Governmental restrictions on religious freedom reached record highs across the globe in 2018, according to a new report by Pew Research Center, and Christians experienced more instances of persecution than any other religious group in the world.
But there’s good news, too. While governmental restrictions on religion rose, social hostilities declined — meaning we’re doing better on a person-to-person level.
For the first time since the report’s 2007 inception, the study also analyzed the data according to the type of government, offering some surprising findings about both authoritarian regimes and democracies.
Pew’s Government Restrictions Index is based on its assessment of “government laws, policies and actions that restrict religious beliefs and practices,” the report says. Measures include “efforts by government to ban particular faiths, prohibit conversion, limit preaching or give preferential treatment to one or more religious groups.”
The two regions where the faithful encountered the most governmental repression were the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, and the Pacific Rim. While the Middle East and North Africa’s governments put the most restrictions on religion — with 90% of the region’s countries ranking “high” or “very high” on limitations — China remains the most restrictive country in the world when it comes to religious freedom, according to the report.
The country bans various religious groups, including some Christian denominations, and the Uighur Muslim minority faces government persecution, including imprisonment in the “re-education camps” that have been sharply criticized by the U.S. Speaking to a UK think tank last month, the White House’s deputy national security adviser, Matt Pottinger, called them “concentration camps.”
Pew notes that in 2018, overall, the biggest changes in regards to religious freedom took place in Asia and the Pacific Rim, with the area seeing a steep rise in governmental repression. In 2018, 62% of countries in that region “used force against religious groups, including property damage, detention, displacement, abuse and killings,” up from 52% the previous year.
The increase reflects a number of incidents. In the Philippines, three missionaries from the United Methodist Church were forced out of the country after attempting to investigate alleged human rights abuses. In India, authorities used anti-conversion laws to arrest nearly 300 Christians under charges of “attempting to convert people by drugging them and ‘spreading lies about Hinduism,’” Pew reports. In Thailand, Christians from Vietnam and Pakistan were targeted in immigration raids, as were Pakistani Muslims. Next door, in Myanmar, the Rohingya face “large scale displacement,” Pew reports.
Globally, Muslims were the second most harassed group, with incidents occurring in 139 countries as compared to 145 for Christians. Facing trouble in 88 countries, Jewish people were the third most harassed group, despite the fact that they comprise only 0.2% of the world population, Pew notes.
While government restrictions on religion were at their highest in 2018, social hostilities ticked down from their 2017 peak. Pew defines social hostilities as “acts of religion-related hostility by private individuals, organizations or groups in society,” including “religion-related armed conflict or terrorism, mob or sectarian violence, harassment over attire for religious reasons, or other religion-related intimidation or abuse.”
Pew reports that 2018 saw less reports of religious groups trying to prevent members of other religious groups from practicing their faith. The same year saw a decline in reported incidents of members of minority religious groups being forced from their homes or assaulted.
To assess the relationship between governmental type, restrictions on religious freedom, and social hostilities, Pew used the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, which sorts countries into four categories: authoritarian regimes, hybrid regimes, flawed democracies and full democracies.
While authoritarian regimes ranked high on governmental religious repression, many of those same countries were low on social hostilities — in other words, though leaders may have stifled religious freedom, people were safe on the streets. And though the governments of full democracies fared the best on religious freedom, one full democracy — Denmark — was an outlier, deemed to have “high government restrictions on religion.” Due to “anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents,” Pew reports, Denmark was also judged to have “high social hostilities” along with four other full democracies in Western Europe: the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany.
One country that many Americans and Europeans alike commonly consider part of the West — Israel — was categorized as a flawed democracy that ranks “very high” on social hostilities towards non-majority groups. The self-proclaimed “Jewish and democratic” state also ranked high on governmental restrictions on religion — like most of its Arab neighbors.