January 17, 2014

Key findings about growing religious hostilities around the world

Pew Research Center has been tracking religious restrictions and hostilities around the world since 2007. Our new report found that a third of the 198 countries and territories studied in 2012 had a high or very high level of social hostilities involving religion, the highest share in the six years of the study. These hostilities – defined in the study as acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations or groups in society – increased in every major region of the world except the Americas. Here are some top findings:

  • religious-restrictionsThe number of countries with religion-related terrorist violence has doubled over the past six years. In 2012, religion-related terrorist violence took place in one-in-five countries (20%), up from 9% in 2007. In March 2012, for instance, a rabbi and three children were killed by an Islamist extremist at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France.
  • Women were harassed because of religious dress in nearly a third of countries in 2012 (32%), up from a quarter in 2011 (25%) and less than one-in-ten (7%) in 2007. In Moldova, for instance, two men attacked a Muslim woman in the capital city of Chisinau, calling her a “terrorist” and tearing her headscarf. In 2012, 54 of the 198 countries in the study (27%) had governments that regulate the wearing of religious symbols or attire. This is almost unchanged from the previous year (53 countries, 27%) and significantly higher than in 2007 (21 countries, 11%). While there may not be a direct causal connection between government regulations and social hostilities involving religious attire, our data show that harassment of women over religious dress occurs more often in countries where the wearing of religious symbols or attire is regulated by any level of government.
  • For the first time in the study, China experienced a high level of social hostilities involving religion, with multiple types reported during 2012, including religion-related terrorism, harassment of women for religious dress and mob violence. In November 2012, for instance, a Han Chinese man accosted a Uighur Muslim girl in Henan province and lifted her veil. In response, violent protests broke out as hundreds of Uighurs demonstrated against the incident.
  • The Middle East and North Africa was the most common region for sectarian violence; half of all countries in the region in 2012 experienced this type of violence. Globally, sectarian violence took place in nearly one-in-five of the world’s countries in 2012 (18%), up from 8% in 2007. In China, for example, tensions escalated into violence in October 2012 when Tibetan Buddhist monks led an attack against Hui Muslims at a Gansu province site where a new mosque was being built. In Syria, the ongoing civil war has fallen partly along sectarian lines, leaving tens of thousands dead and displacing millions in recent years. And in Iraq, sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia Muslims continued, and attacks of some kind continued to occur on an almost daily basis.
  • Roughly three-quarters of the global population lives where overall levels of religious restrictions or hostilities were high or very high in 2012. Among the world’s 25 most populous countries, Egypt, Indonesia, Russia, Pakistan and Burma (Myanmar) stand out as having had the highest levels of overall restrictions in 2012 when both government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion are taken into account. Brazil, the Philippines, Japan, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo had the lowest levels of restrictions and hostilities.
  • The number of countries with a very high level of religious hostilities increased from 14 in 2011 to 20 in 2012. Six countries – Syria, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) – had very high levels of religious hostilities in 2012 but not in 2011. The number of countries with very high government restrictions on religion rose from 20 in 2011 to 24 in 2012. Five countries had very high government restrictions in 2012 but not in 2011: Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Morocco, Iraq and Kazakhstan.

Read more about how the Pew Research Center study measures social hostilities involving religion and government restrictions on religion. 

Topics: Religion and Society, Religion and Government, Religious Beliefs and Practices

  1. Photo of Angelina E. Theodorou

    is a research analyst focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. :Leigh Greenhaw3 years ago

    I use this as informational background for the sections on constitutional law that uses a religious liberty problem to teach foreign lawyers the basics of the U.S. legal systems. It makes the relevance of the subject apparent and the need for policy makers globally to think about the correlation, however slight, between governmental restrictions on religion and social hostilities related to religion.

  2. Rotnad4 years ago

    Very pointless and misleading study. Of course India will be high on the list….because a majority are Hindus and Hinduism believes in religious freedom. Of course in a diverse country there are bound to be differences. Real religious hostility and intolerance is more apparent in one religion countries like Israel.
    And in Myanmar, the hostility is more about an influx from neighboring Bangladesh, where the problem is huge, because of climate change. So….if you want to get something out of the research, you must be clarify these issues
    Disappointed that an organisation like Pew would put out such a study

  3. Walter Feinberg4 years ago

    This is a very misleading study since it suggests that hostility issues from non religion toward religion while often the hostility issues from one religious group against another.

  4. Mark F4 years ago

    Religiously based violence has always been an aberrant, and tragically unnecessary, outgrowth of religious life. While these disturbing trends remind us that extreme, fundamentalist orientations toward religious duty are a scourge to society, intolerance toward religion mirrors, more than corrects, the evil it opposes.

  5. W. “Scrap” Heep4 years ago

    Since religions do not rest on a rational basis, their adherents are unable to use reason to settle their differences. The existing religious leaders believe they have little motive to work to settle their differences, since those differences are a source of power for them. They bear little resemblance to the founders of these religions, who were intelligent and humble enough to begin to work to reduce the conflict.

  6. Dave4 years ago

    Not one western country is mentioned and not a country with a majority Christian population is warring within.

    So the statement should not be “Key findings about growing religious hostilities around the world” but “Key findings about growing non Christian religious hostilities around the non western world”.


  7. Justin4 years ago

    What these graphs fail to.account for is politics, local histoty, and the British, who created the nations of India and Pakistan, divided them artificially based off religious differences with no accounting for the political repercussions. Also fails to demonstrate how these reasons are racked with political and economic turmoil, war, and extreme poverty, none of which has anything to with these events….

  8. Timothy Steele4 years ago

    “Key findings about growing religious hostilities around the world”

    They’re growing.
    They still revolve around fantasy.
    They’re still completely pointless.

  9. runmore44 years ago

    Sad that religion, divisive and violent, still controls such a large portion of our earth. Let reason and love prevail, please.

  10. Nancy Sneirson4 years ago


    Mom sent us your 1st publication! Gus and I are very proud of you, we know that you put in an enormous amount of time and research to bwe slected for publication.

    I enjoyed watching the video and reading the article below.

    Allow yourself sometime to wallow in celebration!