The world was a much more hostile place for religion between mid-2009 and mid- 2010, as more countries experienced more violence motivated by religious hatred as well as increased government interference with religious practices.
The percentage of countries with high or very high restrictions on religious beliefs and practices rose from 31 per cent in mid-2009 to 37 per cent in mid-2010, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Since “some of the most restrictive countries are very populous,” say the study authors, “three-quarters of the world’s approximately 7 billion people” live in countries where the government severely restricts religion or there is significant social hostility involving religion. In the study, entitled Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion, Egypt and Indonesia ranked first and second, respectively, in terms of the Government Restrictions Index (GRI). Pakistan and India ranked first and second in the Social Hostilities Index (SHI).
The GRI measures government laws, policies and actions that curtail religious beliefs or practices including banning particular religions, prohibiting conversions, or giving preferential treatment to one or more faith groups. The SHI measures acts of hostilities against individuals or faith communities by private individuals and groups, including mob or sectarian violence, and harassment and intimidation for religious reasons.
The study, which is the third time that the Pew Forum has measured restrictions on religion around the world, rated 197 countries and territories.
An increase in harassment or intimidation was noted in five of the seven major religious groups-including Christians, Jews and Buddhists. Government or social harassment of Christians was reported in 111 countries in mid-2010, up from 107 countries in the first year of the study; among Jews, it was reported in 68 countries, up from 51 in 2007.
Adherents of Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Baha’i and Rastafarianism suffered in 52 countries, up from 39 countries the year before. Muslims were harassed in 90 countries, compared to 82 the previous year, and Hindus, in 16 countries from 11 in 2009.
“Overall, across the four years of the study, religious groups were harassed in a total of 184 countries at one time or another,” said authors of the study, which was released Sept. 20.
Christians and Muslims-who comprise more than half of the world’s population – were harassed in the largest number of countries, the study found. “Restrictions on religion rose not only in countries that began the year with high or very high restrictions or hostilities, such as Indonesia and Nigeria, but also in many countries that began with low or moderate restrictions or hostilities, such as Switzerland and the United States,” wrote the authors.
For the first time, the United States was among the 16 countries whose GRI and SHI index scores increased by one point or more in 2010. Government restrictions in the U.S. included incidents whereby individuals were not allowed to wear certain religious attire or symbols in court, in prisons and other correctional facilities. Some religious groups faced hurdles in obtaining zone permits to build or expand houses of worship, schools and other institutions.
The U.S. score on the SHI increased from 2.0 in mid-2009 to 3.4 in mid-2010, as the study noted a “spike” in religion-related terrorist attacks in the U.S., a rise in religion-related complaints in the workplace, and attempts to block the construction of mosques in some parts of the country.
Canada, on the other hand, remains in the low category for both government and social restriction indexes.
In Switzerland, the study cited the November 2009 referendum banning the construction of minarets on mosques across the country.
In Indonesia, more than two dozen churches were forced to close following intimidation from Islamist extremists or, in some cases, local officials, said the study. Violence between Christian and Muslim communities, which involved a series of deadly attacks, accounted for high hostility rates in Nigeria.
Government restrictions on religion rose by 2010 in countries that experienced political uprisings in the Middle East, known as the Arab Spring. Among them were Tunisia, which moved from the “high” to “very high” category and Egypt, whose government restriction index went from an already very high 8.6 in mid-2009 to 8.7 in mid-2010.
Since the study was first conducted in mid-2007, the number of countries with very high government restrictions on religion rose from 10 to 18 as of mid-2010. Ten countries-Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Indonesia, Maldives, Russia, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen-were added to the “very high” category. Only two-Brunei and Turkey-were removed from the category.
The countries with “very high” government restrictions include: Egypt, Indonesia, Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tunisia, Eritrea, China, Syria, Burma (Myanmar), Russia, Vietnam, Yemen, Azerbaijan, Algeria, and Belarus.
The number of countries with “high” social hostilities also increased, from 10 in mid-2007 to 15 in mid-2010. Five countries-Egypt, Nigeria, the Palestinian Territories, Russia and Yemen-were added to the list, while none were removed.
The countries with “very high” social hostilities are: Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Bangladesh, Somalia, Israel, Nigeria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Palestinian Territories, Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia.
The study did not include North Korea since it is “effectively closed to outsiders and independent observers lack regular access to the country,” said the study authors. They noted, however, that the U.S. State Department’s 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom said that, “genuine freedom of religion does not exist” in North Korea.