November 10, 2020

In 2018, Government Restrictions on Religion Reach Highest Level Globally in More Than a Decade

4. Restrictions on religion among the 25 most populous countries in 2018

More than three-quarters of the world’s population lives in the 25 most populous countries. Focusing on these countries can shed light on how most people are affected by government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion – although not everyone in any particular country is equally affected by religious restrictions. Religious minorities vary from country to country and are often impacted disproportionately.

Among the 25 most populous countries in 2018, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and Russia had the highest overall levels of both government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion. The most populous countries with the lowest overall scores were Japan, South Africa, Italy, Brazil and the United States.62

The highest levels of government restrictions among the most populous countries occurred in China, Iran, Russia, Indonesia and Egypt, all of which rank in the “very high” category of restrictions. The countries ranking lowest in terms of government restrictions were Japan, Brazil, South Africa, the Philippines, and South Korea. All of these countries had “low” levels of government restrictions in 2018, except for South Korea, which had “moderate” levels of government restrictions.

The most populous countries with the highest levels of social hostilities involving religion were India, Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the same five countries as in 2017. Bangladesh is the only one of these countries that moved out of the “very high” category into the “high” category in 2018. Japan, China, Vietnam, Iran and the United States had the lowest levels of social hostilities among the world’s 25 most populous countries. Japan was the only one of the top 25 to fall into the “low” category of social hostilities in 2018; the rest experienced “moderate” or higher levels of social hostilities involving religion.

There are cases when levels of government restrictions tend to mirror levels of social hostilities in a country. For example, Egypt was in the “very high” categories of both government restrictions and social hostilities in 2018, while Italy scored “moderate” on both measures. But there also are cases when government restrictions and social hostilities do not align. For example, Iran had the second-highest score on the Government Restrictions Index out of the 198 countries and territories in the study in 2018, yet it had “moderate” levels of social hostilities involving religion.

In 2018, all 25 of the world’s most populous countries experienced either small changes (less than 1.0 point or no change in their Government Restrictions Index (GRI) scores. As a result, most of these countries did not shift from one category to another. Pakistan, however, experienced a very small decrease in government restrictions in 2018, moving it from “very high” to “high” on the GRI scale. (Among other things, in 2018 Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who had been sentenced to death in 2010 on blasphemy charges.63)

In terms of changes to Social Hostilities Index (SHI) scores, three of the most populous countries had large changes (2.0 points or more) in 2018. Italy and the United Kingdom experienced large decreases in social hostilities involving religion, with Italy falling from the “high” category to “moderate,” perhaps in part because the Italian government did not report on incidents related to religious hatred as it had in previous years.64 In 2017, the United Kingdom had experienced multiple incidents of terrorism related to religion, including a bombing at Manchester Arena that killed 23 people and injured more than 100, as well as an incident in which an individual drove a van into a crowd of pedestrians gathered outside a mosque in London, injuring eight and killing one.65 No such incidents were reported in the UK in 2018.

Among the 25 most populous countries, South Korea was the only one that experienced a large increase in social hostilities in 2018, causing it to move from “low” to “moderate,” due in part to rising reports of hostilities over religious conversions.

Restrictions on religion among the world's 25 most populous countries
  1. Population figures are United Nations 2010 estimates.
  2. U.S. Department of State. June 21, 2019. “Pakistan.” International Religious Freedom Report for 2018.
  3. U.S. Department of State. June 21, 2019. “Italy.” International Religious Freedom Report for 2018.
  4. U.S. Department of State. September 19, 2018. “United Kingdom.” Country Reports on Terrorism 2017.