Religious Expression in a World of Trouble

A study released today by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life reports that more than 2.2 billion people, nearly a third of the world’s total population, live in countries where either government restrictions on religion or “social hostilities involving religion” rose substantially between mid-2006 and mid-2009. According to the study, only about 1 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where government restrictions or social hostilities declined. Restrictions on religion are particularly common in the 59 countries that prohibit blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion. According to Pew: "While such laws are sometimes promoted as a way to protect religion, in practice they often serve to punish religious minorities whose beliefs are deemed unorthodox or heretical." 

The report found that the Middle East-North Africa region had the largest proportion of countries in which government restrictions on religion increased —“with nearly a third of the region’s countries imposing greater restrictions.” According to the report, Egypt ranked very high (in the top 5 percent of all countries, as of mid-2009) on both government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion.

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But the Middle East was not the world’s only problem region on religious freedom. Europe, in fact, had the largest proportion of countries in which social hostilities related to religion were on the rise from mid-2006 to mid-2009: five of the ten countries in the world that had a substantial increase in social hostilities were in Europe: Bulgaria, Denmark, Russia, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Social hostilities involving religion have also been rising in Asia, particularly in China, Thailand and Vietnam.

The study, “Rising Restrictions on Religion,” also found the nations there were already hostile toward some religions or had the most restrictive government policies experienced the most substantial increase in an oppressive environment to religion. By contrast, nearly half of the countries that had substantial decreases in restrictions or hostilities already scored low. According to a Pew press release: “This suggests that there may be a gradual polarization taking place in which countries that are relatively high in religious restrictions are becoming more restrictive, while those that are relatively low are becoming less restrictive."

Other major findings include:

• Adherents of the world’s two largest religious groups, Christians and Muslims, who together comprise more than half of the global population, were harassed in the largest number of countries. Over the three-year period studied, incidents of either government or social harassment were reported against Christians in 130 countries (66 percent) and against Muslims in 117 countries (59 percent). Buddhists and Hindus, who together account for roughly one-fifth of the world’s population and who are more geographically concentrated than Christians or Muslims, faced harassment in fewer places; harassment was reported against Buddhists in 16 countries (8 percent) and against Hindus in 27 countries (14 percent).

• Restrictions on religious beliefs and practices rose between mid-2006 and mid-2009 in 23 of the world’s 198 countries (12 percent), decreased in 12 countries (6 percent) and remained essentially unchanged in 163 countries (82 percent).

• Among the world’s 25 most populous countries, which account for about 75 percent of the world’s total population, restrictions on religion substantially increased in eight countries and did not substantially decrease in any. In China, Nigeria, Russia, Thailand, the United Kingdom and Vietnam, the increases were due primarily to rising levels of social hostilities involving religion. In Egypt and France, the increases were mainly the result of government restrictions. The rest of the 25 most populous countries, including the United States, did not experience substantial changes in either social hostilities or government imposed restrictions.

• Overall, 14 countries had a substantial increase in government restrictions on religion, while eight had a substantial decline. In terms of social hostilities involving religion, 10 countries had a substantial increase, while five had a substantial decline. No country rose or declined substantially in both categories over the three-year period. One country, Kyrgyzstan, showed a substantial increase in government restrictions and a decrease in social hostilities, so it was treated as having no overall change.

• The extent of violence and abuse related to religion increased in more places than it decreased. The number of countries in which governments used at least some measure of force against religious groups or individuals rose from 91 (46 prercent) in the period ending in mid-2008 to 101 (51 percent) in the period ending in mid-2009. This violence was wide-ranging, including individuals being killed, physically abused, imprisoned, detained or displaced from their homes, as well as damage to or destruction of personal or religious properties.

• In proportion to their numbers, some smaller religious groups faced especially widespread harassment. Although Jews comprise less than 1 percent of the world’s population, government or social harassment of Jews was reported in 75 countries (38 percent). Incidents of harassment involving members of other world religions — including Sikhs, ancient faiths such as Zoroastrianism, newer faith groups such as Baha’is and Rastafarians, and localized groups that practice tribal or folk religions — were reported in 84 countries (42 percent).

• In nearly three-quarters of all countries, private citizens or groups committed crimes, malicious acts or violence motivated by religious hatred or bias. Such acts occurred in 142 countries (72 percent) in the period ending in mid-2009, about the same as in the previous reporting period (141 countries or 71 percent). The number of countries that experienced mob violence related to religion rose from 38 (19 percent) as of mid-2008 to 52 (26 percent) as of mid-2009.

• Religion-related terrorist groups were active in 74 countries around the world in the period ending in mid-2009. The groups carried out acts of violence in half of the 74 countries. In Russia, for example, more than 1,100 casualties resulted from religion-related terrorist attacks during the two-year period ending in mid-2009 — more than double the number of casualties recorded in the previous reporting period. This includes people who were killed, wounded, displaced from their homes, kidnapped or had their property destroyed in religion-related terrorist attacks.

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