The U.S. is a rarity among nations. Among its unique attributes is a commitment to religious liberty.
A new study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life explores religious persecution around the world. According to Pew: “64 nations — about one‐third of the countries in the world — have high or very high restrictions on religion. But because some of the most restrictive countries are very populous, nearly 70 percent of the world’s 6.8 billion people live in countries with high restrictions on religion, the brunt of which often falls on religious minorities.”
Include moderate restrictions, which most Americans also would consider to be intolerable, and more than half of the world’s nations limit religious liberty. Fully 86 percent of the globe’s people face significant limits on their right to worship God.
The Americas, including the U.S., happily have the least restrictions in both cases. The U.S. is joined by Brazil, Britain, Italy, Japan, South Africa, and the United Kingdom in the free category.
In contrast, explains Pew, “the Middle East‐North Africa has the highest government and social restrictions on religion.” Combine government limits with social attacks, and the worst nations include Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, and Pakistan. It is no accident that four of the five are Islamic. Although communist states tend to employ among the most restrictive policies, it is Islam where publics and governments alike are united in their commitment to persecute religious minorities.
Not all religious persecution is created equal. The Pew survey helpfully separates government regulation and social antagonism. Explains Pew: “government policies and social hostilities do not always move in tandem. Vietnam and China, for instance, have high government restrictions on religion but are in the moderate or low range when it comes to social hostilities. Nigeria and Bangladesh follow the opposite pattern: high in social hostilities but moderate in terms of government actions.”
Still, in general countries that rank high on one measure are likely to be bad on the other. Both kinds of restrictions are shockingly common. Explains Pew: “In 75 countries (38%), for example, national or local governments limit efforts by religious groups or individuals to persuade others to join their faith. In 178 countries (90%), religious groups must register with the government for various purposes” — which in the majority of instances results in discrimination against at least some faiths.
There were public tensions between religious groups in nearly nine of ten cases. Moreover, observes Pew, “In 126 countries (64%), these hostilities involved physical violence. In 49 countries (25%), private individuals or groups used force or the threat of force to compel adherence to religious norms.”
Pew refuses to judge the appropriateness of particular restrictions. Countries that act against “cults” often attempt to justify their actions in terms of protecting personal freedom. Although one can argue for or against any particular policy, in practice virtually all government restrictions unfairly limit individual liberty. Social hostility usually is backed by intimidation if not violence. Thus, both public policies and private actions threaten fundamental religious liberties, especially of religious minorities.
It isn’t possible to precisely measure state persecution. Pew asks 20 questions and creates four broad ranges of results.
Actual practice is more important. Explains Pew: “it is not sufficient simply to look at formal constitutional protections when gauging the level of government restrictions on religion. Most (76%) of the 198 countries and territories included in the study call for freedom of religion in their constitutions and basic laws, and an additional 20% protect some religious practices.” However, barely a quarter of those governments actually enforce their constitutions and laws.
Similarly, many governments implement facially neutral legal provisions in a biased manner. Of those governments with registration requirements, 59% act to disable or discriminate against disfavored groups. Pew cites Singapore, which has effectively banned Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church in this way.
Public subsidies are used to much the same effect. Most governments (86%) subsidize religious groups. About three‐quarter of countries do so in a discriminatory fashion. Many countries restrict or ban missionaries and proselytizing. Almost seven of ten governments harass disfavored religious groups; nearly half of states employ physical coercion.
Democracy is no guarantee against severe limits on religious liberty — Pew points to Israel and Turkey. However, the toughest restrictions on the right to worship come from otherwise repressive governments which target religious minorities. Saudi Arabia and Iran rank numbers one and two as the most restrictive states. (North Korea is off the charts, but the lack of available information made that nation impossible for Pew to rate.) Other bad actors are Uzbekistan, China, Egypt, Burma, Maldives, Eritrea, Malaysia, and Brunei.
The Middle East and North Africa is the worst region. Asia is second, though there is great variability within. Europe, Sub‐Saharan Africa, and the Americas follow. The median score of the Middle East and North Africa is five times that of the Americas.
