Tuesday May 21, 2013

WASHINGTON -- The State Department appointed a special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism Monday as a new report documents a global increase in incidents of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

Ira Forman, former CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council, was named special envoy as the State Department released its annual report on religious freedom around the world. Forman replaces Michael Kozak, who had served in an acting role after Hannah Rosenthal stepped down last year.

The 2012 report on religious freedom said expressions of anti-Semitism by government officials, religious leaders were of great concern, particularly in Venezuela, Egypt and Iran. At times, such statements led to desecration and violence, 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 said.

In Venezuela, government-controlled media published numerous anti-Semitic statements, particularly in regard to opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, a Catholic with Jewish ancestors, the report said.

In Egypt, anti-Semitic sentiment in the media was widespread and sometimes included Holocaust denial or glorification, the report said. The report cited an Oct. 19 incident in which Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi said "Amen" after a religious leader stated, "Oh Allah, destroy the Jews and their supporters."

The Iranian government regularly vilified Judaism, and vandals in Ukraine desecrated several Holocaust memorials, the report said. Vandals in Russia painted a swastika on a fence at a St. Petersburg synagogue and on a synagogue wall in Irkutsk.

"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 said.

Secretary of State John Kerry called the report a "clear-eyed, objective look at the state of religious freedom around the world," and said that in some cases, the report "does directly call out some of our close friends, as well as some countries with whom we seek stronger ties."

Kerry called the report an attempt to make progress around the world, "even though we know that it may cause some discomfort."

When countries undermine or attack religious freedom, "they not only unjustly threaten those whom they target, they also threaten their countries’ own stability," Kerry said at a news conference, calling religious freedom a basic human right. Kerry urged countries identified in the report to take action to safeguard religious freedoms.

Besides anti-Semitism, the report also notes frequent government restrictions on religion and policies that make it hard for citizens to choose or practice their faith.

"Governments that repress freedom of religion and freedom of expression typically create a climate of intolerance and impunity that emboldens those who foment hatred and violence within society," the report said, singling out China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Cuba, among other countries, for criticism.

The report also cites the use of blasphemy laws to harass, detain and abuse government critics, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. In Saudi Arabia, the report cited incidents in which activists were arrested and charged with apostasy and blasphemy, offenses that carry potential death penalties.

Kerry, who took office earlier this year after incidents highlighted in the report took place, thanked a "broad spectrum" of faith leaders, religious organizations and journalists who participated in the report, many at great personal risk.

"Governments around the globe continue to detain, imprison, torture and even kill people for their religious beliefs," Kerry said. "In too many places, governments are also failing to protect minorities from social discrimination and violence" against religious groups including Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians, Muslims and Sikhs.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the appointment of Forman as anti-Semitism envoy showed that U.S. resolve to fight anti-Semitism is serious and ongoing. The ADL is confident Forman "will play an important role in ensuring that the significant political will and diplomatic resources of the U.S. are brought to bear to urge foreign governments to take action" against anti-Semitism, Foxman said.