Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Global Restrictions on Religion

Government Restrictions Index (GRI)

The Government Restrictions Index is based on 20 questions used by the Pew Forum to assess whether governments – including at the local or provincial level – restrict religious practices or beliefs. The questions are intended to gauge the extent to which governments try to control religious groups or individuals, prohibit conversions from one faith to another, limit preaching and proselytizing, or otherwise hinder religious affiliation by means such as registration requirements and fines. The questions seek to capture both relatively straightforward efforts to restrict religion – for example, through a nation’s constitution and laws – as well as efforts that are more indirect, such as favoring certain religions by means of preferential funding.

Because no single type of restriction is a reliable indicator of the overall level of restrictions in a country, the study covers a wide array of possible restrictions. But because some government actions have less impact than others on people’s lives, several of the questions allow for gradations or contain multiple sub-questions. This effectively gives some restrictions (such as favoritism in funding religious buildings and schools) less weight in the index than others (such as physical violence toward religious minorities). The questions are shown in the Summary of Results; detail on how all 198 countries and territories scored on each question is available in the Results by Country.

The mathematical presentation of these scores needs to be kept in context. If the Government Restrictions Index were based on 15 well-chosen questions instead of 20, for example, some countries’ scores would change, and even the order in which the countries appear on the index might shift in small ways. The Pew Forum has deliberately chosen not to attach numerical rankings from No. 1 to No. 198 both because there are many tie scores and because the differences between the scores of countries that are close to each other on the index may not be important. This is particularly the case at the low end of the scale, where most countries are clustered. By contrast, the numerical differences at the top end of the scale, among the relatively small number of countries with very high restrictions, are more meaningful. (See the Methodology.)

The most meaningful comparisons, however, are between broad ranges that reflect observable differences in real-world behavior. Accordingly, the Government Restrictions Index is divided into four ranges: very high (the top 5% of scores), high (the next highest 15% of scores), moderate (the next 20% of scores) and low (the bottom 60% of scores).

Countries with very high government restrictions have intensive restrictions on many or all of the 20 measures. In Brunei, for example, a 2005 law requires all religious groups other than the official Shafii sect of Islam to register with the government and to provide the names of their members. In addition, authorities in Brunei enforce religious norms, including arresting people for being in too close proximity to the opposite sex. Although conversion is technically legal, permission is required from Brunei’s Ministry of Religious Affairs before converting from Islam to any other faith.

Countries with high government restrictions have intensive restrictions on several of the 20 measures, or more moderate restrictions on many of them. For example, in Greece, the government allows only Orthodox Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations to own, bequeath and inherit property as well as to have an official legal identity as a religion. Other religious groups, including other Christians, thus operate at a disadvantage.

Countries with moderate government restrictions have intensive restrictions on a few measures, or more moderate restrictions on several of them. Cambodia, for example, has a Ministry of Cults and Religions that has repeatedly prohibited Christians from going door-to-door to talk about their faith or pass out religious literature, and the government gives preferential treatment to Buddhism, the state religion. In France, proponents of a 2004 law banning the wearing of religious symbols in schools say it protects Muslim girls from being forced to wear a headscarf, but the law also restricts those who want to wear headscarves – or any other “conspicuous” religious symbol, including large Christian crosses and Sikh turbans – as an expression of their faith.

Countries with low government restrictions generally have moderate restrictions on few or none of the measures. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the head of state is also the head of the Church of England, yet the government does not always favor the officially established church. For example, during the period covered by this study, a British court allowed employers to require Christians to hide their religious symbols in the workplace while not requiring the same of other faiths.

Patterns in Government Restrictions


An analysis of the data shows that government restrictions on religion are high or very high in 43 countries, about one-in-five. But because many of these are populous countries (including China, India and Pakistan), more than half (57%) of the world’s population lives with high or very high government restrictions on religion. A much larger number of countries – 119 – have low levels of government restrictions. But many fewer people, about one-in-four (26%), live in these countries.

As the results clearly show, it is not sufficient simply to look at formal constitutional protections when gauging the level of government restrictions on religion. Most (76%) of the 198 countries and territories included in the study call for freedom of religion in their constitutions or basic laws, and an additional 20% protect some religious practices. But the study found that only 53 governments (27%) fully respected the religious rights written into their laws. Afghanistan’s Constitution, for instance, appears to protect its citizens’ right to choose and practice a religion other than Islam, stating that “followers of other religions are free to perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law.” The Constitution qualifies that measure of protection, however, by stipulating that “no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam” and instructing judges to rule according to Shariah law if no specific Afghan law applies to a case. In 2006, for example, an Afghan citizen, Abdul Rahman, was tried and sentenced to death in accordance with several judges’ interpretation of Shariah law for converting from Islam to another religion. Rahman eventually was granted asylum in Italy. (Overall, Afghanistan ranks high in government restrictions.)


It is also important to look carefully at government policies that on the surface appear to be neutral but in practice serve to restrict religion. For example, 178 countries (90%) require religious groups to register with the government for one purpose or another, such as to obtain tax-exempt status or import privileges. Further analysis shows, however, that in almost three-in-five countries (59%), these registration requirements result in major problems for (19%) or outright discrimination against (40%) certain religious groups. Singapore’s Societies Act, for example, requires all religious groups to register with the government. In 1972, the government de-registered the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and in 1982 it de-registered the Unification Church, effectively criminalizing the practice of those religions. (Singapore ranks high in government restrictions.)

