Rising hostility against religion worldwide

Published: Saturday, Aug. 27 2011 1:03 a.m. MDT

Because this study's data is from 2009, some of the current religious conflicts are not reflected in the data. Grim said this information, however, gives context for current events.

For example, the report shows how government restrictions were increasing in the Middle East and North Africa before the Arab Spring uprisings. "It gives some indication of the pressures that people were under in that region — at least from government on religion. We are not saying the rise in restrictions was the cause of the protests, but it certainly was a part of the context," Grim said. "Egypt, in particular, had an increase in government restrictions on religion during this period."

The largest increases in social hostility took place in Europe, Grim said. "Much of the hostilities in Europe are attributable to the difficulties of societies adapting to the new and growing Muslim minorities in their countries." This gives a background for the July shooting rampage that took 77 lives in Norway.

Pew found that Christians were harassed in 130 countries, Muslims in 117 countries and Jews in 75 countries. Hindus and Buddhists, who are less spread throughout the world, were harassed in 27 and 16 countries, respectively.

IMPROVING CONDITIONS

Michael K. Young, president of the University of Washington, served in the George H.W. Bush administration during 2003 and 2004 as chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. The commission monitors the state of religious freedom around the world.

"Our role was to encourage the government to designate countries that were problematic in this area," Young said. "And we encouraged members of Congress — who often would do it — to call those ambassadors from countries that were having those problems and have hearings about it."

Young said many of the countries that have problems with religious freedom are also countries that receive substantial foreign aid from the United States. But, he said, aid isn't currently being used as a reward to encourage change. It also isn't being used to help foster structures inside other governments to advance religious freedom.

To Young, religious freedom is one of the essential elements of a working democracy.

"There is a whole range of protections that are needed to encircle democracy in structures and institutions that ensure that democracy gives people choice and that it doesn't become just another way of restricting them," Young said. Giving people the right to vote is only part of the answer.

"So there are lots of things government can do. We act like we are powerless a lot of times, but we simply are not powerless. What we lack is will most of the time," Young said.

BEYOND THE NUMBERS

Robert T. Smith, Managing Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School, values the Pew study for the way numbers help to make comparisons and track trends, but also looks at things that can't be measured. Different societies have different assumptions at play.

"What I think is probably impossible to measure, but I think is really significant, is the general attitudes of society that put pressure on people and affects them in their daily lives," Smith said. "If, for example, somebody converts to a religion, and as a result their job or some other government benefit is put into jeopardy, that is significant social pressure." But other pressures are more subtle, such as family pressure on someone who wants to convert to another religion. In most societies there will be pressure, but in some cultures defying parents would make someone an outcast from society. "That is not exactly a legal issue," Smith said. "And it is even questionable what the responsibility of government would be for those kinds of societal norms."

The center at BYU works in a different sphere to improve religious freedom. The approach isn't government-to-government, but more person to person.

"Unless you are sensitive to these things, you can make a lot of noise … criticizing another country in their failure to protect religious freedom, but you are not going to be in a position to work with the persons who have enormous influence over religious policy in the country. They will just view you as a critic who has no understanding. But if you do try to understand the situation in a country … there's a lot of shared values and a lot of common goals that we have with other countries — and where they can move forward, they often will."

One of those shared values, Smith said, is valuing religious freedom.

"Almost all countries at least give lip service to religious freedom," Smith said. "This provides some leverage to work with people within the context of what is politically feasible to improve religious freedom conditions within a country."

Grim said religious freedom requires vigilance.

"Religious freedom is not something you can write into the Constitution and say 'There, it's done,'" Grim said. "It's a dynamic issue that can be affected by changes in society as well as changes in government — not just laws, but policies. It is something that can and does change."

EMAIL: mdegroote@desnews.com, TWITTER: www.twitter.com/degroote degroote

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