From mid-2007 to mid-2010, the number of countries ranked highest in government restrictions on religion increased from 10 to 18, Pew researchers found, while the number of countries with the highest levels of social hostilities toward religion grew from 10 to 15 during the same period.
In the last year studied, 63 percent of the countries worldwide had increased government restrictions compared with 56 percent during the previous three years. Countries with increased social hostilities toward religion climbed to 49 percent of countries in the last year studied, compared with 44 percent in the previous three years.
"Overall, restrictions increased at least somewhat in 66 percent of countries and decreased in 28 percent between mid-2009 and mid-2010," the report stated, "this exceeds the increase during the preceding three years, when 56 percent of countries had increases and 39 percent had decreases."
Five of the seven major religious groups included in the study — Christians, Jews, Buddhists, adherents of folk or traditional religions, and members of other world religions — experienced some type of religious hostility by governments in 347 countries in 2010, which was a four-year high, the study stated.
Christians and Muslims, who comprise more than half of the world's population, were harassed in the largest number of countries, while Jews took a disproportionate share of abuse as they account for less than one percent of the world's population but experienced harassment in 85 countries.
Among the notable findings among countries with high restrictions on religion is the correlation between government restrictions and social harassment of faith. Grim said the data show that when government favors one faith over all others, sectarian clashes break out and adherents of minority religions suffer for practicing their beliefs.
"It's not always possible to discern what the causal link is, but it is clear that when there are higher restrictions (on religion) then there will be higher hostilities," he said.
The trends identified in the study were in place before the recent Arab spring took hold overthrowing governments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, igniting ongoing uprisings in Syria and Bahrain and protests in about a dozen Middle East countries calling for change. But it remains unknown how religion will fare as various factions continue to fight for power and influence in many of those countries.
Farr predicts the situation will worsen in those countries unless the foreign policies among western democracies address religious persecution and the Muslim populations learn to defend their faith without violence.
"You cannot have stable democracies where this kind of religious persecution exists," he said. "Unfortunately, many of the countries that represent the 75 percent (of the world's population living under severe restrictions) are struggling for self governance and stable democracy."
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