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Religious freedom under fire: Unpacking the latest global restrictions

This story was originally published by Religion Unplugged.

NEW YORK — Restrictions on religion by government officials across the world reached a new peak in 2021, a new Pew Research Center report released on Tuesday revealed.

Pew’s latest analysis of such restrictions — taking into account new laws and policies enacted by individual governments — involving religious freedom in 198 countries and territories across the world.

The report, the 14th year that Pew has researched the topic and released its findings, also included harassment of religious groups and societal pressures such as the interference of worship for 2021, the latest year where figures were available.

In 2021, Pew said “governments harassed religious groups” in 183 countries (92% of countries analyzed) — up from 178 countries in 2020.

“This type of restriction was widespread across all five regions we analyzed,” the report said. “For example, at least one case of government harassment was reported in each of the 20 countries in the Middle East-North Africa region. The same was true for 43 of 45 countries in Europe (96%), 33 of 35 countries in the Americas (94%), 44 of 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa (92%) and 43 of 50 countries in the Asia-Pacific region (86%).”

World map

Here’s what the study found:

— The global median level of government restrictions on religion ticked up to 3.0 in 2021 from 2.8 in 2020 on the Government Restrictions Index, a 10-point scale of 20 indicators. This was, according to Pew, “the highest global median score since we began tracking restrictions in 2007.”

— 55 countries (28% of the total) had “high” or “very high” levels of government restrictions — slightly down from 57 countries (29%), a level reached in 2020, 2019 and 2012.

— 43 countries (22% of all studied) had “high” or “very high” levels of social hostilities, up from 40 countries (20%) in 2020.

— Various religious groups faced harassment by governments in 183 countries — the largest number since the study began. Governments interfered in worship services and ceremonies in 163 countries — down slightly from 164 in 2020 but “still close to the all-time high,” Pew said.

Two countries above all, Pakistan and Turkmenistan, that were in the “high” government restrictions category in 2020 moved to the “very high” category in the latest rankings. Pakistan’s index score increased by less than one point on the index, while Turkmenistan’s increased by one point.

In Turkmenistan, Human Rights Watch reported that government officials had physically harassed Muslims and accused them of “following their … faith too closely.

Religious groups harassed

Various faith traditions experienced different tensions. In Europe, the study notes, many countries — including France, Austria and Denmark — targeted Islam.

In Nicaragua, the country’s Central American government targeted Catholic clergy for supporting the the pro-democracy movement. In the Maldives, where Islam is the state religion, non-Muslims are forbidden to build houses of worship.

Christians continued to be the most-targeted group, especially in parts of Africa and the Middle East, were they have been attacked and killed or churches destroyed. Pew said Christians were “harassed by governments or private actors” in 160 countries, up from 155 in 2020.

Physical harassment

Another reason for the spike in 2021 could be COVID-19 and the pandemic measures many governments enacted in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.

In the United States and Canada, some churches that were fined for defying lockdown measures. Critics charged there were less severe lockdowns on restaurants and other public places when compared to houses of worship.

It wasn’t all bad news. The report highlighted several nations where governments helped religion. In Trinidad and Tobago, the government gave money to “religiously affiliated public schools” run by Christians, Hindus and Muslims.

In the Netherlands, politicians funded religious schools and “other religious educational institutions” if they satisfied certain requirements. In nearby Sweden, the government helped fund independent religious schools through a voucher system.

For the study’s methodology, you can visit: https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2024/03/05/restrictions-methodology/.

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