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Restrictions on religion on the increase globally, says Pew Research Center

By Cian Molloy - 21 July, 2019

Government restrictions on the practice of religion are on the increase around the world, as are social hostilities involving religion, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Washington-based organisation says: “Over the decade from 2007 to 2017, government restrictions on religion – laws, policies and actions by state officials that restrict religious beliefs and practices – increased markedly around the world. And social hostilities involving religion – including violence and harassment by private individuals, organisations or groups – also have risen since 2007.”

In a report published this week, the Pew Research Center found that 52 governments, including some in very populous countries like China, Indonesia and Russia, impose either “high” or “very high” levels of restrictions on religion. This compares with only 40 governments in 2007, the first year that the Washington-based fact tank started examining this issue.

The Pew Center completed its survey of 198 countries worldwide by surveying annual reports published by the US State Department, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, UN bodies and various European non-governmental organisations.

Where government restrictions have risen, the restrictions have made an impact in several different ways, notably through new laws and policies restricting religious freedom, such as requiring that particular religious groups register in order to operate, and government favouritism of religious groups, for example, through funding for religious education, property and clergy.

Government limits on religious activities and government harassment of religious groups are not as prevalent as the restrictions described above, but these two indices have also been rising over the past decade. Indeed, in Europe the average score for government limits on religious activities has doubled in the last decade as governments move to restrict the practice of male circumcision, which affects Jews and Muslims, and also move to restrict evangelical/proselytising activity.

Additionally, several European governments, such as the government of France, have introduced bans on the wearing of Muslim dress in state schools. In 2007 there were 5 European countries that had some kind of ban on Muslim women’s dress; in 2017 that number had quadrupled to 20.

Conversely, in the Middle East there are several countries where harassment of women for not following religious dress codes has increased.

Harassment by individuals and social groups is on the increase, but not greatly so. However, some of this involves growing levels of religious violence by organised groups. These violent groups range from the Nordic Resistance Movement, a neo-Nazi organisation active in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Demark that targets Muslims, to Boko Haram, an African jihadist organisation that has killed tens of thousands of people in Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon because they did not follow Wahhabism, a strict form of Sunni Islam.

In 2007 the Pew Center found that there were 4 European countries out of 45 in total that had individuals or groups that used violence or the threat of violence to force others to accept their own practice and beliefs.

A decade later that increased to 15 European countries, including the United Kingdom, where a Sunni Muslim killed an Ahmadi Muslim because he had “disrespected the Prophet Muhammad”.

Ukraine is included in the list because of a 2015 incident where four Jehovah’s Witnesses were beaten and then held at gunpoint until they declared that Orthodox Christianity was the only “true religion”.

The report does have some good news: interreligious tension and violence is declining, notably in India, where inter-communal clashes between Hindus and Muslims are becoming rarer. In 2007 there were 91 countries worldwide experiencing “some level of violence due to tensions between religious groups”, but 10 years later that had fallen to 57 countries.

All 198 countries surveyed in the report are given a government restrictions index (GRI) score and a social hostility index (SHI) score, and the Pew Center is quick to point out that while these scores can give readers a sense of cultural/political change in various countries over the last ten years there is a limit on how they can be used to compare one country with another.

For example, France and Qatar have similarly high overall GRI scores, but these are the result of differing factors. France scores low in the sub-category of government favouritism, whereas Qatar scores much higher because Islam is the official state religion, but Qatar scores low in the sub-category of government harassment of religious groups, while France scores high because it continues to enforce a national ban on full-face coverings in public.

Ireland was recorded as having one of the lowest GRI and SHI scores in the world, but both these scores have increased slightly in the last ten years, with the social hostility index score increasing the most as a result of a growing number of attacks on individuals and property on the basis of religion.

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