Restrictions on religious beliefs and practices rose between mid-2006 and mid-2009 in 23 of the world’s 198 countries (12%), decreased in 12 countries (6%) and remained essentially unchanged in 163 countries (82%), according to a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Because several countries with increasing restrictions on religion are very populous, however, the increases affected a much larger share of people than of states. More than 2.2 billion people – nearly a third (32%) of the world’s total population of 6.9 billion – live in countries where either government restrictions on religion or social hostilities involving religion rose substantially over the three-year period studied. Only about 1% of the world’s population lives in countries where government restrictions or social hostilities declined.
Among the world’s 25 most populous countries – which account for about 75% of the world’s total population – restrictions on religion substantially increased in eight countries and did not substantially decrease in any. In China, Nigeria, Russia, Thailand, the United Kingdom and Vietnam, the increases were due primarily to rising levels of social hostilities involving religion. In Egypt and France, the increases were mainly the result of government restrictions. The rest of the 25 most populous countries, including the United States, did not experience substantial changes in either social hostilities or government-imposed restrictions.
This is the second time the Pew Forum has measured restrictions on religion around the globe. Like the baseline report, the new study scores 198 countries and territories on two indexes:
- The Government Restrictions Index measures government laws, policies and actions that restrict religious beliefs or practices. This includes efforts by governments to ban particular faiths, prohibit conversions, limit preaching or give preferential treatment to one or more religious groups.
- The Social Hostilities Index measures 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.
Among the five geographic regions covered in the study, the Middle East-North Africa region had the largest proportion of countries in which government restrictions on religion increased, with nearly a third of the region’s countries (30%) imposing greater restrictions. Egypt, in particular, ranked very high (in the top 5% of all countries, as of mid-2009) on both government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion. Egypt was one of just two countries in the world – Indonesia was the other – that had very high scores on both measures as of mid-2009.
Europe had the largest proportion of countries in which social hostilities related to religion were on the rise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Indeed, five of the 10 countries in the world that had a substantial increase in social hostilities were in Europe: Bulgaria, Denmark, Russia, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The study also finds that social hostilities involving religion have been rising in Asia, particularly in China, Thailand and Vietnam.
Overall, 14 countries had a substantial increase in government restrictions on religion, while eight had a substantial decline. In terms of social hostilities involving religion, 10 countries had a substantial increase, while five had a substantial decline. No country rose or declined substantially in both categories over the three-year period. Just one country, Kyrgyzstan, showed a substantial increase in one category (government restrictions) along with a decrease in the other category (social hostilities); consequently, it is treated as having no overall change.
Changes in Restrictions Among the 25 Most Populous Countries
Among the world’s most populous countries, government restrictions or social hostilities substantially increased in eight countries – China, Egypt, France, Nigeria, Russia, Thailand, Vietnam and the United Kingdom – and did not substantially decrease in any. Countries in the upper right have the most restrictions and hostilities. Countries in the lower left have the least. The countries with substantial increases in restrictions are labeled in bold below.
In general, most of the countries that had substantial increases in government restrictions or social hostilities involving religion already had high or very high levels of restrictions or hostilities. By contrast, nearly half of the countries that had substantial decreases in restrictions or hostilities already scored low. This suggests that there may be a gradual polarization taking place in which countries that are relatively high in religious restrictions are getting higher while those that are relatively low are getting lower.
Specifically, among the 62 countries with high or very high scores on either or both indexes as of mid-2008, restrictions or hostilities increased substantially in 14 countries (23%) and decreased substantially in five (8%). Among the 42 countries that started out with moderate scores on either or both indexes, increases occurred in seven countries (17%) and decreases in two (5%). In contrast, among the 94 countries that started out with low scores on both indexes, the level of government restrictions and/or social hostilities involving religion decreased in five countries (5%) and increased in two (2%).
During the three-year period covered by the study, the extent of violence and abuse related to religion increased in more places than it decreased. The number of countries in which governments used at least some measure of force against religious groups or individuals rose from 91 (46%) in the period ending in mid-2008 to 101 (51%) in the period ending in mid-2009. This violence was wide-ranging, including individuals being killed, physically abused, imprisoned, detained or displaced from their homes, as well as damage to or destruction of personal or religious properties.
