According to a new study from the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Life, nearly a third of the world’s population live in countries where practicing their religion freely is difficult or impossible. The background research for the report was conducted between 2006 and 2009, when Pew says a significant number of restrictions were imposed on religious freedom in a number of different countries. Disturbingly, only 1% of the world lived in places where the opposite was true.
Most of the countries where the trend was occurring were in the Middle East and North Africa, although Egypt, for example, might get a very different rating now that Hosni Mubarak, who was hostile toward Egypt’s Christian minority as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, has been ousted. The Arab Spring as a whole may have rendered some of the report’s data inaccurate. But countries like France have actually gotten more restrictive since 2009.
However, there were also factors that were independent of government restrictions. Social hostilities in countries like Vietnam, China, Nigeria, Russia, Thailand, and Great Britain made it difficult for people to practice and express their religion openly. India was near the top of the list, along with Afghanistan, Israel and Indonesia.
The United States was not immune to scrutiny. Although overall Americans enjoy high levels of religious freedom, 1,300 religiously-motivated hate crimes were reported while the data was being gathered. Muslims and Christians were the most likely to report harassment based on their religion, but as Pew pointed out, that may simply because they comprise more than half the world’s population.
Other smaller religious groups, like Jews, were disproportionately likely to say that they had suffered some form of religious persecution. Jews, who represent less than 1% of the world’s population, were harassed in a shocking 75 countries.
Overall, these findings show that although religious freedom is still limited in the Middle East, that Europe, the United States and other countries need to do more work to improve tensions, especially in places where there are significant social hostilities between different religious groups. Even Australia, which appears nowhere in news coverage of the report, may issue legislation to force women to remove their face veils for police.
And, of course, European countries should be careful to make sure that they are not isolating their Muslim populations with restrictive legislation (Belgium, France, and now Italy – take notice!). The recent violence in Norway is even more of a wake-up call to prevent more religiously based attacks.
Photo from Ze.Valdi via flickr.