Similarly, the vast majority of governments (86%) provide funding or other resources to religious groups. But in 151 countries (76%), governments provide this assistance in ways that are either clearly imbalanced or that favor only one religious group. For example, in Canada – which ranks low in government restrictions – six of the 10 provinces provide some level of funding for religious schools, but in Ontario, only Catholic education is funded. It is important to note that government support for religious groups is considered a restriction in this study only if it involves preferential treatment of some group(s) and discrimination against others. (See Summary of Results, GRI Question No. 20.3.)

Other government restrictions are much more obvious. Nearly half of all countries either restrict the activities of foreign missionaries (41%) or prohibit them altogether (6%). In addition, national or local governments in 75 countries (38%) limit efforts by some or all religious groups to persuade people to join their faith. In Indonesia, for example, the government’s Guidelines for the Propagation of Religion bar most proselytizing, and Article 156 of the Criminal Code makes spreading heresy and blasphemy punishable by up to five years in prison. (Indonesia ranks high in government restrictions.)

During the main period covered by this study, from mid-2006 to mid-2008, the governments in 137 countries (69%) harassed or attempted to intimidate certain religious groups, and in 91 countries (46%) there were reported cases of the use of physical force against religious individuals or groups by governments or government employees. Police in Eritrea, for example, detained some adherents of unregistered churches and compelled them to renounce their faith and join the Orthodox Christian Church in order to win release. And in Burma (Myanmar), the government actively enticed Muslims and Christians to convert to Buddhism. (Both Eritrea and Burma are in the very high category for government restrictions.)


Among the other countries with very high levels of government restrictions on religion are several that are frequently cited for the limits they impose on minority faiths. These include Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two most restrictive governments according to the Pew Forum’s analysis of the 16 published sources; both enforce strict interpretations of Islamic law. China is in the highest category primarily because of its restrictions on Buddhism in Tibet, its ban on the Falun Gong movement throughout the country, its strict controls on the practice of religion among Uighur Muslims and its pressure on religious groups that are not registered by the government, including Christians who worship in private homes. The primary sources for this study report numerous cases of imprisonment, beatings and torture of members of these religious groups by Chinese authorities.


But the list of countries with high restrictions also contains some that are widely seen as democratic, such as Turkey and Israel. Israel’s score is driven up by security policies that sometimes have the effect of limiting access to religious sites, and by its preferential treatment of Orthodox Jews. The government recognizes only Orthodox Jewish religious authorities in some personal status matters (such as marriage) concerning Jews and devotes the bulk of state funds provided for religion to Orthodox Jews, even though they make up only a small portion of all Jews in Israel. Among the factors in Turkey’s score is that millions of Alevi Muslims, a minority whose beliefs and practices differ in significant ways from Sunni Islam, are required to receive Sunni Muslim religious instruction in state schools. During the period studied, Alevis had numerous court cases pending against the Ministry of Education regarding forced religious instruction.

For the purposes of this study, actions by local officials were considered restrictions even if they were contrary to national policy, as long as those actions remained in force and were not contravened by national officials during the period covered by the study. For instance, although Indonesia’s national government does not apply Islamic law across the country, religious police in several districts of Aceh province enforced the wearing of Islamic attire and required restaurants to close in the daytime during the holy month of Ramadan; national authorities did not intervene.

View the Government Restrictions Index Table.

Government Restrictions by Region

There are major differences among regions as well as among countries when it comes to government restrictions on religion. On average, restrictions are highest in the Middle East-North Africa, where the median score for the 20 countries (4.9) is considerably higher than for the 35 countries in the Americas (1.0), the region with the lowest median score.


The 51 Asian and Pacific countries have a median score in the middle range (3.3), but this masks enormous variability within this large region. Several of the more populous Asian and Pacific countries have high levels of government restrictions. Indeed, the nearly 20 countries in the region with very high or high government restrictions on religion – including Iran, Uzbekistan, China, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Vietnam and India – account for more than half of the world’s population. On the other hand, some of the least restrictive governments are also found in the Asia-Pacific region; these include Japan, Taiwan and Australia.


Perhaps surprisingly, given its many laws and conventions promoting the protection of human rights, Europe has a median score (1.9) that is slightly higher than sub-Saharan Africa’s (1.4) and the Americas’ (1.0). The relatively high government restrictions score for Europe’s 45 countries is due in part to former Communist countries, such as Russia, which have replaced state atheism with state-favored religions that are accorded special protections or privileges. Most of the European countries with high or very high restrictions – including Belarus, Russia and Bulgaria, all of which score above 4.5 – are in the East. But a number of countries in Western Europe also have scores above the region’s median. They include Germany, France and Austria, which have laws aimed at protecting citizens from what the government considers dangerous cults or sects.

The median level of government restrictions on religion in sub-Saharan Africa is the next-to-lowest of the world’s five major regions. Among the governments with low restrictions on religion are South Africa, Namibia, Benin, Sierra Leone, Senegal and the Republic of Congo. This may be somewhat surprising, given the social and political unrest that some of these countries have experienced, but religion generally has not been a major factor in the unrest. At the same time, a few sub-Saharan countries, including Mauritania and Eritrea, have high or very high restrictions on religion. Because Somalia did not have an effective national government during the period of this study, its score at the bottom of the high range on the Government Restrictions Index reflects only the actions of local authorities and thus may be incomplete; Somalia’s ranking in the very high range of the Social Hostilities Index may more accurately reflect the actual situation in the country.

Of the five regions, the Americas have the lowest median level of government restrictions on religion. One country, Cuba, has a restriction score higher than 4.4. But only three others have scores higher than 2.0 – Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia. While Canada, the United States and Brazil all have relatively low government restrictions on religion, social hostilities are somewhat higher in the United States than in the other two, as will be discussed in the next section.


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