Religious Persecution on the Rise

September 29, 2011 • Commentary
This article appeared in The Korea Times on September 29, 2011.

History was supposed to have ended. Alas, rather than celebrating the triumph of democratic capitalism, the world appears to be dividing between generally liberal Western‐​oriented states and a gaggle of authoritarian systems united only in their disdain for individual freedom and dignity.

It is not just democratic politics and free markets which are under attack. A new study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found increasing restrictions on religious liberty between 2006 and 2009.

The latest Pew survey found that “more than 2.2 billion people — about a third of the world’s population — live in countries where government restrictions or social hostilities involving religion are increasing. About 1 percent lives in countries where government restrictions or social hostilities are decreasing.”

In many cases the limits are significant. Pew said, “The number of countries in which governments used at least some measure of force against religious groups or individuals rose from 91 (46 percent) in the period ending in mid‐​2008 to 101 (51 percent) in the period ending in mid‐​2009. This violence was wide‐​ranging, including individuals being killed, physically abused, imprisoned, detained or displaced from their homes, as well as damage to or destruction of personal or religious properties.”

Moreover, Pew reported that the number of nations in which private violence and other crimes occurred was largely unchanged at 142, but “the number of countries that experienced mob violence related to religion rose from 38 (19 percent) as of mid‐​2008 to 52 (26 percent) as of mid‐​2009.” Unofficial persecution often is the most difficult form of abuse to combat, since governments often disclaim responsibility.

These are astonishing, even horrifying, findings in what is supposed to be an enlightened age. The situation improved in 12 countries, stayed the same in 163 countries, and worsened in 23 countries.

However, the numbers are far worse when it comes to population. Just 1 percent of people enjoyed greater religious freedom. Those finding no change accounted for 67 percent. An incredible 32 percent of the population was worse off.

The most serious problem remains countries with Islamic majorities or some provinces with Islamic majorities. Those which suffered increases in government persecution or social attacks included Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, and Pakistan. The only other category of nation evidencing obvious hostility toward religion is communist or former communist: persecution and/​or hostility increased in China, Vietnam, and Russia.

As of mid‐​2009, government attacks on religions were high or very high in 42 states, about a fifth the world total. Another 39 nations engaged in “moderate” persecution. The bloody 10 were Myanmar (Burma), China, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan.

Social hostility was high or very high in 40 nations. Nominally private attacks were “moderate” in another 43 countries. The 10 worst were Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Somalia.

Overall, the Americas and Sub‐​Saharan Africa became freer, while the Middle East‐​North Africa, Asia‐​Pacific, and Europe became less free. Both government restrictions and social hostility remain lowest in the first two regions. The Americas is the only area where no countries impose high or very high religious restrictions; none have very high levels of social hostility either.

Pew found an unusual form of global polarization: “The substantial increases tend to be in countries where restrictions and hostilities are already high, while the decreases tend to be in countries where restrictions and hostilities are already low.”

Nearly half of the rated nations, 94, scored low on public and private persecution. Pew found an increase in repression in just 2 percent of them while scores improved in 5 percent. Another 42 countries fell in the middle on one index or the other; restrictions on or hostility toward religion rose in 17 percent of them but fell in only five percent.

There were 62 high scoring nations, of which 23 percent worsened and only 8 percent improved. As the gap between free and repressive states grows, the ability to positively influence the latter may well diminish.

It is striking how religious persecution is pervasive around the world. Pew found interference with worship practices to be reasonably common in 131 countries, two‐​thirds of the world’s states. That’s up from 128 nations in the survey two years ago.

Fifty governments banned at least one religious group, an increase from 38 last time. The number of nations restricting religious symbols, such as head covering, rose from 31 to 42. Countries restricting religious broadcasting or literature went from 80 to 87.

Liberty is both rare and precious. Unfortunately, a majority of the world’s peoples faces varying restrictions on worshiping God. As these threats increase, history obviously has more than its share of surprises left for us.

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