National Edition

Religious freedom under increasing pressure around the world, latest Pew report finds

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 14 2014 9:25 p.m. MST

Egyptian Christians raise crosses during a protest against the military.

Amr Nabil, Associated Press

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Asia Bibi was getting water one day in 2009 when a handful of her Pakistani neighbors objected to the Christian mother of five sharing the well with them. Sharing water with a Christian contaminated the well, the Muslim women said. When Bibi spoke back, they accused her of blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad.

That was five years ago. She has been in prison ever since, and in the interval two Pakistani politicians who stood up to defend her have been killed.

The Asia Bibi case is just one piece within a much larger puzzle of religious friction around the world captured in a new Pew Research Center report released Tuesday. This is Pew's fifth annual report tracking religious persecution around the world, a dense 90 pages of data, with scores of drafts and charts.

But behind all of the data are scores of countries and hundreds of victims much like Bibi.

Real innovation

The Pew report tracks religious oppressions along two dimensions — official government oppression and informal religiously driven hostility. Egypt topped the list of oppressive governments, and Pakistan ranked first in religious hostility, but a handful of others have edged into the radar, including some you would expect, like Syria, and some you might not, like Thailand.

The Pew report is a real innovation, said Brett Scharffs, associate director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at the BYU Law School. Pew takes reports from the U.S. government, Canada and the European Union, among others.

Then by separating social hostility from government policy, Scharffs said, and extending the timeline over time, Pew can reveal patterns that might otherwise be lost.

“And what that research confirms is what those of us who follow the issue closely know deep down,” Scharffs said, “and that is that the trends are not positive.”

The Pew study is valuable in part, Scharffs said, because it “illustrates the reciprocal relationship between hostility and legal restrictions.” The report also illustrates the “bellwether” status of religious freedom as a marker for other human rights.

The list also reveals how much hostility occurs between factions in a single religion, Scharffs said. Iraq, for example, shows up on the list largely because of ongoing conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, and the same is true of Afghanistan.

Scharffs said that Christians in the Middle East have reached a crisis point. “The treatment of Christians throughout the Middle East is quite alarming, and this study confirms that.”

No Catholics

Setting aside Western Europe — which is overwhelmingly secular though still nominally Christian — Scharffs noted the relative absence of Catholic majority countries from the list, including places like South America and the Philippines, where Catholicism dominates and is strongly held.

He credits that shift to the legacy of Vatican II, which in the 1960s repositioned Catholic dogma away from religious exclusivity and toward a broader interest in Christian living. The councils that produced the shift specifically recast Protestants as “separated brethren,” rather than “heretics,” and held that non-Christians could be saved if they lived Christian values.

That is not true of other dominant religions, where it is more common for the dominant religion to align with the state to the detriment of religious minorities and schismatics within their own faith.


There is no concept of separation of church and state in Islamic tradition, Scharffs said, and even in the Arab Spring the advocates of Western style liberalism were “quickly eclipsed.”

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