August 9, 2011

New Pew Forum Report Analyzes Religious Restrictions Around the World

Three-Year Study Finds One-Third of Global Population Experiences An Increase

GRFP_smallWashington, D.C. — More than 2.2 billion people, nearly a third (32%) of the world’s total population of 6.9 billion, live in countries where either government restrictions on religion or social hostilities involving religion rose substantially between mid-2006 and mid-2009, according to a new study on global restrictions on religion released today by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Only about 1% of the world’s population lives in countries where government restrictions or social hostilities declined.

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Mary Schultz
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In general, most of the countries that experienced substantial increases in government restrictions or social hostilities involving religion already had high or very high levels of restrictions or hostilities. By contrast, nearly half of the countries that had substantial decreases in restrictions or hostilities already scored low. 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.

These are among the key findings of Rising Restrictions on Religion,the Pew Forum’s second report on global restrictions on religion. The study is part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project, an effort funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation to analyze religious change and its impact on societies around the world.

Other major findings include:

  • Restrictions on religious beliefs and practices rose between mid-2006 and mid-2009 in 23 of the world’s 198 countries (12%), decreased in 12 countries (6%) and remained essentially unchanged in 163 countries (82%).
  • Among the world’s 25 most populous countries, which account for about 75% 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.
  • 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 (30%) imposing greater restrictions. Egypt, in particular, ranked very high (in the top 5% of all countries, as of mid-2009) on both government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion.
  • Europe had the largest proportion of countries in which social hostilities related to religion were on the rise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Indeed, five of the 10 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.
  • 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%) in the period ending in mid-2008 to 101 (51%) 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.
  • 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%) and against Muslims in 117 countries (59%). 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%) and against Hindus in 27 countries (14%).
  • In proportion to their numbers, some smaller religious groups faced especially widespread harassment. Although Jews comprise less than 1% of the world’s population, government or social harassment of Jews was reported in 75 countries (38%). 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%).
  • Restrictions on religion are particularly common in the 59 countries that prohibit blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion. 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.
  • 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%) in the period ending in mid-2009, about the same as in the previous reporting period (141 countries or 71%). The number of countries that experienced mob violence related to religion rose from 38 (19%) as of mid-2008 to 52 (26%) 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.

Like the baseline report, the new study scores 198 countries and territories — more than 99.5% of the world’s population — on a total of 33 measures phrased as questions about government restrictions (government laws, policies and actions) and social hostilities (acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations and social groups). The study uses 18 widely cited, publicly available sources of information, including reports by the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and Human Rights Watch.

The full report — including a summary of results, index scores by region, results by country, the methodology and an interactive graphic showing the levels of restrictions in the worlds’ 25 most populous countries — is available on the Pew Forum’s website.