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.
CONTEXT FOR CONFLICTS
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.
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."
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