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Religious-freedom restrictions at highest levels for more than a decade, research finds

04 December 2020

Asia and the Pacific suffering most from government force


A protest is held in New Delhi, India, against citizenship acts, in February. The legislation grants Indian citizenship to refugees from Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, and Parsi communities who have fled religious persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh

A protest is held in New Delhi, India, against citizenship acts, in February. The legislation grants Indian citizenship to refugees from Hindu, Christ...

RESTRICTIONS on religious freedom reached their highest levels in more than a decade in 2018, findings released by the Pew Research Center at the end of November have shown.

The report is the 11th from the Washington-based organisation measuring global restrictions on religious freedom.

The data was gathered from 198 countries, whose changes in attitudes to religion and religious groups were ranked according to two ten-point indexes: the Government Restrictions Index (GRI), based on 20 different indicators; and the Social Hostilities Index (SHI), based on 13 indicators.

The indicators used in the GRI include questions on whether a country’s constitution guarantees a level of religious freedom, whether the government interferes with worship and other religious practices, and whether religious broadcasting and the spread of religious literature are restricted.

The indicators used in the SHI involve questions such as whether acts of violence from groups or individuals are motivated by religious bias, and whether organised groups use force or coercion to impose their perspective on religion on to public life.

The number of countries with high or very high restriction levels on religious freedom (4.5 or higher out of ten on the GRI) rose from 52 in 2017 (26 per cent of those surveyed) to 56 in 2018 (28 per cent of those surveyed). Asia and the Pacific were the region with the most governments using force against religious groups, such as property damage, displacement, prison sentences, and killings.

In the region, in 31 out of 50 countries (62 per cent) state repression was linked to religion in 2018, rising from 26 countries (52 per cent) in 2017. In 2018, the country with the highest score on the GRI was China, at 9.3, followed by Iran, which had a score of 8.5.

The research showed a strong link between restrictions on religious freedom and authoritarian political systems. Out of 26 countries that had very severe state-enforced limits on religious freedom, 17 (65 per cent) were defined as authoritarian.

Among the 74 states with low levels of government restriction, only five (seven per cent) were authoritarian, based in sub-Saharan Africa (Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, the Republic of the Congo, Swaziland, and Togo). “Hybrid” regimes made up 18 per cent (13), 36 per cent (27) were flawed democracies, and nine per cent (seven) were full democracies.

Levels of harassment based on religion were reported in more than 90 per cent of the countries surveyed: 185 out of 198.

In 2018, Christians and Muslims experienced more harassment than any other group: Christians were being harassed in 145 countries, compared with 143 in 2017. Muslims endured harassment in 143 countries, compared with 140 in 2017.

Among the 25 most populous countries in the world, where more than 75 per cent of the world’s population resides, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Russia had the highest levels overall of both government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion in 2018; of these, India was top. The most highly populated countries with the lowest restriction scores were Japan, South Africa, Italy, Brazil, and the United States. Japan was the lowest.

The report suggests that acts of social hostility linked to religion from private individuals, groups, or organisations decreased slightly in 2018. The median score on the SHI went from 2.1 in 2017 to 2.0 in 2018, because fewer individuals from a minority-faith group had experienced assault or displacement.

The country with the highest score on the SHI in 2018 was the Central African Republic, followed by Egypt.

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