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Worldwide Watch on Religious Restrictions

In June 2018, the Pew Research Center released an in-depth study investigating the trend of increasing restrictions placed on religion which happened around the world in 2016. The most recent year for which data is currently available, 2016, marks the second year in a row in which religious restrictions have increased worldwide. 

How are “religious restrictions” defined? 

The Pew Research Center used two primary indexes by which to measure countries’ religious restrictions:

  • Government Restrictions: “laws, policies and actions by officials that restrict religious belief and practices,”
  • Social Hostilities: “acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations or groups in society.”

The number of countries with “high” or “very high” government restrictions is the highest it has been since 2013, including 28% of all countries examined. Fortunately, the number of countries with “high” or “very high” social hostilities didn’t increase, but remained stable (though at a substantial 27%). Another (if small) bright side is that neither of these numbers have reached the same peak that they did in 2012 (likely due to residual issues from the Arab Spring). That year was the highest they have been since the study originated in 2007. 

“High” or “very high” restrictions are measured, for each country, out of an index of 10 points. For example, any country with 6.6 points or higher on the Government Restrictions Index, or 7.2 or higher on the Social Hostilities Index, is counted as “very high.”  As a whole in 2016, 83 out of 198 countries were rated “high” or “very high” combined restrictions on religion—barely less than half of the overall global number. 

Some Noteworthy Trends

Here are several trends which are either interesting or noteworthy. To review additional interesting information, we recommend downloading the pdf of the original report, which has 124 pages of such observations. 

  • The geographical region of countries that has routinely held the rank of most restrictive is the Middle East-North Africa region…though the Americas (North and South) had the sharpest spike in restrictions, moving on a scale of 10 from 1.7 to 2.2 in just one year.
  • Out of all countries, China was ranked as having the strictest governmental restrictions, while India was ranked as having the most social hostilities. Egypt and Russia, however, had some of the highest levels of both restrictions at the same time, and Japan some of the lowest.
  • Nationalist political parties played a role: roughly 11% of countries had government groups of this type, and globally (but especially in Europe), these groups disproportionately targeted Muslims:
    • French political candidate Marine Le Pen was cited as an example, who expressed the desire to continue suppressing public religious expression via clothing and symbols specifically to “fight the advance of political Islam.”1 
    • Also according to the report, “in the Netherlands…Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party announced an election platform in 2016 that called for the “de-Islamization” of the country, including barring asylum seekers from Islamic countries, prohibiting Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public, closing all mosques and banning the Quran.”
  • Nationalist organizations NOT affiliated with the government also contributed to the 2016 increase; for example, “the Andean National Socialist Movement of Peru continued to deny that the Holocaust occurred, sell anti-Semitic literature and DVDs, and call for the expulsion of the Jewish community from Peru.”

Where does the data come from?

This study is the ninth report of its kind, and has used the same 10 indexes each year to review 198 world countries and territories. According to its Methodology section, the study draws information from “more than a dozen publicly available, widely cited sources of information, including the U.S. State Department’s annual reports on international religious freedom and annual reports from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, as well as reports from a variety of European and UN bodies and several independent, nongovernmental organizations.” Though things are generally less restrictive than in 2012, we hope that the 2017 report brings in some smaller numbers. 

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1 Bremner, Charles. Oct. 17, 2016. “Le Pen fights back with religious dress ban.” The Times.
Featured Image: "Untitled" by Stefie Zawa on Unsplash.
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