Government and social interference with religious practice decreased in 2014, but people of faith faced more threats from terrorist groups, according to Pew Research Center's latest report on global religious restrictions and hostilities.
"Of the 198 countries included in the study, 24 percent had high or very high levels of government restrictions in 2014 (the most recent year for which data are available), down from 28 percent in 2013," Pew reported. The share of countries with high or very high levels of social hostilities also dropped, from 27 percent to 23 percent.
The organization has released an annual review of religious restrictions since 2007, using research from the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the United Nations and independent, nongovernmental organizations.
Government restrictions include laws and policies that ban proselytization or give preferential treatment to one faith group. Religiously motivated attacks, such as vandalizing a mosque, that are perpetrated by private individuals or groups affect a country's social hostilities score.
"In the absence of an effective way to measure religious freedom, this is a great way to measure tangible things" and present a broad picture of government restrictions and social hostilities around the world, said Katayoun Kishi, a research associate at Pew.
The report is primarily targeted at government institutions, organizations focused on religious freedom and other leaders, but Pew hopes it also helps everyday people feel more informed about the policies and behaviors impacting religious practice around the world, she added.
Thomas Reese, newly elected chair of USCIRF, noted in an email that individuals do have a role to play in reducing religious restrictions around the world.
"Public pressure can ensure that this issue is not forgotten by U.S. diplomats in negotiations with foreign governments," he said.
Here are three key takeaways from Pew's latest report on religious restrictions:
1. The U.S. had one of the largest increases in social hostility
America's score on Pew's social hostilities index increased by more than two points in 2014, due to rising anti-Semitism and faith-based violence.
"The Anti-Defamation League reported that members of the Ku Klux Klan increased their distribution of racist and anti-Semitic fliers. There also were reports of Jewish establishments being vandalized in several parts of the country," the report noted.
Jews suffered the most hostility, in spite of the fact that they constitute less than 2 percent of the U.S. population.
"More than half of the incidents of anti-religious hate crimes in the U.S. in 2014 (58 percent) were motivated, in whole or in part, by anti-Jewish bias, according to the FBI; 16 percent of the incidents were motivated by anti-Muslim bias," Pew reported.
Social hostility is a difficult issue to solve, and there's no government organization dedicated to tracking domestic religious freedom issues in the same way that USCIRF tracks them overseas, Reese noted. However, religious groups do have the law on their side.
"Federal and local law enforcement would (detain) persons who physically attack religious people or property because of their religion," he said.
The U.S. was joined by Jordan and Malaysia on the list of countries with the biggest increases in social hostilities, while Bangladesh, Nepal, Romania and Tanzania saw the most improvement.
Overall, countries in the Middle East and North Africa continue to be home to the highest levels of government restrictions and social hostilities, according to Pew. The Asia-Pacific region also stands out for high levels of government mistreatment of faith groups.
"Among the world's 25 most populous countries, the highest overall restrictions on religion were in Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey," Pew reported. "China had the highest level of government restrictions in 2014, while Pakistan had the highest level of social hostilities involving religion."
2. The rise of ISIS helped lead to an increase in global terrorism
More than 40 percent of the countries Pew studied were affected by religion-related terrorism in 2014. Of the 198 countries the organization tracks, 82 witnessed terrorist activities in 2014, compared to 73 in 2012 and 2013.
"In some countries, the terrorist activities were limited to recruitment or fundraising. But in 60 countries, religion-related terrorism led to injuries or deaths, including at least 50 casualties in each of 28 countries," Pew reported.
At least some of this increase can be attributed to the Islamic State, or ISIS, Kishi said, noting that 2014 was the first year the group appeared in the religious hostilities report.
Countries in the Middle East and Africa were the most likely to be impacted by terrorism in 2014, with 90 percent of countries reporting terrorist activities.
However, terrorism increased the most in the Asia-Pacific region. In 2014, 44 percent of countries in this area were affected by religion-related terrorism, an 8 percentage point increase from 2013.
Looking at the report as a whole, Kishi noted that the decrease in government restrictions and social hostilities coupled with an increase in terrorism "was an interesting dichotomy." Groups like ISIS and Boko Haram appear to be sabotaging progress made at the governmental and societal level.
3. Christians and Muslims experience harassment in the most countries, and attacks against Jews are on the rise
Christians and Muslims continued to be the most common targets of harassment in 2014. Followers of these faiths were harassed in more than half of the countries Pew studied.
"Harassment of specific religious groups takes many forms, including physical assaults; arrest and detentions; desecration of holy sites; and discrimination against religious groups in employment, education and housing. Harassment and intimidation also include things such as verbal assaults on members of one religious group by other groups or individuals," the report noted.
Pew highlighted rising instances of harassment against relatively small faith groups. "Jews, who make up 0.2 percent of the world's population were harassed in 81 countries in 2014," and Hindus were harassed in 14, according to the research.
Both government leaders and individual citizens count as harassers in Pew's analysis. Jews were much more vulnerable to social harassment than political targeting in 2014.
Reports like Pew's are valuable reminders of how many people around the world suffer religious persecution, and they're especially meaningful during the refugee crisis, Reese noted.
"It is important to remember that the victims of religious persecution too often become refugees chased from their homes and unwelcome elsewhere. Aiding refugees is an essential way of supporting those who are suffering from a lack of religious freedom," he said.
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