WASHINGTON -- Countries around the world, including allies of the United States, have used laws on blasphemy and apostasy to suppress political opponents, the State Department said on Monday in an annual report chronicling a grim decline in religious freedom that has resulted in rising bigotry and sectarian violence.
The report singled out eight countries for particularly egregious and systemic repression of religious rights: China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. In China, the report said, religious freedoms declined in the last year, highlighted by punitive actions against Christians, Muslims and Buddhists in Tibet, where 82 monks, nuns or laypeople killed themselves in acts of self-immolation last year.
Proliferating laws against blasphemy or apostasy, including in several countries undergoing political transitions after the Arab spring, are not protecting religions, as officials often claim, but rather targeting other faiths, at times selectively.
"These laws are frequently used to repress dissent, to harass political opponents and to settle personal vendettas," Secretary of State John Kerry said in remarks at the State Department when introducing the report, which Congress has mandated for the past 15 years.
He did not identify specific countries, but the report did in detail. It noted arrests in Saudi Arabia, which prohibits all faiths except Islam, and in Iran, where adherents of Bahaism faced arbitrary arrests and imprisonment. In Pakistan, blasphemy laws "have been abused to settle personal disputes and silence legitimate political discourse," the report said. It cited the widely publicized case of Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl who faced blasphemy charges last year that were dropped only after national and international protests.
Another troubling new trend the report cited was growing religious intolerance in countries that have experienced at least nominally democratic transitions. Egypt, Tunisia and Libya -- all countries that have overthrown autocratic governments with American support since 2011 -- adopted restrictive new laws or carried out prosecutions against minority faiths.
Egypt's new Constitution prohibits "undermining or subjecting to prejudice all messengers and prophets" of Islam, but does not extend explicit protections to Christianity or Judaism. Defamation against all three faiths was prohibited by statute under the rule of Hosni Mubarak. Egypt's new government, dominated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, also has done little to prosecute those involved in religious violence against Christians, creating an atmosphere of impunity that the report noted in many countries facing strife among different believers.
The report is an annual exercise to highlight the priority of religious freedom in American foreign policy. Freedom of religion is not "an American invention," Mr. Kerry said, but rather a "universal value."
"And when necessary, yes, it does directly call out some of our close friends, as well as some countries with whom we seek stronger ties, and it does so in order to try to make progress, even though we know it may cause some discomfort," Mr. Kerry said, referring to the report. "But when countries undermine or attack religious freedom, they not only unjustly threaten those whom they target. They also threaten their countries' own stability."
The report also warned of growing sectarian conflict, particularly between Sunnis and Shiites, in an arc from Syria to Iraq to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, a close American ally whose Shiite majority has chafed under the Sunni-dominated government of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
And the report noted an increase in anti-Semitism in Europe and the Middle East. In his remarks, Mr. Kerry announced the appointment of a new special envoy on the issue, Ira N. Forman, a former director of the National Jewish Democratic Council who also served as the director of Jewish outreach in President Obama's re-election campaign.
"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 said. "When political leaders condoned anti-Semitism, it set the tone for its persistence and growth in countries around the world."
The report singled out Egypt, Iran and Venezuela, but also cited anti-Semitic commentary, vandalism or violence last year in France, Greece, Hungary, Russia and Ukraine. At the same time, Israel also came under criticism for "abuses of religious freedom, including arrests and detentions" and "numerous restrictions that affected minority groups," including non-Orthodox Jews, women seeking greater rights to worship and Muslims.
The report also chronicled a rise in anti-Muslim attitudes in Europe that have shaped government policies. "Government restrictions, which often coincided with societal animosity, resulted in anti-Muslim actions that affected everyday life for numerous believers," the report said. "The impact ranged from education, to employment, to personal safety within communities."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.