Christians continue to top the list among the most persecuted religious groups in the world. According to The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life’s recent report, “Rising Restrictions on Religion,” threats to Christians and religious freedom around the world are rising. The report found that nearly two thirds (59 percent) of the world’s population lives under high government restrictions on religion, and almost half (48 percent) live in areas with high religiously motivated social hostilities. Because some of the world’s most populous countries also have the highest religious restrictions, only about 20 percent of the world’s countries have high religious restrictions and hostilities.
The recently released study compares findings from mid-2009 with a nearly identical mid-2006 study. Overall, the study found that within three years, restrictions rose in 12 percent of the world’s countries (23 of 198). Decreases in religious freedom occurred primarily in countries that already had high restrictions and hostilities toward religion, and gains for religious freedom generally happened in countries that already had low restrictions. The report noted a growing polarization between countries with established religious freedom gaining more, while those with established restrictions became more restrictive.
Christians are harassed with the most frequency of any religious group in 130 countries, followed by Muslims in 117 countries. Jews face harassment in 75 countries even though they make up less than 1 percent of the world’s population. Harassment means these groups experience “physical assaults, arrests and detentions, the desecration of holy sites and discrimination against religious groups in employment, education or housing…verbal assaults on members of one religious group by other groups or individuals in society.” Unsurprisingly, government and social harassment is most persistent in Middle East-North Africa, with reports of such incidents from all 20 countries in the region.
Muslims are more often harassed by governments than private groups or individuals, and Jews more often experience social harassment than government, but Christians experience both in almost equal frequency. Coptic Christians in Egypt continue to face persecution, and are barred from public-sector jobs and universities. The study was done before the “Arab Spring,” but reports indicate religious freedom has decreased since the uprisings. In Yemen, Christians are increasingly persecuted. In 2008, a group of Yemenis were arrested after converting from Islam to Christianity. Malaysia is one of the most restrictive countries, and its religious restrictions also increased “substantially,” although the constitution allows religious freedom. In practice, however, the government enforces limitations on Islamic beliefs, and in some cases, sends individuals practicing “‘deviant’ forms of Islam to religious ‘rehabilitation centers.’”
The study also considered laws against blasphemy, apostasy, and defamation of religion. Although these laws are sometimes purported to protect religious freedom, Pew found that “in practice they often serve to punish religious minorities whose beliefs are deemed unorthodox or heretical, and who therefore are seen as threatening religious harmony in the country.” Countries that have laws prohibiting blasphemy and defamation are much more likely to have government restrictions and social hostilities toward religion. More startling, the governments of countries that enforce blasphemy, defamation, and apostasy laws are five times more likely to attempt eliminating an entire religious group. Eighty percent of Middle Eastern countries have such laws, the highest of any region in the world.
Other regions of the world also showed notable trends, according to the Pew study. Though known for its religious intolerance, China’s government did not increase religious restrictions. Social hostilities, however, increased as conflict erupted between Buddhists and Muslims in Tibet’s Xinjiang Province. Europe’s social hostilities and government restrictions noticeably increased in the three year period. Government restrictions rose as France implemented a ban on full head coverings, affecting Muslim women who wear the burqa or niqab. Also affecting Europe’s score was the Serbian government, which refused to legally register some religious minority groups.
Religious freedom is strongest in the Americas, and conditions in the United States remained relatively unchanged in the three year period. Despite the relative calm though, things are not perfect. According to FBI reports, there were at least 1,300 religiously motivated hate crimes annually in the years between 2006 and 2009. The report notes that these years do not include incidents motivated by recent controversies over Islamic centers and mosques in New York and other parts of America.
Clearly there are serious and growing threats to the fundamental right of religious freedom. With 2.2 billion people living under varying degrees of religious restrictions, and Christians experiencing restrictions, harassment, and even persecution in 66 percent of the world’s countries, there is much work to be done to reverse this growing trend.
Kristin Rudolph writes for the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. She recently graduated from The King’s College in New York City with a Bachelor of Arts in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics.