UNITED NATIONS -- Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the world on the first international day to remember the victims of religious persecution to "step up to stamp out anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred, the persecution of Christians and other religious groups."
The U.N. chief on Thursday cited a rise in attacks against individuals and groups around the world, saying: "Jews have been murdered in synagogues, their gravestones defaced with swastikas; Muslims gunned down in mosques, their religious sites vandalized; Christians killed at prayer, their churches torched."
Guterres said the first International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion and Belief was an opportunity to show support by doing "all in our power to prevent such attacks and demanding that those responsible are held accountable."
He urged people everywhere to resist and reject those who "falsely and maliciously invoke religion to build misconceptions, fuel division and spread fear and hatred."
Fifteen U.N. human rights experts marked the day with a call on all countries to ensure that religions and beliefs are not used to violate human rights — and to combat religious extremism.
The independent experts appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council said in a joint statement that "the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief is misunderstood as protecting religions and belief instead of the people with the beliefs and those without."
The experts, on issues ranging from freedom of religion to minorities to violence against women, emphasized the words of the General Assembly resolution sponsored by Poland and adopted in June that established the international day on Aug. 22. It said that "terrorism and violent extremism in all its forms and manifestations cannot and should not be associated with any religion, nationality, civilization or ethnic group."
At an informal U.N. Security Council meeting marking the day, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said by video from Geneva that "despite much progress, I am deeply alarmed by the worldwide rise of xenophobia, racism, religious intolerance that is menacing to our lives" as well as to democracy, social instability and peace.
"If we can't accept diversity ... there shall be no peace in the world," she said.
Bachelet said a key to trying to combat religious persecution is to look for "early warning signs" like discrimination and words of intolerance and take early action.
Samuel Brownback, the U.S. ambassador at large for religious freedom, told the council that according to the Pew Forum, "83% of the global community live in countries with high or very high restrictions on the free practice of faith — and it's getting worse, not better."
He pointed to "the horrific actions of violence and ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims" in Myanmar, persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan "either at the hands of non-state actors or through discriminatory laws and policies," Boko Haram's attacks on mosques and churches in Nigeria, and the Islamic State extremist group's targeting of Iraq's Yazidis, Christians and Shiite Turkmen "for atrocity crimes."
Brownback said the United States is "deeply concerned" about China's "escalating, widespread and undue restrictions" on religious groups, including Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants and Falun Gong.
"We call on the Chinese government to end its war on faith and to respect religious freedom for all," he said.
The United States also strongly opposes Iran's "severe violations and abuses of religious freedom," including the death penalty for blasphemy, apostasy from Islam and proselytizing Muslims, and discrimination and harassment of unrecognized minorities such as the Bahai'is and Christian converts.
British Minister of State Lord Tariq Ahmad, a special envoy on religious freedom, said religious minorities face challenges ranging from discrimination to armed conflicts, mass murders and violent assaults.
"The heinous attacks this year on places of worship from the Philippines to Burkino Faso, New Zealand to Sri Lanka, have reminded us all that the fundamental human right of freedom of religion or belief is increasingly under threat," he told the council. "As we commemorate the victims of such acts of violence, we demonstrate our commitment to supporting research to change people's lives and help build a world free of religious intolerance and hatred."