WASHINGTON (AFP) - Conflicts and repression around the world last year triggered the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory, the United States said on Monday, revealing millions had fled their homes.
"In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs," Washington said, in its annual International Religious Freedom Report.
"Out of fear or by force, entire neighbourhoods are emptying of residents."
From the Middle East to Asia and stretching into parts of Africa and Europe, "communities are disappearing from their traditional and historic homes," it said, adding that in "conflict zones" displacements were becoming "a pernicious norm".
The 2013 report, prepared by the State Department, singled out Syria where it warned that, after three years of civil war, "the Christian presence is becoming a shadow of its former self."
In Homs, the Christian population had fallen to 1,000 from 160,0000.
"It seems to us that in recent memory, we've not seen the numbers of people pushed from their homes in conflicts that have a religious or sectarian dimension," Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski said as he unveiled the report, highlighting the situation in Syria and Iraq.
Amid Egypt's political upheavals as the military ousted Islamist president Mohamed Mursi and moved against his Muslim Brotherhood, Christian churches, homes and businesses were looted and torched.
"When 75 per cent of the world's population still lives in countries that don't respect religious freedoms, let me tell you, we have a long journey ahead of us," US Secretary of State John Kerry said as he unveiled the document.
A million people fled the fighting in the Central African Republic last year, where at least 700 people were killed in sectarian violence, and in Myanmar, mob-violence in Meikhtila province caused 100 deaths and over 140,000 people were displaced.
"North Korea again stood out for its absolute prohibition of religious organisations and harsh punishments for any unauthorised religious activities," it said, while countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan put severe restrictions on people following religious groups "that did not conform to the state-approved religion."
The report deals with events in 2013 and was written before thousands of Christians and other minorities had fled the northern Iraqi city of Mosul amid last month's jihadist onslaught led by Islamic State insurgents.
But the State Department still found that there were "reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice" in Iraq last year.
"When governments choose not to combat discrimination on the basis of religion and intolerance, it breeds an environment in which intolerant and violent groups are emboldened," it warned.
In China, "the government's respect for and protection of the right to religious freedom fell well short of its international human rights commitments."
Beijing "prosecuted family members of self-immolators, imprisoned and tortured Falun Gong practitioners, continued its harassment of members of house churches and unregistered Catholic bishops and priests, and sought the forcible return of ethnic Uighurs who were seeking asylum overseas."
Chinese officials also detained students, monks and laypeople in Tibetan areas and there were reports of the torture of Muslim Uighurs.
Militants in Pakistan killed more than 400 Shi'ite Muslims in sectarian attacks in 2013, and more than 80 Christians died in a church bombing, while the authorities continued to enforce blasphemy laws.
Restrictive laws against "extremism" were also used in Russia to target the activities of minority religious groups, and continued "to grant the Russian Orthodox Church a privileged position".
"Rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in parts of Europe demonstrated that intolerance is not limited to countries in active conflict," the report stressed, adding that many Jewish communities in some European countries were considering emigrating.
"We are not arrogantly telling people what to believe," Mr Kerry insisted. "We're not telling people how they have to live every day. We're asking for the universal value of tolerance, of the ability of people to have a respect for their own individuality and their own choices.
"The Abrahamic faiths - Christianity, Judaism, and Islam - have to find new meaning in the old notion of our shared descent."