RELIGIOUS RESTRICTIONS INCREASE AROUND THE WORLD
[Please note: This article focuses on the topic of restrictions on all religions, not just Christianity.]
Compiled by Alex Pollock
Over the decade from 2007 to 2017, government restrictions on religion – laws, policies and actions by state officials that restrict religious beliefs and practices – increased markedly around the world. The latest data from 2017 shows that 52 governments impose either high or very high levels of restrictions on religion, up from 40 in 2007. (Evangelical Focus)
The Pew Research Study
On 15 July, the Pew Research Centre released its 10th annual report on the state of freedom of religion. The report, which covers five regions — the Americas, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Middle East-North Africa (MENA), and Sub-Saharan Africa — details levels of religious restriction based on government restrictions and social hostilities. The current report details incidents occurring between 2007 and 2017.
The main categories of government restriction and social hostilities are broken down into four subcategories each. Each region is given a score from 1-10 in the eight subcategories. A score of 4.5 or higher in any given category is considered high to very high restriction.
Government restrictions on religion are defined as “laws, policies and actions by state officials that restrict religious beliefs and practices”. This category is broken down into government favouritism of religion, laws and policies restricting religious freedom, government limits on religious activities, and government harassment of religious groups.
Social hostilities are defined as “acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organisations, or groups in society”. The social hostility index is broken down into hostilities related to religious norms, inter-religious tension and violence, religious violence by organised groups, and individual and social group harassment.
Since 2007, the number of countries with high or very high levels of government restriction has risen from 40 countries to 52 countries (an increase of 26%) while the number of countries facing high or very high levels of social hostilities has risen from 39 countries to 56 countries (an increase of 28%).
Globally, the level of religious restriction has risen in every studied category, other than inter-religious conflict, with an average increase of 0.7 points across all categories.
Europe has experienced more increase than any other region in terms of government restrictions on activities of religious groups throughout the period of the study. The restrictions have come in the form of restriction on religious dress, public or private worship, and religious literature.
In 2007, five European countries had restrictions on religious dress. That number increased to 20 countries by 2017. France has prohibited the wearing of full-face coverings in public spaces, while Bosnia-Herzegovina has prohibited people from wearing “religious insignia” at work.
Government harassment of religious groups has increased in Europe since the baseline year of the study, as the percentage of countries with recorded cases of harassment rose from 71% to 84% from 2014 to 2016.
Europe also saw the most significant increase (+ 2.6 points) in the social hostilities category of hostility related to religious norms. Just four countries had reported incidents of violence or threats of violence in 2007, but that number rose to 20 by 2017. More than half (25 of 45) of European countries reported assaults on individuals in 2017, including a Belgian rabbi who had stones thrown at him for being “visibly Jewish”.
The report stated that Germany pressured thousands of refugees to convert to Christianity with the threat of deportation and used the incentive of free lunches and lessened transportation costs. The focus on “forced conversions” is thought to be a part of a movement against Islam, both in Germany and throughout Europe as a whole.
Overall, Europe has seen the most substantial increase in religious restriction over the past decade, with an increase in seven of the eight studied categories – its only decrease coming in inter-religious conflict.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA)
While MENA has consistently had the highest score across all categories of social hostilities since the beginning of the study, the scores have remained stable from year to year — except in the category of religious violence by organised groups. Along with Europe, MENA has seen the most significant increase in this category over the studied period. Violence by organised groups includes actions of religious-based terrorist groups, the use of force by organised groups, and violence used to dominate public life with one’s religious perspective. In 2007, four MENA countries reported at least 50 deaths due to “religion-related terrorist incidents”. By 2017, that number had increased to 11 of the 20 nations, raising the MENA region’s score by one point to a score of 5.Levels of government restriction in the Middle East and North Africa region have remained relatively stable over the course of the study, partly due to the fact that the region started with such high scores. However, one category in which the region has seen significant increase is government harassment of religious groups. MENA has experienced the most rapid increase out of all studied regions with an uptick of just under two points (1.9). These restrictions vary from violence and intimidation to verbal denunciations and formal bans on certain groups. For example, 280 Ahmadis were persecuted for their faith in Algeria in 2017, while a 400-year-old Shiite community was demolished in Saudi Arabia in the same year as the government began “anti-terrorism efforts”.
While MENA’s scores have remained some of the most stable, they remain some of the highest in the world.
In keeping with the global trend, the Americas saw an increase in every category other than inter-religious conflict. However, the region is still operating at the lowest level of restriction among studied areas.
The most significant increase in the region came in the form of government harassment. Between 2015 and 2016, there was an increase from 28 countries to 32 with reported incidents of government harassment of religious groups. One of the most prominent cases was Cuba, when groups advocating for more religious and political freedoms were threatened by the government.
Another area of increase in the Americas was in government restrictions on religious activities, with 12 additional governments interfering with worship services from 2007 to 2017, bringing the total to 28 countries.
Government harassment of religious groups was also the category with the most substantial increase in the Asia-Pacific region. Harassment or intimidation was reported by 86% of the region’s countries in 2017 alone. One of the more noted examples of harassment is the Uighur Muslims in China. In 2017, thousands were reportedly sent to “re-education camps”. The abuse experienced by Rohingya refugees in Myanmar also falls under this category. While this region also saw a decline in inter-religious conflict, it earned the second-highest score in the category behind the MENA region. Violence between Hindus and Muslims in India contributed to the region’s 2.6 score, as a dispute between Hindu and Muslim teenagers escalated into a mob attack on a Muslim village, resulting in 50 homes being ransacked and multiple cars being set on fire.
The starkest increase for the Sub-Saharan Africa region came in the category of social hostilities related to religious norms. It saw the second-largest increase (+1.7 points) after Europe (+2.6 points). Uganda saw multiple incidents of violence – including Christians being beaten and killed in Muslim-majority regions, kidnappings due to conversions to Christianity, and a husband who strangled his wife for converting to Christianity.
With a 1.3-point increase in governmental favouritism of religion, Sub-Saharan Africa saw the second-largest increase in this category, second only to the Asia-Pacific region. This category includes laws and referendums that give advantages – such as tax exemptions, educational opportunities, and declarations of a state religion – to certain religious groups. In 2009, Comoros passed a referendum declaring Islam the state religion, and Cabo Verde granted privileges to the Catholic Church in 2014.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
While religious restriction has seen a sharp increase in the Western world – a region relatively unaccustomed to persecution – regions such as MENA and Sub-Saharan Africa have faced widespread persecution for decades. Persecution has often led to the furthering of the Christian faith in these regions, and despite restrictions, these “persecution hotspots” have demonstrated that nothing can stand against the building of the global Church.Christians remained the most globally persecuted religious group, as harassment was reported in 143 countries in 2017, up from the 107 that were cited in the first year of the study. A number of countries with low levels of restrictions – South Africa, Brazil, and South Korea – are also countries that have sent an increased number of missionaries over the past decade.
- For wisdom for lawmakers, that they will seek to protect the right of belief
- For Christians in ‘free’ nations to utilise their freedom for the benefit of God’s Kingdom
- For those in restrictive nations to find their freedom in Christ, and for the Lord’s Kingdom to continue being built in the face of persecution