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U.S. Report Says IS, Non-State Groups Imperil Religious Liberties Around the Globe

Yazidi Christians, who were forced to flee from advancing Islamic State militants, wait in line for humanitarian aid at a refugee camp in Zakho. (file photo)

The United States says the extremist group Islamic State (IS) continues to damage religious freedom by targeting members of multiple religions and ethnicities for rape, kidnapping, enslavement, and death.

The U.S. State Department said in its annual International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, published on August 15, that such non-state groups imperiled religious liberties not only in the Middle East, Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa, but also in areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed separatists.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in the report that the IS group is “clearly responsible for genocide” against Yezidis, Christians, and Shi’a in areas it controlled.

“ISIS is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups, and in some cases against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities,” Tillerson added, using another acronym for the IS group.

The report noted that in Russia and Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, members of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, have suffered numerous attacks on their freedom to worship.

“[Russian] government authorities continued to detain and fine members of minority religious groups and minority religious organizations for alleged extremism,” the report said. “The government also fined and issued deportation orders for a number of U.S. citizens for engaging in religious activity, in particular volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.”

The Russian Supreme Court ruled in April that the Jehovah's Witnesses were an extremist organization and prohibited them from operating in the country. The court upheld the ruling on appeal in July.

Freedom of religion is formally guaranteed in Russia but legislation sets out Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country's four traditional religions, and smaller denominations frequently face discrimination.

Despite this guarantee, the State Department report said that the Russian government “continued to grant privileges to the [Russian Orthodox Church] not accorded to any other church or religious association, including the right to review draft legislation and greater access to public institutions.”

The report also chided Iran’s government for the continued use of anti-Semitic and anti-Baha’i rhetoric in official statements, as well as for promoting Holocaust denial.

Shi’ite religious leaders who did not support government policies “reportedly continued to face intimidation and arrest,” according to the report.

It said the Iranian government “continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest” Baha’is, Christians, Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities, and “regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce the prohibition on proselytizing.”

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran, so the government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to write the report, it noted.