Picture of rising religious restrictions around the world

Pew Research Center in its tenth annual report dives deeper into the ways government restrictions on religion and social hostilities involving religion have changed, from 2007 to 2017

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, organizations or groups – also have risen since 2007, the year Pew Research Center began tracking the issue.

Indeed, the latest data shows 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, up from 40 in 2007. And the number of countries where people are experiencing the highest levels of social hostilities involving religion has risen from 39 to 56 over the course of the study.

Government restrictions have risen in several different ways. Laws and policies restricting religious freedom (such as requiring that religious groups register in order to operate) and government favoritism of religious groups (through funding for religious education, property and clergy, for example) have consistently been the most prevalent types of restrictions globally and in each of the five regions tracked in the study: Americas, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Middle East-North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Both types of restrictions have been rising; the global average score in each of these categories increased more than 20% between 2007 and 2017.

Levels of government limits on religious activities and government harassment of religious groups are somewhat lower. But they also have been rising over the past decade – and in some cases, even more steeply. For instance, the average score for government limits on religious activities in Europe (including efforts to restrict proselytizing and male circumcision) has doubled since 2007, and the average score for government harassment in the Middle East-North Africa region (such as criminal prosecutions of Ahmadis or other minority sects of Islam) has increased by 72%.1

The global pattern has not been as consistent when it comes to social hostilities involving religion. One category of social hostilities has increased substantially – hostilities related to religious norms (for example, harassment of women for violating religious dress codes) – driving much of the overall rise in social hostilities involving religion. Two other types of social hostilities, harassment by individuals and social groups (ranging from small gangs to mob violence) and religious violence byorganized groups (including neo-Nazi groups such as the Nordic Resistance Movement and Islamist groups like Boko Haram), have risen more modestly.

Meanwhile, a fourth category of social hostilities – interreligious tension and violence (for instance, sectarian or communal clashes between Hindus and Muslims in India) – has declined markedly since the baseline year (17%). By one specific measure, in 2007, 91 countries experienced some level of violence due to tensions between religious groups, but by 2017 that number dropped to 57 countries.2

These trends suggest that, in general, religious restrictions have been rising around the world for the past decade, but they have not been doing so evenly across all geographic regions or all kinds of restrictions. The level of restrictions started high in the Middle East-North Africa region, and is now highest there in all eight categories measured by the study. But some of the biggest increases over the last decade have been in other regions, including Europe – where growing numbers of governments have been placing limits on Muslim women’s dress – and sub-Saharan Africa, where some groups have tried to impose their religious norms on others through kidnappings and forced conversions.

This big-picture view of restrictions on religion comes from a decadelong series of studies by Pew Research Center analyzing the extent to which governments and societies around the world impinge on religious beliefs and practices. Researchers annually comb through more than a dozen publicly available, widely cited sources of information, including annual reports on international religious freedom by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, as well as publications by a variety of European and UN bodies and several independent, nongovernmental organizations. (See Methodology for more details on sources used in the study.) Due to the availability of the source material and the time it takes to code, each annual Pew Research Center report looks at events that took place about 18 months to two years before its publication. For example, this report covers events that occurred in 2017.

The studies are part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project, which analyzes religious change and its impact on societies around the world. The project is jointly funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation.

The previous reports have focused largely on year-over-year change, but this 10th report provides an opportunity for a broader look back at how the situation has changed around the world – and, more specifically, in particular regions and in 198 countries – over the length of the study. Also for the first time this year, researchers have broken down the two main, 10-point indexes used in the study – the Government Restrictions Index (GRI) and the Social Hostilities Index (SHI) – into four categories each.3

The categories can help give readers a sense of what goes into the broader GRI and SHI scores, and they also are useful when comparing countries that have similar overall scores but very different situations within their borders.

For instance, France and Qatar have similar overall GRI scores (both are in the “high” category”), but that does not mean that the lived experience of someone in those two countries is similar with respect to government restrictions on religion. France scores low in the category of government favoritism, while Qatar scores much higher (Islam is the official state religion, according to the constitution). And while Qatar scores lower on government harassment of religious groups, France has higher scores in this category, which includes enforcing restrictions on religious dress. France continues to enforce a national ban on full-face coverings in public, and local authorities also impose various restrictions that mostly affect Muslim women. In 2017, for example, the city of Lorette banned headscarves in a public pool.4 Laws regarding women’s religious dress also have boosted France’s score in the category of limits on religious activities, but Qatar scores even higher in this category, in part due to laws that target non-Islamic faiths by restricting public worship, the display of religious symbols and proselytization.5

For a full list of how all 198 countries and territories included in the study score in each category, see Appendix C. The remainder of this overview looks in more detail at the eight categories of restrictions on religion – four involving government restrictions and four involving social hostilities by private groups or individuals.

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