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State Department Report Warns Of Global Threat To Religious Diversity

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Religious diversity is under threat in the Middle East and in other parts of the world. That's one of the conclusions of this year's State Department report on religious freedom. NPR's Michele Kelemen says the report recounts the rise of ISIS and its attacks on Christians and other minorities.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The State Department report opens with a story of Christians in Iraq given a choice to convert, pay ruinous taxes or die. And it describes one case in which ISIS militants grabbed a 3-year-old girl from her mother before the family could flee. Secretary of State John Kerry says non-state actors like ISIS or Boko Haram in Nigeria are now the main threat to religious minorities.

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JOHN KERRY: Entire populations of religious minority groups have been targeted for killing. Terrified young girls have been separated out by religion and sold into slavery.

KELEMEN: And he says the U.S. will oppose these groups with far more than just words of condemnation in this annual State Department report, which is mandated by Congress. Some religious leaders and scholars have written to President Obama urging him to call the ISIS attacks on Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities a genocide. The State Department's Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom David Saperstein doesn't go that far. But he says ISIS is trying to eviscerate minorities, and the U.S. is working with the Iraqi government to help these communities.

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DAVID SAPERSTEIN: There's been a Christian community there for 1,600 years. Across the Nineveh Plain, church bells pealed for 1,600 years. Today, they are silent. We are not going to rest until people have a right to live out their religious lives back in their home communities in accordance with their conscience.

KELEMEN: The administration now has a special envoy working on just this issue, and Saperstein describes the U.S. response as robust. Still, he says, he understands why these communities may feel abandoned, not just in Iraq but also in Syria.

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SAPERSTEIN: They're in the middle of a horrific a war situation. Every day their lives can be imperiled. There's no magic button that can fix this.

KELEMEN: The State Department report says that while Bashar al-Assad has tried to portray himself as the only one who can protect Syria's religious minorities, he's allowed ISIS to flourish in the country. And Saperstein says the U.S. is trying to remind Russia of that as Moscow intervenes to prop up Assad's regime. Michele Keleman, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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