Threats to religious liberty around the world increased markedly from mid-2009 to mid-2010 as more countries imposed severe restrictions on religion and those with historically low restrictions, such as the United States, moved to moderate levels, a new study found.
The annual survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found 75 percent of the world's population lived in countries where religious restrictions were high in 2010, compared to 70 percent the year before and 68 percent in 2007, when Pew reported its first global survey on religious restrictions.
"That represents hundreds of millions of people who weren't living under those conditions the year before," said Brian Grim, senior researcher for the study, "Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion," released Thursday.
Unlike during the previous three years of the study, restrictions on religious practice increased across the globe and affected almost all faiths in 2009-10, from Christians and Muslims to more obscure beliefs that are becoming increasingly popular.
"(Religious restrictions) didn't just rise in some parts (of the world) and pull the rest of the world up, but in each of the major regions," Grim said. "The rising tide also affected not just countries where hostilities were already high, but even those that began the period with lower levels, such as Switzerland and the United States."
In the U.S., incidents of social harassment and government restriction of religion rose between 2009 and 2010, the first time both indexes increased in the same year for the U.S. since Pew researchers began monitoring religious restrictions in mid-2006.
Acts of religious terrorism — such as the November 2009 shooting rampage that left 13 people dead at Fort Hood, Texas, or the infamous underwear bomber — were a key factor in the U.S. Social Hostilities Index, which rose from 2.0 as of mid-2009 to 3.4 as of mid-2010. The score moved the U.S. from the lower end of the moderate range of hostilities to the upper end of that range.
The nation's score on the Government Restrictions Index increased from 1.6 in mid-2009 to 2.7 in mid-2010, moving the U.S. from the low category to the moderate category for the first time in the four years studied.
The restrictions were primarily on the local and state level and ranged from zoning enforcement against construction or expansion of a religious property to prohibiting religious symbols or attire in prisons.
Grim couldn't predict whether the current legal battle over enforcement of the federal Affordable Care Act's contraception provisions would count under government restrictions since a court hasn't ruled in the cases filed against the government.
Asked whether the report provides ammo to religious liberty advocates who say religious freedom in America is under unprecedented attack, Grim explained that the study considers just four years, and over time the government restrictions may be resolved in favor of religion.
"One unique aspect of the United States is that there are safeguards in place to address problems as they come up," he said, referring to federal intervention and avenues for appealing government decisions.
Thomas Farr, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, said the "trajectory of religious freedom in the United States is downward."
"I am not surprised the U.S. scores are deteriorating. They will go down further when the actions of the Obama administration are taken into full account."
On a global scale, Farr, a former U.S. diplomat and now director of the Berkley Center's program on Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy and the Project on Religious Freedom, said the Pew report confirms "there is a crisis of religious liberty that is going from very bad to worse."
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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