Religious freedom not the rule for majority of world: Pew report

The majority of the world – seven in 10 – lives in countries with high restrictions on religious freedom, according to a newly released Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life report.

Source: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life / GlobalRestrictions on Religion, December 2009

The majority of countries and territories across the world have laws or constitutions calling for freedom of religion. But religious freedom is not the reality for the majority of the globe’s people.

Nearly 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with “high" or "very high” religious restriction – that’s the finding of a first-of-its-kind Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey. It notes that some of the strictest countries in the world are also the most populous. But no nation is fully free of religious restriction, it adds.

“We found that there’s sort of no discrimination in terms of who gets abused or discriminated against. Every religious group experiences discrimination of one sort or another,” says Pew Senior Researcher Brian Grim. For example, he says, even members of a nation’s majority faith often come under restrictions. Largely Christian or Muslim countries, for example, still may discriminate against particular Christian or Muslim sects. “It is an unfortunately shared experience.”

The study is unique because it quantifies the levels of social hostilities and government actions that restrict practice of religions in 198 countries and self-governing territories. These include crimes motivated by religious bias and religion-related terrorism, as well as restrictive laws or state favoritism. Countries such as China and Vietnam, Dr. Grim notes, have high levels of government control but relatively low social hostilities among religious groups. (See chart.)

Using primary sources, such as countries’ constitutions, and drawing from established reports by human rights and government groups, researchers coded the level of hostility in each category for two separate years between 2006 and 2008, averaging the two years to form a baseline. Pew is already starting its next round of research to make an annual report compared to this base, according to Grim. (Read the survey here as a pdf.)

Regional trends

The most restrictive region on both government and social restrictions is the Middle East/North Africa, according to the report. The Americas are the least restrictive on both measures – for populous countries, Brazil and the US have low scores for restrictions on religious freedom, as did Italy, South Africa, Japan, and Britain.

On the other end, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, India, and Indonesia ranked among the highest in terms of religious restriction.

Is there a good kind of religious restriction?

The report notes that its purpose is not to make judgments on religious restrictions, which often may have public support. All countries, even highly developed liberal democracies, have codified restrictions of some sort – such as the US preventing tax-exempt religious groups from endorsing political candidates, or the UK preserving an established church.

What do you think? Are you surprised at the high levels of religious restriction around the globe?

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