Newly released data from a Pew Research Centre 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 polling organization has published 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 analyse 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 laws, policies and actions by officials that impinge on religious beliefs and practices, continued to climb, reaching an all-time high since tracking these trends began in 2007,” the new report revealed. The Government Restrictions Index (GRI) which measures laws, policies and actions that restrict religious beliefs and practices features 20 measures of restrictions that include anything from Government banning of particular faiths to prohibiting conversion and giving preferential treatment to one or more religious groups. Pew researchers combed through some 12 publicly available and widely cited sources of information, such as the U.S. State Department’s, and U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s annual reports as well as reports from several European and United Nations bodies. They also combed through reports from “several independent, non-governmental organizations.”
According to Pew, the increase from 2017 to 2018 was “relatively modest” but helped 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 rise from 2017 to 2018 in the number of governments using force to coerce religious groups. 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.
In the Middle East and North Africa, 90% of the countries in the region 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 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 (62%) in the region used force against religious groups, including detention, displacement, abuse and killings.” 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. Other countries like China “saw all-time highs in their overall 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 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, prohibiting certain religious practices, raiding places of worship and detaining and torturing individuals.” China is also said to be holding possibly up to 2 million Uighur and other ethnic Muslims in the 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 due to the rise of Hindu nationalism that has led to the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities. Additionally, anti-conversion laws in some Indian states have been used to imprison Christians. “In the state of Uttar Pradesh police recently charged 271 Christians with attempting to convert people by drugging them and ‘spreading lies about Hinduism.’” 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 increased control over religious education domestically and over those who travel abroad for religious education.” “Throughout the year, the Tajik government continued to deny minority religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, official recognition,” the report stated.
Thailand also registered an all-time high in 2018 as the government targeted and arrested hundreds of refugees who did not have legal status. 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. 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 have arbitrarily detained people who appeared to be Muslim in response to a rising Islamic extremist insurgency in the country. Europe showed a small decline in its median level of government restrictions on religion while the Americas continue to experience the lowest levels of government restrictions on religion compared to other regions.
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