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Religious freedom under increasing pressure around the world, latest Pew report finds

Egyptian Christians raise crosses during a protest against the military.
Egyptian Christians raise crosses during a protest against the military.
Amr Nabil, Associated Press

Asia Bibi was getting water one day in 2009 when a handful of her Pakistani neighbors objected to the Christian mother of five sharing the well with them. Sharing water with a Christian contaminated the well, the Muslim women said. When Bibi spoke back, they accused her of blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad.

That was five years ago. She has been in prison ever since, and in the interval two Pakistani politicians who stood up to defend her have been killed.

The Asia Bibi case is just one piece within a much larger puzzle of religious friction around the world captured in a new Pew Research Center report released Tuesday. This is Pew's fifth annual report tracking religious persecution around the world, a dense 90 pages of data, with scores of drafts and charts.

But behind all of the data are scores of countries and hundreds of victims much like Bibi.

Real innovation

The Pew report tracks religious oppressions along two dimensions — official government oppression and informal religiously driven hostility. Egypt topped the list of oppressive governments, and Pakistan ranked first in religious hostility, but a handful of others have edged into the radar, including some you would expect, like Syria, and some you might not, like Thailand.

The Pew report is a real innovation, said Brett Scharffs, associate director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at the BYU Law School. Pew takes reports from the U.S. government, Canada and the European Union, among others.

Then by separating social hostility from government policy, Scharffs said, and extending the timeline over time, Pew can reveal patterns that might otherwise be lost.

“And what that research confirms is what those of us who follow the issue closely know deep down,” Scharffs said, “and that is that the trends are not positive.”

The Pew study is valuable in part, Scharffs said, because it “illustrates the reciprocal relationship between hostility and legal restrictions.” The report also illustrates the “bellwether” status of religious freedom as a marker for other human rights.

The list also reveals how much hostility occurs between factions in a single religion, Scharffs said. Iraq, for example, shows up on the list largely because of ongoing conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, and the same is true of Afghanistan.

Scharffs said that Christians in the Middle East have reached a crisis point. “The treatment of Christians throughout the Middle East is quite alarming, and this study confirms that.”

No Catholics

Setting aside Western Europe — which is overwhelmingly secular though still nominally Christian — Scharffs noted the relative absence of Catholic majority countries from the list, including places like South America and the Philippines, where Catholicism dominates and is strongly held.

He credits that shift to the legacy of Vatican II, which in the 1960s repositioned Catholic dogma away from religious exclusivity and toward a broader interest in Christian living. The councils that produced the shift specifically recast Protestants as “separated brethren,” rather than “heretics,” and held that non-Christians could be saved if they lived Christian values.

That is not true of other dominant religions, where it is more common for the dominant religion to align with the state to the detriment of religious minorities and schismatics within their own faith.


There is no concept of separation of church and state in Islamic tradition, Scharffs said, and even in the Arab Spring the advocates of Western style liberalism were “quickly eclipsed.”

“A large majority of people there are going to want an Islamic regime,” Scharffs said. “They will not embrace separation of powers, individual rights or the independent judiciary.”

To understand the severity of the attitude some Muslims have toward heresy, conversion and blasphemy, Scharffs said, you really have to think of it like Westerners would think of treason in time of war. This is the reality facing Asia Bibi in Pakistan.

“We understand the idea of treason, of betrayal,” he said. “To understand the Islamic attitude toward conversion you have to think of it as a type of treason. Islamic rules against conversion were made during times of religious wars. If you converted, you switched sides.

“We in the West view religion as a matter of individual choice and conscience,” Scharffs said, “but in much of the world, you are born with a religion and that is part of who you are. More like ethnicity.”

Hot and cold spots

Separating social hostility from legal restrictions, said Brian Grim, a senior researcher at Pew and the driving force behind the report, allows important distinctions to be made. “India, for example, is moderate in terms of official restrictions but very high on social hostility,” Grim said, “while China is the reverse.” And, of course, Pakistan continues to reign on both sides.

While Pakistan is the hottest country, the hottest zone continues to be the Middle East-North Africa region. In this report, four countries there jumped at least two points on Pew’s 10-point social hostility scale: Libya, Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon, all apparently reflecting political chaos from the Arab Spring. Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and Iraq remained on the list from 2011.

The only region of the world to remain largely untouched, Grim said, is the Americas. Even Europe has some extreme tension in Russia and other Eastern Orthodox countries, and France is struggling with its own secular identity — a legacy going back to the French revolution — where what it means to be French involves a rejection of public religious displays.

“The French revolution was against religion in a way the American revolution never was,” Scharffs agrees. “It was against Catholic establishment, for freedom from religion, American revolution never was. That is not part of our mythology.”

“The French know what they think it means to be who they think they are,” Grim said, but now immigrant groups “are saying this is what we think.” The French have responded by banning obvious displays of religious belief in French schools, including the crucifix, the Jewish kippah and the Muslim head scarf. Even nuns can’t wear a habit in a French school.

And now, Grim said, the burqa, the shapeless black garb worn by some ultra-orthodox Muslim women, is banned in public spaces.

Not an indictment

“In our study we don’t take a position on the burqa,” Grim said, “we just list it as a restriction on religion. People make passionate arguments on both sides. Some would consider it a good restriction.”

“When I talk to French intellectuals,” Scharffs said, “I find a very strong social consensus that freedom demands a ban on the head scarf. We look at it as religious expression. In France, it’s viewed as evidence of patriarchy, of men forcing wives and daughters, and they see freedom as facilitated by prohibiting it.”

Grim recognizes that some restrictions on religious practice, like bans on human sacrifice or even requirements that parents allow blood transfusions for children, are simply going to happen.

“Our study doesn’t say that anything is right or wrong,” Grim said. “Underneath, there are many historical, economic, cultural, religious reasons why one country would take certain policies toward religion.

“When I present findings to academics from Saudi Arabia,” Grim said, “they say, ‘yep, that’s right. We do that.’ They don’t view it as an indictment.”

Letter to the pope

Still in a Pakistani prison, last week Asia Bibi wrote a plaintive letter to Pope Francis, Catholic Online reported. "I hope that every Christian has been able to celebrate the Christmas just past with joy," Bibi wrote. "Like many other prisoners, I also celebrated the birth of the Lord in prison in Multan, here in Pakistan."

"I am facing many problems this winter,” Bibi added, “my cell has no heating and no door for shelter from the bitter cold, the security measures are not adequate, and I do not have enough money for daily needs and am very far from Lahore so my family cannot help me.

“I do not know how long I can go on and on. If I am still alive, it is thanks to the strength that your prayers give me. I have met many people who speak and fight for me. Unfortunately, still to no avail.”

It is, Grim notes, very hard for Americans to comprehend what people in other parts of the world go through simply to practice their faith.