WASHINGTON (BP)–Social hostilities relating to religion or government restrictions on religion rose substantially for more than 2.2 billion people — nearly a third of the world’s total population — between 2006 and 2009, according to a new study released by Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.
While social hostilities rose most noticeably in Europe, the study — titled “Rising Restrictions on Religion” — also found that social hostilities involving religion have been rising significantly in China, Thailand and Vietnam, according to a summary of the research released Aug. 9.
Much of the tension in Europe centered around the region’s rapidly growing Muslim population but in some cases also reflected rising anti-Semitism and antagonism toward minorities such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, the report noted.
“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 report stated. “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.'”
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called the study’s findings unsurprising and noted that Christians are persecuted in greater proportions than any other religious group worldwide.
“As a serving member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which monitors the state of religious freedom around the world, these dismal research results are not surprising but instead [are] the acceleration of a downward spiral that has been going on for more than a decade,” Land told Baptist Press. “Religious freedom around the world is in decline from Russia, to Africa, almost everywhere in the Middle East and in Asia. It’s caused great concern for all freedom-loving people.
“Christians should be praying for their brothers and sisters who are undergoing persecution around the world,” Land added. “And it is Christians who are disproportionately being persecuted around the world.”
Five of the 10 countries that registered substantial increases in social hostilities were in Europe: Bulgaria, Denmark, Russia, Sweden and the United Kingdom, according to the report. Nearly one-third of the countries in the Middle East-North Africa region saw increased government restrictions on religion, the report said. Egypt ranked in the top 5 percent of all countries on both government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion. Indonesia was the only other country in the world that had scores as high as Egypt on both measures.
Most of the countries that had substantial increases in social hostilities or government restrictions involving religion already had high levels of hostilities or restrictions, the report noted. Nearly half the countries that substantially decreased in restrictions or hostilities already registered low levels of restrictions or hostilities.
That suggests a shift taking place in which restrictions are getting higher in countries where they already were relatively high, while restrictions are decreasing in countries where they already were relatively low, the report said.
“There seems to be somewhat of a polarization,” particularly in countries with constitutional prohibitions against blasphemy, Brian Grim, the study’s primary researcher, told the Religion News Service. “When you have one set of restrictions in place, then it’s easier to add on.”
The report also found the extent of violence and abuse related to religion increased in more places than it decreased during the 2006-2009 period. Instances of violence ranged from damage to or destruction of personal or religious properties to individuals being killed, physically abused, imprisoned, detained or displaced from their homes. Crimes, malicious acts or violence motivated by religious hatred or bias occurred in nearly three-fourths of all countries, the report found. The number of countries that experienced mob violence related to religion rose from 38 (19 percent) as of mid-2008 to 52 (26 percent) as of mid-2009.
Christians faced incidents of either social or government harassment in 130 countries (66 percent) and Muslims experienced persecution in 117 countries (59 percent). Hindus and Buddhists faced harassment in far fewer places — 14 percent and 8 percent, respectively — even though together they account for roughly one-fifth of the world’s population, the report found. Although Jews comprise less than 1 percent of the world’s population, social or government harassment of Jews was reported in 38 percent of the world’s countries.
Ten countries identified in the report as very high in hostilities involving religion were Iraq, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Israel and Egypt. The 10 countries registering very high government restrictions were Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, China, Maldives, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Eritrea and Indonesia, the report said.
Mark Kelly is a senior writer and an assistant editor for Baptist Press.