The Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have not led to an increase in religious freedom where government restrictions and social hostilities against certain faiths were already high, a new report found.
Attacks on Coptic Christian communities in Egypt and rising violence between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria contributed to an overall increase in global religious persecution in 2011, according to an annual survey by the Pew Research Center.
The survey may be a sign that the hopes world leaders had expressed of democracy and religious freedom emerging from the uprisings in Egypt and several other countries in the region won't materialze anytime soon.
"On the contrary, in 2011, when most of the political uprisings known as the Arab Spring occurred, the Middle East and North Africa experienced pronounced increases in social hostilities involving religion, while government restrictions on religion remained exceptionally high," the Pew report stated.
The report and ongoing news accounts of religious persecution and sectarian violence in the region confirm that religious freedom must first be established before security and economic stability can take hold, said Tom Farr, a former American diplomat who is now director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University.
"If you want democracy to work, you have to move first toward religious freedom. That would mean freedom for all religious groups," Farr said. "Right now, democracy at the moment (in the region) would be no more liberating than despotism."
Pew has been using State Department data to gauge religious freedom around the world since 2006. The 2011 report scored 198 countries on government restrictions, including efforts to ban particular faiths, prohibit conversions, limit preaching or give preferential treatment to one or more religious groups. It also scored them on social hostilities, such as armed conflict or terrorism, mob or sectarian violence, harassment and other religion-related intimidation or abuse.
In a five-year period, the share of countries around the world with high or very high restrictions on religion has increased from 29 percent to 40 percent.
"Because some of the most restrictive countries are very populous, more than 5.1 billion people (74 percent of the world's population) were living in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion, the brunt of which often falls on religious minorities," Pew reported.
Christians have consistently been harassed in the largest number of countries, although that number dropped from 111 countries in 2010 to 105 in 2011.
The most recent survey showed reports of harassment or intimidation of Muslims had increased the most worldwide during 2011. Muslims were harassed by national, provincial or local governments or by individuals or groups in 101 countries, up from 90 countries the year before.
Egypt, Indonesia, Russia and Pakistan had the most restrictions on religion in 2011, according to Pew, with Egypt recording the highest level in 2011 in the five years covered by this study.
In the social hostilities index, Pakistan had the highest level of hostilities in the world over a five-year period ending in December 2011.
Pew did find a decrease in the number of countries where government force was used against religious groups, from 108 in the year ending June 2010 to 82 at the end of December 2011. However, countries in which governments used lethal force against religious groups remained unchanged, at 23.
"In China, for instance, two Tibetan lay people, ages 60 and 65, were beaten and killed by police in April 2011 at the Kirti monastery, where they stood in protest against the harsh treatment of Tibetan monks," Pew reported.
The Pew study is the third to come this year documenting and grading religious persecution around the globe. Last month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its annual watch list and the State Department issued its International Religious Freedom report for 2012. The Pew report is based on a previous iteration of the State Department report.
The independent USCIRF has criticized the State Department for not listing Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam as "countries of particular concern" in the oppression of religious minorities.
But Farr said the United States needs to go beyond lists and "finger wagging" to give countries like Egypt and Iraq a reason to work toward religious freedom as they attempt to establish new governments.
"We need to consistently make an argument that religious freedom is in their self-interest," he said.
American foreign policy at all levels must make a case for religious freedom through diplomatic, foreign aid and media channels to convince foreign leaders and citizens that religious freedom is necessary to achieve the economic opportunities and security sought by those who instigated the uprisings that ousted political leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and prompted protests in other countries in the region.
But religious freedom must be a priority for the U.S. administration as well, Farr said, noting ratings in government restrictions and social hostilities toward religion in the United States have moved from a low level in 2009 to a moderate level in 2010 and 2011.
The administration "seems to have lost the conviction that religious freedom is the first freedom," he said.
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