Police are deployed in Meiktila, Burma in March 2013, amid Buddhist-Muslim violence (Photo: Getty)
A new report from the U.S. State Department has found that government-sanctioned discrimination against Muslims and Jews is on the rise in some parts of the world - and that the world has experienced a general decline in religious freedom over the past year.
The latest International Religious Freedom Report points to an increase in anti-Islamic policies and actions by governments in Europe and Asia, and a rise in anti-Semitism at the national level in countries including Venezuela, Egypt and Iran.
Some findings in the report: Muslims face new restrictions in countries like Belgium, where face-covering religious attire has been banned in the classroom. Mangalore, India has also banned headscarves in schools.
Another section of the report focuses on violence and discrimination against Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic group in Burma that the government does not recognize as citizens. The Rohingya people are considered one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
The president of Burma, Thein Sein, was meeting with U.S. president Obama in the White House as the report was released.
Islamic minorities are also being targeted in some majority Muslim countries, the report found, including violence against Shia and Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, the arrest of Sunni Muslims in Iran, and discrimination against non-Sunni Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, according to the BBC.
The report highlights the situation in Nigeria, where Islamic militants Boko Haram have "violently murdered hundreds of Christians and Muslims" - according to an AP count, the group killed more than 620 in the first half of 2012 alone, and some estimates suggest the group is responsible for between 3,000 and 10,000 deaths since its founding in 2001.
Some religious leaders in the country have claimed that Boko Haram "sought to incite hostilities between Muslims and Christians and to spark reprisals" with its actions.
But government reprisals against Boko Haram are also being scrutinized. The New York Times reports that Nigeria has stepped up its campaign against the militant group, with President Goodluck Jonathan declaring a state of emergency in the country's northeast last week.
A Nigerian soldier stands beside a burned down house after clashes between Boko Haram and military forces on April 25, 2013 (Photo: Getty)
In the past, the Times says, the country's military and police forces have participated in "large-scale civilian killings" during their campaign against the Islamic militant group.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says the U.S. "condemns Boko Haram's campaign of terror," but is also "deeply concerned by credible allegations that Nigerian security forces are committing gross human rights violations, which, in turn, only escalate the violence and fuel extremism."
As well as an increase in anti-Islamic policies worldwide, the State Department sees rising anti-Semitism in some parts of the world: "Holocaust denial and glorification remained troubling themes, and opposition to Israeli policy at times was used to promote or justify blatant anti-Semitism," the report says.
"When political leaders condoned anti-Semitism, it set the tone for its persistence and growth in countries around the world."
Egypt, Venezuela and Iran were all singled out in the report, which also described anti-Semitic actions or commentary in France, Greece, Hungary, Russia and Ukraine.
In Egypt, anti-Semitic media reports sometimes include Holocaust denial or glorification. On October 19, 2012, Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi said "amen" after a religious leader called on Allah to "destroy the Jews and their supporters."
Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi at the UN, September 26, 2012
Venezuela's government-controlled media has also published anti-Semitic statements, the report finds, including attacking a Catholic presidential candidate because of his Jewish ancestry.
"Even well into the 21st Century, traditional forms of anti-Semitism, such as conspiracy theories, use of the discredited myth of 'blood libel' and cartoons demonizing Jews continued to flourish," the report says.
Secretary of State Kerry introduced the International Religious Freedom Report, and announced the appointment of a new special envoy on anti-Semitism, Ira N. Forman, a former director of the U.S. National Jewish Democratic Council. He will replace Michael Kozak in the role, which was created in 2004.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the State Dept. in Washington, May 20, 2013 (Photo: Getty)
As well as documenting rising intolerance toward Jews and Muslims, the report found a rise in apostasy laws - which forbid people from renouncing their religion - and blasphemy laws around the world.
Laws against blasphemy and apostasy are often put in place to target other religions, the report says, sometimes selectively.
"These laws are frequently used to repress dissent, to harass political opponents and to settle personal vendettas," Kerry said at the report's release.
Kerry also acknowledged that America's record on religious freedom is imperfect. But his main message was that religious freedom is a "universal value."
"The freedom to profess and practise one's faith - to believe or not to believe, or to change one's beliefs - that is a birthright of every human being," Kerry said.
"I urge all countries, especially those identified in this report, to take action now to safeguard this fundamental freedom."