January 16, 2013

Rising Religious Restrictions around the World Include Wearing of Religious Symbols

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In mid-2010, religious attire and other symbols were regulated in 57 countries, up from 21 countries in mid-2007.

A rising tide of restrictions on religion spread across the world between mid-2009 and mid-2010, according to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. The share of countries with high or very high restrictions on religious beliefs and practices rose from 31% in the year ending in mid-2009 to 37% in the year ending in mid-2010.

One of the study’s measures is the Social Hostilities Index, which assesses acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations and social groups. This includes mob or sectarian violence, harassment over attire for religious reasons and other religion-related intimidation or abuse.

The study found that regulations on the wearing of religious symbols increased globally between mid-2007 and mid-2010. In mid-2010, religious attire and other symbols were regulated in 57 countries (29% of countries surveyed), up from 21 countries (11%) in mid-2007. Regulations increased in places as diverse as France, where the burqa was banned, and Rwanda, where the government prohibited religious headgear in photos for government documents.

The issue was again in public focus on Jan. 15, 2012 when the European Court of Human Rights announced decisions on two complaints that British law inadequately protects employees’ right to display symbols of their religion in the workplace. The cases involved instances where employees visibly wore religious crosses at work. The court ruled, in one case, that the religious freedom of a British Airways employee was violated when she was barred from wearing the cross. But it upheld the prohibition when it came to a hospital nurse, saying it was a matter of health and safety. (See an analysis, “As More Countries Regulate Wearing of Religious Symbols, European Court Decides Two UK Cases.“)

Regulations on religious attire differ widely. Some countries ban religious garb; Turkey, for example, bars women from wearing headscarves in government offices. In other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, religious coverings are required for women. And in Jordan, the Tourism Ministry recently advised Israeli visitors to avoid wearing Jewish attire while in the country, reportedly out of concern for their safety.