objective look" at religious freedoms in a way that can make even American allies "uncomfortable."

The report said that in much of the Middle East, the Christian presence is becoming "a shadow of its former self." Hundreds of thousands of minority Christians have fled Syria after three years of civil war.

It also highlighted more than one million people displaced in the Central African Republic during 2013, amid an upsurge in Christian-Muslim violence. In Southeast Asia, the spread of anti-Muslim violence spread from Myanmar's volatile west to central Meikhtila, with up to 100 deaths and 12,000 displaced.

Kerry further cited the "savagery and incredible brutality" by the al-Qaida-inspired militant group active in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, saying it had slaughtered Shiite Muslims and forcibly converted Christians under threat of death.

The report, released annually, reviews how religious freedoms are respected and violated in almost 200 countries and territories.

Kerry said 75 percent of the world's people lives in countries that don't respect religious freedom. He said North Korea's authoritarian government stood out for its "brutal repression" of religious activities, with people from religious minorities isolated in political prison camps and individuals reportedly arrested for just carrying a Bible.

The U.S. added Turkmenistan to its list of "countries of particular concern" which can face U.S. sanctions. Kerry said people in that Central Asian country have been detained, beaten and tortured because of their religious beliefs, and prohibited from wearing religious attire in public places.

Countries already on the list are Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.

The report also drew attention to anti-Semitism throughout Europe, describing it as "a fact of life" on Internet fora and in soccer stadiums, and leading many Jews to conceal their religious identity.

On Monday, President Barack Obama nominated Rabbi David Nathan Saperstein as ambassador at large for international religious freedom. He is an adjunct professor at Washington's Georgetown University and director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, an advocacy group active on civil rights issues. Kerry said that Saperstein has worked to engage American Muslim communities and has partnered with various faith networks.

Kerry asserted that the religious freedom report is not just about "naming countries to lists" but will instead be "grounded in plans" and actions that would "actually help people."

When asked about whether economic sanctions would be used against countries that were found to violate religious freedoms, Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski said after Kerry's address that sanctions are "an appropriate tool in some cases."

In his statements, Kerry also provided an update on U.S. diplomatic efforts to establish a humanitarian cease-fire between Israel and Palestine. Saying that the people on both sides of the conflict "deserve peace," Kerry said the U.S. would continue to work toward a cease-fire. He said that although the discussions "succeeded" in establishing a 24-hour cease-fire, "regrettably there were misunderstandings" as to the agreement.

Any resolution of the conflict, he said, must lead to a "disarmament of Hamas."

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