In nearly three-quarters of all countries, private citizens or groups committed crimes, malicious acts or violence motivated by religious hatred or bias. Such acts occurred in 142 countries (72%) in the period ending in mid-2009, about the same as in the previous reporting period. The number of countries that experienced mob violence related to religion rose from 38 (19%) as of mid-2008 to 52 (26%) as of mid-2009.
Harassment and Anti-Blasphemy Laws
Adherents of the world’s two largest religious groups, Christians and Muslims, who together comprise more than half of the global population, were harassed in the largest number of countries.1 Over the three-year period studied, incidents of either government or social harassment were reported against Christians in 130 countries (66%) and against Muslims in 117 countries (59%). Buddhists and Hindus – who together account for roughly one-fifth of the world’s population and who are more geographically concentrated than Christians or Muslims – faced harassment in fewer places; harassment was reported against Buddhists in 16 countries (8%) and against Hindus in 27 countries (14%).
In proportion to their numbers, some smaller religious groups faced especially widespread harassment. Although Jews comprise less than 1% of the world’s population, government or social harassment of Jews was reported in 75 countries (38%). Incidents of harassment involving members of other world religions – including Sikhs, ancient faiths such as Zoroastrianism, newer faith groups such as Baha’is and Rastafarians, and localized groups that practice tribal or folk religions – were reported in 84 countries (42%). (For more details, see Harassment of Particular Religious Groups .)
In addition, the study finds that restrictions on religion are particularly common in countries that prohibit blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion. While such laws are sometimes promoted as a way to protect religion, in practice they often serve to punish religious minorities whose beliefs are deemed unorthodox or heretical. (For more details, see Laws Against Blasphemy, Apostasy and Defamation of Religion.)
About the Report
These are among the key findings of Rising Restrictions on Religion, the Pew Forum’s second report on global restrictions on religion. The 198 countries and self-administering territories covered by the study contain more than 99.5% of the world’s population. Each country was scored on a total of 33 measures phrased as questions about government restrictions or social hostilities involving religion. (For the full question wording, see the Summary of Results.) The Government Restrictions Index is comprised of 20 questions; there are 13 questions on the Social Hostilities Index.
To answer the questions that make up the indexes, Pew Forum researchers combed through 18 widely cited, publicly available sources of information, including reports by the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, the Council of the European Union, the United Kingdom’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group, the Hudson Institute, Freedom House and Amnesty International. (For the complete list of sources, see the Methodology.) Many of the examples cited in this report were drawn from the State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom reports.
The researchers involved in this process recorded only concrete reports about specific government laws, policies and actions, as well as incidents of religious violence or intolerance by social groups; they did not rely on the commentaries or opinions of the sources. (For a more detailed explanation of the coding and data verification procedures, see the Methodology.) The goal was to devise a battery of quantifiable, objective measures that could be analyzed individually as well as combined into two comprehensive indexes, the Government Restrictions Index and the Social Hostilities Index.
The Forum’s baseline report on global restrictions on religion calculated each country’s average scores on the Government Restrictions Index and Social Hostilities Index for the two-year period from mid-2006 to mid-2008. This report assesses changes over time by comparing each country’s original scores with its average scores for the overlapping two-year period from mid-2007 to mid-2009.2 Comparing rolling averages for overlapping time periods reduces the impact of year-to-year fluctuations and helps identify consistent trends.
This report focuses on changes in countries’ scores on the indexes that are deemed to be “substantial.” (The report refers to a change in a country’s score as substantial only if it is at least 1.5 standard deviations above or below the mean amount of change among all 198 countries on each index. The change also had to be in the same direction over the two periods studied, meaning that it had to rise or fall both in the period from mid-2006 to mid-2008 and in the overlapping period from mid-2007 to mid-2009. See the Methodology for more details.)
