Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Global Restrictions on Religion

Social Hostilities Index (SHI)

Restrictions on religion can result not only from the actions of governments but also from acts of violence and intimidation by private individuals, organizations or social groups. The Pew Forum’s Social Hostilities Index is a measure of concrete, hostile actions that effectively hinder the religious activities of the targeted individuals or groups. An absence of social hostilities does not necessarily mean, however, that there is no religious tension or intolerance in a society. In some cases, the lack of social conflict may be due to heavy-handed government actions that squelch many forms of public expression – as happened, for example, in the Soviet Union under Communist rule. Competition and even some degree of tension between religious groups may be natural in free societies, and the freer and more pluralistic the society, the more open and visible the tensions may be.

The Social Hostilities Index is based on 13 questions (see the Summary of Results) used by the Pew Forum to gauge hostilities both between and within religious groups, including mob or sectarian violence, crimes motivated by religious bias, physical conflict over conversions, harassment over attire for religious reasons, and other religion-related intimidation and violence, including terrorism and war (see the Methodology). Several of these questions allow for gradations of severity. In addition, there is some overlap among questions that measure mass violence – for example, killings picked up by Question No. 2, “Was there mob violence related to religion?” might also be picked up by Question No. 5, “Was there a religion-related war or armed conflict in the country?” – which serves to give more weight in the index to the most extreme consequences of religious hostilities, such as deaths and the displacement of people from their homes.

Like the index of government restrictions, the Social Hostilities Index is a quantitative measure, but it is important to view the numbers in context. Because there are many tie scores and the differences between the scores of countries that are close together on the index may not be very important, the Pew Forum has chosen not to attach numerical rankings from No. 1 to No. 198. The most meaningful comparisons are not between particular scores (a 3.1 versus a 3.3, for example) but between broad ranges of scores that reflect observable, real-world differences in behavior and circumstances. As with the Government Restrictions Index, the Social Hostilities Index is divided into four ranges: very high (the top 5 percent of scores), high (the next highest 15 percent of scores), moderate (the next 20 percent of scores) and low (the bottom 60 percent of scores).

Countries with very high social hostilities have severe levels of violence and intimidation on many or all of the 13 measures. In Indonesia, for example, much public animosity is aimed at the minority Ahmadiyya community. After a 2007 fatwa by the Indonesian Council of Ulamas declared the Ahmadis deviant and heretical, Muslim groups in West Java burned down the second largest Ahmadiyya mosque. Other Ahmadiyya mosques were vandalized or forced to close by militants, and rallies in opposition to these tactics resulted in violence and injuries.

Countries with high social hostilities have severe levels of violence and intimidation on some of the 13 measures, or more moderate levels on many of them. In Nigeria, for example, bloodshed between Muslims and Christians has erupted several times in recent years, including a 2008 incident in which rioters burned five churches, a police station and its barracks during a protest over alleged blasphemy by a Christian woman.

Countries with moderate social hostilities have severe levels of violence and intimidation on a few of the 13 measures, or more moderate levels on several of them. In Vietnam, for example, an evangelical house church in Tra Vinh Province was vandalized in 2007, and the pastor and some of his followers were beaten by a mob. In the United States, law enforcement officials across the country reported to the FBI at least 1,400 hate crimes involving religion in 2006 and again in 2007.

Countries with low social hostilities generally have moderate levels of violence and intimidation on a few or none of the 13 measures. In Belgium, for example, 68 anti-Semitic incidents were reported in 2007 and 31 in the first half of 2008, but none involved physical violence.

Patterns in Social Hostilities


An analysis of the data shows that nearly half the people in the world (46%) live in the 41 countries where there are high or very high levels of religious hostilities in society. An additional 17% live in the 40 countries with moderate levels of such hostilities. Only about four-in-ten (37%) live in the 117 countries with low social hostilities involving religion. But members of a religious majority may not feel the level of hostilities in their society very keenly. Often, the brunt falls on religious minorities who are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a cultural, economic or political threat to the majority.

Like government restrictions, social hostilities range widely. Crimes, malicious acts or violence motivated by religious bias were reported in nearly three-in-four countries (72%). In the United States, for example, law enforcement officials reported crimes involving religious hatred in practically every state and against numerous religious groups; according to a report by the organization Human Rights First, there were attacks in the U.S. in 2007-2008 “on people of diverse confessions, on homes and property, and on places of worship, including Catholic, Protestant, and Mormon churches, mosques and prayer rooms of Islamic community centers, and synagogues.” Among the most highly publicized of these crimes was a spree of fires in Alabama, where two young men allegedly burned down four rural, largely black churches, and in Utah, where three arson attempts were reported on churches in 2008.

The list of countries with very high levels of social hostilities differs considerably from the list of those with the most restrictive governments. Only one country, Saudi Arabia, appears on both lists. Several others that are very high in social hostilities also score in the high range on government restrictions; these include India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Israel. But some countries that rate very high on social hostilities do not appear on the comparable list of government restrictions on religion. Among these are Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In Bangladesh, there was repeated violence and discrimination against Hindus, Christians and Buddhists. The Bangladesh Buddhist-Hindu-Christian Unity Council reported, for instance, that from July 2007 to April 2008, Hindus were targeted in 58 killings, 52 attacks on or occupation of temples, 39 incidents of land grabbing and 13 rapes. In Sri Lanka, Buddhists acting at the local level harassed and physically attacked Christian properties and places of worship. In 2008, for example, a mob of some 200 people reportedly converged on a pastor’s house in the Galle District and threatened to kill him if he did not leave the village.

