A U.S. State Department official said Wednesday that the single greatest emerging challenge to religious freedom was the escalation of terrorist acts by those who “falsely” use religion to justify their violence.
David Saperstein made the assessment as he presented the department’s 17th annual report on international religious freedom.
“The escalation of the violence perpetrated by nonstate actors, often in the name of their interpretation of religion, is a new phenomenon that has really escalated in the last 18 months,” said Saperstein, the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
The State Department singled out the Islamic State group for religious freedom abuses in Iraq and Syria.
It cited one instance in Mosul, Iraq, in which an insurgent ripped a 3-year-old girl from the arms of her Christian mother and forced the mother onto a bus under the threat of being slaughtered if she did not obey his command. The report said the mother was "never to know what became" of her daughter.
Saperstein said Islamic State militants have also targeted “non-Muslims, Shias and Sunnis alike,” often displacing people from their homes based on their religion or ethnicity.
He also cited Boko Haram for religious-based atrocities in Nigeria and neighboring countries, saying the group had killed “thousands” in attacks on both Christians and Muslims who opposed its ideology.
In a VOA interview, Saperstein said there has to be a “multifront” response to religious freedom infringements by nonstate actors.
“Part of it has to be empowering the forces in the countries where they are to be able to neutralize and push them out,” he said.
The report also cited abuses by Shi'ite militias in Iraq, the al-Nusra Front in Syria and the Lashkar i Jhangvi in Pakistan, as well as anti-Semitism in France and Germ any and discrimination against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Saperstein said some governments have used the “guise” of confronting terrorism or extremism to repress religious groups or impose broad restrictions on religious activities.
He cited Russia, saying Moscow has been using “vaguely formulated anti-extremism laws” to justify raids on homes and places of worship and the confiscation or banning of religious material.
On the other hand, Saperstein held up China as a country that is enacting reforms. He said that during a recent visit, he saw faith-based groups operating homeless shelters, soup kitchens and orphanages.
“We have urged the Chinese government to use that as a model of what can work nationwide,” he said.
Melani McAlister, professor of American studies and international affairs at George Washington University, said that while it is important for the U.S. to provide “updates” on religious freedom, she believes the findings are limited.
“I think religious freedom is sometimes a more limited way of speaking about things that we need to be speaking about in the broadest terms,” McAlister said. "It is not because people’s religion is being violated so much as their world basic human rights are being violated.”
The State Department said U.S. efforts to promote religious freedom include engaging with governments and religious communities to urge tolerance and offering humanitarian aid to groups targeted.
“No nation can fulfill its potential if its people are denied the right to practice, to hold, to modify and to openly profess their innermost beliefs,” said Secretary of State John Kerry.
He said he hoped the report would give governments an added incentive to honor the rights and dignity of citizens.
VOA's Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report.