Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Globally, Government Restrictions on Religion Reached Peak Levels in 2021, While Social Hostilities Went Down

4. Restrictions on religion in the world’s 25 most populous countries in 2021

Egypt, Pakistan, India, Indonesia and Nigeria had the highest levels of overall restrictions (both government restrictions and social hostilities) among the 25 most populous countries in 2021. Japan, the United States, South Africa, Italy and Brazil had the lowest levels of overall restrictions among these countries.

Each year we look separately at the 25 most populous countries, some of which have multiple religious and ethnic minorities, because together they account for nearly three-quarters of the world’s population (that is, about 5.8 billion people out of the 7.8 billion alive in 2020).8 Analyzing how many of these large countries have restrictions, then, sheds light on how large swaths of the global population may be affected by government policies or social hostilities involving religion.

At the same time, it is important to note that these restrictions and hostilities typically do not impact everybody in a country equally; for example, they may affect members of minority religious groups more than they affect people in majority religious groups.

Government Restrictions Index (GRI)

Among the 25 largest countries, China, Russia, Iran, Egypt and Indonesia had the highest levels of government restrictions on religion. All had “very high” GRI scores. On the other hand, the lowest levels of government restrictions in this group were recorded in Japan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Africa, the Philippines and the U.S. The United States had “moderate” levels of government restrictions while the other four had “low” levels.

Social Hostilities Index (SHI)

Among the 25 most populous countries, Nigeria, India, Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh had the highest levels of social hostilities relating to religion.

Nigeria, India, Egypt and Pakistan had “very high” SHI scores while Bangladesh fell into the “high” category. Japan, China, the U.S., Turkey and South Africa had the lowest levels of social hostilities in this group. Turkey and South Africa had “moderate” levels of social hostilities, while the other three countries had “low” levels.

Several of the most populous countries had similar levels of government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion. For example, Japan had “low” scores on both the GRI and SHI, Italy was “moderate” on both indexes, and Pakistan had “very high” levels of government restrictions and social hostilities.

However, other countries had GRI and SHI scores at different ends of the spectrum from one another. In China, for example, government restrictions once again fell into the “very high” category, while social hostilities remained at a “low” level. On the other hand, the Philippines was in the “high” category on the SHI and the “low” category on the GRI. Iran, meanwhile, had “very high” government restrictions and “moderate” social hostilities.

How GRI scores changed from 2020 to 2021

None of the 25 most populous countries experienced a large change (defined as 2.0 points or more) in their GRI scores. The Democratic Republic of the Congo had a modest decrease (defined as a change of 1.0-1.9 points), while most countries had small changes (less than 1.0 point).

When looking at category changes within the GRI, Pakistan moved from “high” to “very high” levels in 2021. None of the other 24 most populous countries moved to different categories on the GRI in 2021.

How SHI scores changed from 2020 to 2021

There were more changes from 2020 to 2021 on the Social Hostilities Index. Turkey’s SHI score dropped significantly (more than 2.0 points), while South Africa had a modest decrease and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania and Thailand experienced modest increases.

The decrease in Turkey was partially due to there being no reported abductions or targeted killings of Christians in 2021. The previous year, the mother of a Chaldean Catholic priest was abducted and later found dead.

Several of the 25 most populous countries fell into different categories on the SHI in 2021 than in the previous year. For example, Turkey and South Africa’s levels of social hostilities both fell from “high” to “moderate” and the U.S. went from “moderate” to “low.”

Conversely, Russia and Thailand both rose from “moderate” to “high” levels of social hostilities involving religion. In Thailand, the SHI score went up modestly in 2021, in part due to incidents involving physical harassment. For example, the U.S. State Department reported that a group called the Buddhism Protection Organization for Peace “protested and obstructed” the building of a mosque. (The mosque construction continued after the group left the area).

In Russia, where the actual SHI score increase was small, an unidentified man assaulted an 82-year-old scientist on a bus and shouted antisemitic insults at him. Antisemitic incidents involving physical assault had not been reported in 2020.

Chart shows Restrictions on religion among the world’s 25 most populous countries
  1. The population figures used for this report are estimates for 2020 that were published in the 2022 revision of the UN Population Division’s World Population Prospects.

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