Situation as of Mid-2009
The Pew Forum characterizes each country’s place on the Government Restrictions Index and the Social Hostilities Index by percentile. Countries with scores in the top 5% are characterized as “very high.” The next highest 15% of scores are categorized as “high,” and the following 20% are characterized as “moderate.” The bottom 60% of scores are characterized as “low.”
As of mid-2009, government restrictions on religion were high or very high in 42 countries, about one-in-five worldwide. The 10 countries that had very high government restrictions as of mid-2009 were Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, China, Maldives, Malaysia, Burma (Myanmar), Eritrea and Indonesia. Government restrictions were in the moderate range in 39 countries. A much larger number of countries – 117 – had low levels of government restrictions. But because many of the more restrictive countries (including China and India) are very populous, more than half of the world’s population (59%) was living with high or very high government restrictions as of mid-2009. (For a complete list of all countries in each category, see the Government Restriction Index table.)
As of mid-2009, social hostilities involving religion were high or very high in 40 countries, about one-in-five worldwide. The 10 countries that had very high hostilities as of mid-2009 were Iraq, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Israel and Egypt. Social hostilities were in the moderate range in 43 countries. A much larger number of countries – 115 – had low levels of social hostilities. But because many of the countries with high or very high social hostilities (including India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria) are very populous, nearly half of the world’s population (48%) was living with high or very high social hostilities involving religion as of mid-2009. (For a complete list of all countries in each category, see the Social Hostilities Index table.)
Government restrictions or social hostilities were high or very high in about one-third of the countries as of mid-2009. But because some of the most restrictive countries are very populous, nearly 70 percent of the world’s 6.9 billion people were living in countries where governments imposed high restrictions on religion or where there were high levels of religious hostilities in society.
Changes in Government Restrictions
Comparing the Pew Forum’s first set of scores (for the two-year period from mid-2006 to mid-2008) with the second set of scores (for the two-year period from mid-2007 to mid-2009), the study finds that 14 countries had a substantial increase in government restrictions and eight had a substantial decline.
Six of the 14 countries where government restrictions rose substantially were in the Middle East-North Africa region: Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Qatar, Syria and Yemen. In Egypt, for example, the government maintained a longstanding ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, an influential Islamic organization, and discriminated against Christians in various ways, including in public-sector hiring. In Yemen, government officials reportedly sought to intimidate Baha’is and converts to Christianity, including arresting people for promoting Christianity and distributing Bibles.
Most of the countries with substantial decreases in government restrictions (seven of the eight countries) had low levels of restrictions to begin with. The exception was Greece, which started out with high government restrictions but moved to the moderate level by mid-2009. While the government of Greece continued to restrict proselytizing, for example, there were fewer reported cases where the police detained people for proselytizing.
Changes in Social Hostilities
Ten countries had substantial increases in social hostilities involving religion and five had a substantial decline.
As noted above, the level of social hostilities involving religion rose substantially in five European nations: Bulgaria, Denmark, Russia, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Much of the tension in Europe focused on the region’s rapidly growing Muslim population, but in some cases it also reflected rising anti-Semitism and antagonism toward Christian minorities, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses.3
Social hostilities also rose in several Asian countries, including China, Mongolia, Thailand and Vietnam. In China, for example, an August 2008 terrorist attack attributed by Chinese authorities to a militant Muslim separatist group, known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, caused more than a dozen casualties in Xinjiang Province, and riots in Tibet in March 2008 pitted ethnic Tibetans (mainly Buddhists) against ethnic Han Chinese.
Three of the five countries where social hostilities declined are in sub-Saharan Africa: Chad, Liberia and Tanzania. But social hostilities involving religion rose in Nigeria, the region’s most populous country, where there were a number of violent clashes between Christians and Muslims.
Government Restrictions or Social Hostilities
Looking at the countries that had a substantial increase in either government restrictions or social hostilities, most (14 out of 23, or 61%) previously had high or very high levels of restrictions or hostilities. By contrast, among the countries that had substantial declines in either government restrictions or social hostilities, most (seven out of 12, or 58%) previously had low or moderate levels of restrictions or hostilities. And of the countries that stayed roughly the same, most (120 out of 163, or 74%) previously had low or moderate levels of restrictions or hostilities. Once again, this suggests that there may be a gradual polarization taking place in which restrictions are rising predominantly in countries that already have high or very high restrictions or hostilities, and are declining or staying the same predominately in countries that already have low or moderate restrictions or hostilities.
