Newly released data from an ongoing Pew Research Center study shows that government restrictions on religion around the world have risen to a record level amid increases in government restrictions on religion in Asia and Pacific countries, most notably.
The nonpartisan polling organization published on Tuesday results from its 11th annual study of restrictions on religion. The series of annual reports are part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project and analyze the extent that societies worldwide infringe on religious beliefs and practices.
The most recent data available is from 2018 through a study that rates 198 countries and territories by the levels of government restrictions on religion and also the levels of social hostilities toward religion in those countries. All the studies over the last decade-plus have been based on the same 10-point index.
“In 2018, the global median level of government restrictions on religion — that is, laws, policies and actions by officials that impinge on religious beliefs and practices — continued to climb, reaching an all-time high since Pew Research Center began tracking these trends in 2007,” the authors of the new report wrote.
The report was authored by Pew Research Associate Samirah Majumdar and Research Assistant Virginia Villa.
The study’s government restrictions index (GRI) measures laws, policies and actions that restrict religious beliefs and practices. The GRI features 20 measures of restrictions that include anything from efforts by governments to ban particular faiths to prohibiting conversion and providing preferential treatment to one or more religious groups.
Pew researchers combed through more than 12 publicly available and widely cited sources of information, such as the U.S. State Department’s annual reports on international religious freedom as well as annual reports from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Also, researchers referred to reports from several European and United Nations bodies. They also combed through reports from “several independent, nongovernmental organizations.”
According to Pew, the increase from 2017 to 2018 was “relatively modest” but did help contribute to the “substantial rise in government restrictions on religion over more than a decade.”
“In 2007, the first year of the study, the global median score on the Government Restrictions Index was 1.8,” the report adds. “After some fluctuation in the early years, the median score has risen steadily since 2011 and now stands at 2.9 for 2018, the most recent full year for which data is available.”
The authors contend that the increase in government restrictions globally reflects a variety of events and trends, including a rise from 2017 to 2018 in the number of governments using force to coerce religious groups. Uses of force include things like detentions and physical abuse.
Pew found that 28% of countries (56) have “high or very high” government restrictions on religion.
According to the study, 25 countries with “high or very high” government restrictions on religion are in the Asia-Pacific region, meaning that half of the countries in the region have high or very high levels of government restrictions on religion.
In the Middle East and North Africa, 90% of the countries in the region (18) have high or very high levels of government restrictions on religion.
“Out of the five regions examined in the study, the Middle East and North Africa continued to have the highest median level of government restrictions in 2018 (6.2 out of 10),” the study found. “However, Asia and the Pacific had the largest increase in its median government restrictions score, rising from 3.8 in 2017 to 4.4 in 2018, partly because a greater number of governments in the region used force against religious groups, including property damage, detention, displacement, abuse and killings.”
The data found that 62% of countries — 31 out of 50 — in Asia and the Pacific “experienced government use of force related to religion.” The tally of 31 is up from 26 in 2017.
While the increase is largely due to concentrations of low-level government restrictions on religion in places like Armenia and the Philippines, the report stresses that the region also saw “several instances of widespread use of government force against religious groups.
The report calls out Myanmar for its mass displacement of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities, such as Christians, who were displaced by fighting between the Burmese military and ethnic groups.
The Pew report also called out Uzbekistan, which has an estimated 1,500 Muslim religious prisoners in prison on charges of religious extremism or for membership in banned groups.
The authors note that other countries like China “saw all-time highs in their overall government restrictions scores.” According to Pew, China continues to have “the highest score on the Government Restrictions Index out of all 198 countries and territories in the study.”
“China has been near the top of the list of most restrictive governments in each year since the inception of the study, and in 2018 it reached a new peak in its score (9.3 out of 10),” the report states. “The Chinese government restricts religion in a variety of ways, including banning entire religious groups (such as the Falun Gong movement and several Christian groups), prohibiting certain religious practices, raiding places of worship and detaining and torturing individuals.”
China is also said to be holding at least 800,000 and possibly up to 2 million Uighur and other ethnic Muslims in the western Xinjiang province at detention camps “designed to erase religious and ethnic identities.”
India is among the countries that reached an all-time high on its GRI score in 2018, scoring 5.9 out of 10. India has received increased pressure from international human rights groups in recent years as there has been a rise of Hindu nationalism that has led to the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities. Additionally, anti-conversion laws in some states have been used to imprison Christians.
“In India, anti-conversion laws affected minority religious groups,” Pew explained. “For example, in the state of Uttar Pradesh in September, police charged 271 Christians with attempting to convert people by drugging them and ‘spreading lies about Hinduism.’ Furthermore, throughout the year, politicians made comments targeting religious minorities.”
In 2018, Tajikistan registered an all-time high with a GRI score of 7.9 out of 10 as 2018 was the year that the “Tajik government amended its religion law, increasing control over religious education domestically and over those who travel abroad for religious education.” The new law required religious groups to report activities to government officials and get state approval to appoint imams.
“Throughout the year, the Tajik government continued to deny minority religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, official recognition,” the report stated. “In January, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that more than a dozen members were interrogated by police and pressured to renounce their faith.”
Thailand also registered an all-time high on the GRI in 2018 as the government instituted immigration raids targeting and arresting hundreds of immigrants and refugees who did not have legal status, including Christians and Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan and Christian Montagnards from Vietnam.
In addition to the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa was the only other region in the world to experience an increase in its median level of government restrictions in 2018. Pew notes that the region also reached new highs after years of “steady rise.”
“While government use of force against religious groups decreased in the region, both harassment of religious groups and physical violence against minority groups went up,” the authors explained.
According to Pew’s data, 40 out of 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa experienced some form of government harassment of religious groups, while 14 countries had “reports of governments using physical coercion against religious minorities.”
In Christian majority Mozambique, government officials were said to have arbitrarily detained people who appeared to be Muslim in response to a rising Islamic extremist insurgency in the country.
According to the analysis, Europe showed a small decline in its median level of government restrictions on religion while the Americas “remained stable” between 2017 and 2018. The Americas continue to experience the lowest levels of government restrictions on religion compared to other regions.