Some degree of public tension between religious groups was reported in the vast majority of countries (87%). In 126 countries (64%), these tensions led to hostilities involving physical violence, and in 43 countries (22%) they resulted in numerous cases of violence. Indeed, in 22 countries (11%), there were acts of sectarian or communal violence between religious groups. In Egypt, for example, a large group of Muslim Bedouins attacked monks and laborers on farmland outside a Coptic Christian monastery in al-Minya Province in May 2008; one Muslim died, at least three Christians were wounded and several monks were abducted. (Egypt ranks high in social hostilities involving religion.)


In 49 countries (25%), individuals or groups used force or the threat of force to oblige adherence to religious norms. This kind of social intimidation ranges from religiously motivated harassment of women for immodest dress, which was reported by the primary sources in about one-in-ten countries (8%), to efforts by organized groups to dominate public life with their perspective on religion. Such groups – including the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, skinheads in Europe and extremist vigilantes in some Muslim-majority societies – exist in 131 countries (66%), operating at the local or regional level in 80 (41%) and at the national level in 51 (26%). At times, these groups do not appear to have a religious agenda other than to oppose certain religious minorities.


In more than half of all countries, however, it is religious groups themselves that make attempts to stop other religious groups from growing. In Russia, for example, activists and clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church have opposed the expansion of non-Orthodox Christian denominations and campaigned against religions deemed nontraditional, including other Orthodox Christian congregations. (Russia scores in the high range of social hostilities involving religion.) Tensions over conversions have resulted in physical violence in more than one-in-ten countries (16%). In Turkey, for example, two converts to Christianity were tortured and killed along with a German citizen in 2007. (Turkey ranks high in social hostilities involving religion.)

During the main two-year period covered by this study, from mid-2006 to mid-2008, religion-related terrorist groups were active in nearly one-in-three countries (30%). For the purposes of this study, religion-related terrorism is defined as politically motivated violence against noncombatants by sub-national groups or clandestine agents with a religious justification or intent. (See the Methodology.) While in many countries their activity was limited to recruitment and fundraising, religion-related terrorists caused casualties in 17 countries (9%). They caused more than 50 injuries or deaths on average per year in six countries (3%): Afghanistan, Algeria, India, Iraq, Nepal and Pakistan.

Two dozen countries (12%) were affected by current religion-related wars or the continuing displacement of people from previous religion-related fighting. For the purposes of this study, a religion-related war is defined as an armed conflict (involving sustained casualties over time or more than 1,000 battle deaths) in which religious rhetoric is commonly employed to justify the use of force, or in which one or more of the combatants primarily identifies itself or the opposing side by religion. During the two-year period studied, the largest numbers killed were in Iraq. In addition, more than 18 million people remained displaced from their homes by current or previous conflicts related to religion. Millions remained displaced from previous wars in the Palestinian territories and Sudan. Hundreds of thousands remained displaced in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia, collectively.

View the Social Hostilities Index Table.

Social Hostilities by Region

The regional pattern of social hostilities closely resembles that of government restrictions on religion, with the Middle East-North Africa showing the highest level of hostilities and the Americas the lowest.

The median score of the 20 countries in the Middle East-North Africa on the Social Hostilities Index is 4.4. Social hostilities are particularly high in Iraq, where violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which favored the minority Sunni population above the majority Shia. During the sectarian strife, many members of other religious groups, including Iraqi Christians and adherents of other faiths, were displaced from the country.


The Sunni-Shia divide is a contentious issue in Saudi Arabia as well. Though Sunnis far outnumber Shias and control the country, Shias are concentrated in the region of Saudi Arabia that has the highest levels of oil production. The ever-present religious police, or muttawa, who enforce a strict interpretation of Islam, also exacerbate the religious hostilities in Saudi society. By contrast, social hostilities involving religion are low in the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Qatar has the lowest level of religious tension in the region.

As with government restrictions, there are high levels of social hostilities in some of the most populous countries in the Asia-Pacific region. India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka all score very high on this measure, while Iran and Turkey score high. Significantly absent from the list, however, is China. Although social tensions over religion appear to be on the rise in Chinese society, particularly in the Tibet and Xinjiang Autonomous Regions, China is on the low end of the Social Hostilities Index for the period covered by this study.1 The relatively low level of social constraints may help explain why religion has grown in China despite a very high level of government restrictions on religion. Among the other countries and territories with low social hostilities in the region are Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea.

The median score for the 45 countries in Europe is the same as for Asia-Pacific, but it is higher than the median score for Sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas. The relatively higher level of religious hostilities in European societies is driven by widespread instances of anti-Semitism, tensions between Muslim minorities and secular or Christian majorities, and a somewhat general distrust of new religious groups. High levels of social hostilities are found in Romania, Georgia, Russia (which had a religion-related armed conflict in Chechnya), Moldova, Greece and Serbia. Among the European countries with low levels of social hostilities are Finland, Albania, Luxembourg and Ireland.


The median level of social hostilities in sub-Saharan Africa, while next-to-lowest of the regions, is more than double the median level for the Americas. Driving up the region’s score are several countries with very high or high levels of social hostilities, including Somalia, Nigeria, Comoros, Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia, Liberia and Ivory Coast. The lowest levels of hostilities are found in Lesotho, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Swaziland, Togo and Zambia.

As with government restrictions, the Americas have the lowest median level of social hostilities involving religion. Of all the countries in the region, only Mexico scores high on the Social Hostilities Index, a reflection of violence between Catholics and evangelical Protestants, particularly in the Chiapas region. Colombia is at the top of the moderate range, and the United States is near the bottom of that range. All other countries in the Americas have low levels of religious hostilities in society.


1 The July 2009 riots in Xinjiang, in which nearly 200 people reportedly were killed in violence between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese, took place after the period analyzed for this report. (back to Social Hostilities by Region)

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