Other key findings from the study include:
- Among the five geographic regions covered in this report, the Middle East-North Africa had the highest government and social restrictions on religion, while the Americas were the least restrictive region on both measures. The Middle East-North Africa region also had the greatest number of countries where government restrictions on religion increased from mid-2006 to mid-2009, with about a third of the region’s countries (30%) imposing greater restrictions. In contrast, no country in the Americas registered a substantial increase on either index.
- Prior to the recent uprising in Egypt, government restrictions on religion were already very high there. By mid-2009, Egypt also had joined the 5% of countries with the most intense social hostilities involving religion. However, the increase in social hostilities in Egypt fell just short of being a substantial increase, as defined in this study.
- Government restrictions on religion increased substantially in two European countries, France and Serbia. In France, members of Parliament began discussing whether women should be allowed to wear the burqa, and President Nicolas Sarkozy said the head-to-toe covering was “not welcome” in French society. The French government also put pressure on religious groups it considers to be cults, including Scientologists. For example, the lead prosecutor in a fraud case involving the Church of Scientology sought to have the group declared a “criminal enterprise.” In Serbia, meanwhile, the government refused to legally register Jehovah’s Witnesses and several other minority religious groups. There also were reports that some government officials referred to minority religious groups as “sects” or other pejorative terms.
- Government restrictions also increased substantially in Malaysia, which, like Egypt, already had very high restrictions to begin with. Although the country’s constitution recognizes freedom of religion, Malaysia restricts the observance of Islamic beliefs and practices that do not conform to Sunni Islam. Indeed, the Malaysian government monitors more than 50 Muslim groups that it considers unorthodox, including the Ahmadiyya movement.
- In China, there was no change in the level of government restrictions on religion, which remained very high. But social hostilities involving religion, which had been relatively low, increased substantially from mid-2006 to mid-2009. During that time period protests erupted among the predominantly Buddhist population in Tibet and among Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang Province over what they saw as cultural and economic domination by ethnic Han Chinese.
- In some other Asian countries, social hostilities also involved ethnic and religious minorities, such as Malay Muslim separatists in southern Thailand, who were involved in several violent clashes with the majority Buddhist population.
- Social hostilities involving religion in the United States remained at a moderate level. In recent years, the U.S. annually has had at least 1,300 hate crimes involving religious bias, according to FBI reports. (Most of the recent controversies over the construction of mosques and Islamic centers in New York City and other communities across the country took place after the period covered in this report. )
- Religion-related terrorist groups were active in 74 countries around the world in the period ending in mid-2009. The groups carried out acts of violence in half of the 74 countries. (In the other half, their activities were limited to recruitment and fundraising.) In Russia, for example, more than 1,100 casualties resulted from religion-related terrorist attacks during the two-year period ending in mid-2009. This was more than double the number of casualties recorded in the previous reporting period. This includes people who were killed, wounded, displaced from their homes, kidnapped or had their property destroyed in religion-related terrorist attacks.
1 As of 2010, Muslims made up nearly a quarter (23.4%) of the world’s population, according to the Pew Forum’s January 2011 report The Future of the Global Muslim Population.
The Pew Forum is currently compiling population data on other world religions and intends to publish a series of reports on the demography of religion in 2011-2012. In the meantime, the population figures used in this section are from the World Religion Database at Boston University, which estimates that Christians comprise about a third (32.9%) of the world’s population. (return to text)
2 Answers to Questions 1 and 2 in the Government Restrictions Index were recoded for the period from mid-2006 to mid-2008 to match the coding conventions used for the period from mid-2007 to mid-2009. After the recoding, two fewer countries scored in the high or very high category for the period ending in mid-2008. As a result, this report lists 62 countries as having high or very high restrictions as of mid-2008 rather than the 64 countries listed in the 2009 baseline report, Global Restrictions on Religion. (return to text)