Global Restrictions on Religion

Some Progress, but Serious Problems Remain

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Towards the end of February the Pew Research Center published a report on hostility and restrictions regarding religion: It covers the period of 2013.

Overall it found that social hostilities regarding religion declined a bit in 2013, from a six-year peak the previous year. Nevertheless, a significant number of countries still suffer from very high levels of social hostility, out of a total of 198 countries it was down slightly from 2012.

The number of countries with high or very high government restrictions on religion did not vary much – 27% in 2013 compared with 29% the previous year.

The median level of government restrictions on religion increased in two of the five regions covered by the report – Asia-Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa – and decreased in two regions -Middle East-North Africa and Europe. It stayed the same in the Americas.

The Middle East and North Africa continued to have the highest median level of government restrictions.

At the same time Europe was certainly not free from problems. The report found that in about two-thirds of the countries in Europe, organized groups used force or coercion in an attempt to dominate public life with their perspective on religion.

“In many cases, organized groups that oppose the presence of minority religious groups in their country intimidated or attacked these religious communities,” the report said.

When the two areas of social hostilities and government restrictions are combined the report said that restrictions on religion were high or very high in 39% of countries.

Taking into account the fact that some of the countries with restrictions or hostility have large populations, such as India and China, the initial finding that hostility has declined turns out not to be the case. Overall, about 5.5 billion people, or 77% of the world’s population were living in countries with a high or very high overall level of restrictions on religion in 2013, up from 76% in 2012 and 68% as of 2007.

China and India

Among the most populous countries the highest overall levels of restrictions were found in Myanmar, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and Russia. In all of these countries both the government and society at large impose numerous limits on religious beliefs and practices. For its part China had the highest level of government restrictions in 2013, and India had the highest level of social hostilities involving religion.

Consistent with the findings of previous years Christians and Muslims, who account for more than half of the world’s population, were subjected to harassment in the largest number of countries. Christians were harassed, either by government or social groups, in 102 of the 198 countries included in the study (52%), while Muslims were harassed in 99 countries (50%).

For both groups there was a decline from the previous year when Christians were harassed in 110 nations, and Muslims in 109.

The study also reported that in recent years there has been a marked increase in the number of countries where Jews were harassed. In 2013, harassment of Jews, either by government or social groups, was found in 77 countries, which is a seven-year high. Jews are much more likely to be harassed by individuals or groups in society than by governments, the report noted.

There was a decrease in the number of countries in which Hindus were harassed, from 16 in 2012 to 9 in 2013. The number of countries in which Buddhists were harassed stayed almost the same – 12 in 2013, compared with 13 in 2012.

The harassment of specific religious groups takes many forms, including physical assaults; arrest and detentions; desecration of holy sites; and discrimination against religious groups in employment, education and housing.

Changes in restrictions

In terms of changes in individual countries the Pew Research Center study found that only three countries had large changes in their scores regarding government restrictions. Two countries – Burundi and South Sudan – moved in the direction of higher restrictions and one country – Somalia – moved towards lower restrictions.

Regarding large changes in terms of social hostility two had increases and 12 had decreases. The two countries with large increases were the Central African Republic and Niger.

The report described how in the Central African Republic in 2013 sectarian violence between Muslim rebels and Christian vigilante groups resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people and led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

In Vietnam, regarding state actions, groups not officially recognized by the government were subject to various forms of harassment, including police beatings and arrests.

Governments at some level banned certain religious groups in 37 of the 198 countries covered by the report. While governments at some level attempted to eliminate a religious group’s presence in 24 of the 198 countries.

In last Sunday’s Angelus, referring to the violence and persecution of Christians in Syria and Iraq, Pope Francis said that: “I urge everyone to reject violence and respect the dignity of every person and the sanctity of human life.” An appeal that is increasingly urgent given events around the world.

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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