The real surprise is Europe. Explains Pew: “The relatively high government restrictions score for Europe’s 45 countries is due in part to former Communist countries, such as Russia, which have replaced state atheism with state‐favored religions that are accorded special protections or privileges.” Further, some Western European nations restrict “cults.”
All told, Pew finds that 43 nations have high or very high restrictions. Adds Pew: “because many of these are populous countries (including China, India and Pakistan), more than half (57%) of the world’s population lives with high or very high government restrictions on religions.” Just a quarter of the globe’s people live in societies which largely protect the freedom to worship.
The other prong of religious liberty is “social hostilities,” which Pew defines as “acts of violence and intimidation by private individuals, organizations or social groups.” Repression is different from tension: “Competition and even some degree of tension between religious groups may be natural in free societies, and the freer and more pluralistic the society, the more open and visible the tensions may be.”
Notably, many instances of social hostilities are generated by the activities of other religious groups. States Pew, in more than half of nations “it is religious groups themselves that make attempts to stop other religious groups from growing.” The problem with Islam is pervasive. But in Russia the Orthodox Church targets “religions deemed nontraditional, including other Orthodox Christian congregations.” Conversions are a particular flashpoint.
Roughly four of ten nations suffer from high or very high levels of social hostilities. Nearly half of the world’s people live in countries where hostilities are high or very high. Explains Pew: “Often, the brunt falls on religious minorities who are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a cultural economic or political threat to the majority.”
Interestingly, countries with the worst state policies are not invariably the ones with the greatest social hostilities. Explains Pew: “Only one country, Saudi Arabia, appears on both lists. Several others that are very high in social hostilities also score in the high range on government restrictions,” but some countries with the greatest religious social antagonisms have far fewer official restrictions on religious liberty. The greatest hostilities are evident in Iraq, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Somalia, Israel, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia.
Here, too, the Middle East and North Africa stands will above the rest of the world. Next come Europe and the Asia‐Pacific, where, surprisingly, median social hostilities are roughly equal. Sub‐Saharan Africa follows, with the Americas far behind. The median score in the Middle East and North Africa is more than seven times that in the Americas.
Explains Pew: “The relatively higher level of religious hostilities in European societies is driven by widespread instances of anti‐Semitism, tensions between Muslim minorities and secular or Christian majorities, and a somewhat general distrust of new religious groups.” In the Americas only Mexico suffers from high levels of social hostilities.
Although as noted earlier there is a significant difference between the worst government offenders and the worst social offenders, countries which tend to persecute one way also often persecute to some degree the other way. Saudi Arabia manages to fall into the very high on both indexes. Among the world’s 50 most populous states rating one very high and one high are 11 other nations: Afghanistan, Burma, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran Iraq, Israel, Pakistan, Somalia, and Sudan. Smaller hyper‐persecutors include Brunei, Eritrea, Maldives, and Sri Lanka.
Clustered as the lowest of the low are Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Mozambique, Peru, Poland, South Korea, and Taiwan. (The U.S. rates among the least in government restrictions but edges slightly into the moderate category on social hostilities.)
Overall, notes Pew, “it is apparent that the two measures tend to move together.” While the relationship is loose, countries with higher social hostilities are more likely to have greater government restrictions, and vice versa.
Obviously, social attitudes often are deeply ingrained. Nevertheless, nations with more limited information access tend to rate worse on both persecution measures. This might be correlation — authoritarian governments are more able and likely to persecute — rather than causation. Nevertheless, the finding offers the possibility that expanding information access might help reduce religious persecution.
The U.S. government’s ability to combat religious persecution is limited. Washington can hardly go to war to liberate scores of other nations. Nor is war a good answer: after all, the invasion of Iraq inadvertently loosed that nation’s worst Islamic demons, leading to the effective destruction of Iraq’s once vibrant Christian community.
Nevertheless, Americans should do all they can to highlight religious persecution and aid foreign believers, irrespective of their particular faith, seeking the right to worship God as they believe appropriate. There is no more fundamental human right than freedom of conscience.