June 23, 2016

Trends in Global Restrictions on Religion

About this report

This is the seventh in a series of reports by Pew Research Center analyzing the extent to which governments and societies around the world impinge on religious beliefs and practices. As part of the original study, published in 2009, the Center developed two indexes – a Government Restrictions Index and a Social Hostilities Index – that were used to gauge government restrictions on religion and social hostilities involving religion in nearly 200 countries and territories.

The initial report, published in 2009, established a baseline for each country and five major geographic regions. Follow-up reports looked at changes in the level of restrictions and hostilities in these countries and territories.

The new report focuses on countries and regions that had the most extensive restrictions and hostilities in 2014, as well as countries and regions that had large changes in their scores on the Government Restrictions Index and Social Hostilities Index from 2013 to 2014. Where appropriate, it also looks at changes since the baseline year of the study.

Readers should note that the categories of very high, high, moderate and low restrictions or hostilities are relative – not absolute – rankings based on the overall distribution of index scores in the initial year of this study. (See Methodology for more details.) As such, they provide a guide for comparing country scores and evaluating their direction over time. However, Pew Research Center has not attached numerical rankings to the countries because there are many tie scores and the differences between the scores of the countries that are close to each other are not necessarily as meaningful as they might appear.

As we have noted in previous reports, it is important to keep in mind some limitations of this study. The indexes of government restrictions and social hostilities that serve as the basis of the study are designed to measure obstacles to religious expression and practice. As a result, the report focuses on the constraints on religion in each country and does not look at the other side of the coin: the amount of free or unhindered religious activity that takes place in particular countries. The study also does not attempt to determine whether restrictions are justified or unjustified, nor does it attempt to analyze the many factors – historical, demographic, cultural, religious, economic and political – that might explain why restrictions have arisen. It simple seeks to measure the restrictions that exist in a quantifiable, transparent and reproducible way, based on published reports from numerous governmental and nongovernmental organizations.

As was the case in all previous reports, North Korea is not included in this study. The primary sources used in this study indicate that North Korea’s government is among the most repressive in the world, including toward religion. But because independent observers lack regular access to the country, the sources are unable to provide the kind of specific information that formed the basis of the analysis.