WASHINGTON — No matter how you slice it, religious freedom around the world is in trouble.
The Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life released a study back in 2009 that found 70 percent of the world's population lived in countries that had high levels of hostility or restrictions on religion. This month, Pew's latest report, "Rising Restrictions on Religion," does not offer much comfort: Things are getting worse.
The new study looks at 2006-2009 and found religious restrictions and hostilities have increased in 23 of the world's 198 countries. In 163 countries things stayed about the same and in 12 countries conditions actually improved.
Not so bad — except those 23 countries where things got worse account for about one third of the world's population — more than 2.2 billion people.
"Obviously not all those people are suffering persecution or harassment for their faith," said Brian J. Grim, a senior researcher and director of cross-national data at Pew and the primary researcher on this study. "In fact, in some countries people may not notice the restrictions simply because they are not practicing a faith or they are part of the majority faith."
Grim gave the example of Russia, where the Russian Orthodox Church is the majority faith and doesn't feel any restrictions on religion. On the other hand, Pentecostal churches or Seventh-day Adventists may face restrictions constantly.
The Pew study takes two approaches to measuring religious freedom.
One approach is to look at "Government Restrictions" on religious freedom. "We look at the laws that protect the free practice of religion," Grim said, "but also if governments have policies that may, or may not be written into law, that might discriminate or target certain groups." These are laws and polices that control proselytism, conversion and, in some cases, attempt to eradicate a religious group.
Egypt and France both saw rises in governmental restrictions during the study period. The countries with the worst restrictions were Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and China.
The other approach is to look at "Social Hostilities" involving religion. This is the non-governmental actors and actions taken against religion. "These are groups in society or even the neighbor next door who may mistreat or attack someone based on their religion," Grim said. Social hostilities are measured by specific incidents of harassment, abuse, violence and even graffiti and hate speech. Also included are higher levels of attacks from mob violence, religion-related terrorism, war and so forth.
China, Nigeria, Russia, Thailand, the United Kingdom and Vietnam had increases in social hostility against religion. The countries with the worst social hostilities against religion were Iraq, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia. The number of countries experiencing mob violence over religion increased from 38 countries in 2008 to 52 in 2009.
"Government restrictions and social hostilities somewhat go in tandem," Grim said. "Where they are high on one they tend to be high on the other." Egypt, for example, ranked very high in both categories. Only Kyrgyzstan had an in increase in one and a decrease in the other (government restrictions went up, social hostilities went down).
But Pew didn't just find problems abroad. Closer to home in the United States, the study found there is some moderate social hostility against religion in the U.S. One measure used by Pew was the FBI's Hate Crime Statistics. In 2009 there were 1,303 incidents of religion-related hate crime in the United States, including 931 against Jewish people.
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