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Who Restricts Religion More, Politicians or the People? Pew Crunched the Global Data.

Annual report grades 198 nations and territories, with 9 in 10 harassing believing communities. China and Nigeria score the worst.
Who Restricts Religion More, Politicians or the People? Pew Crunched the Global Data.
Image: Spencer Platt / Getty / Edits by CT
Iraqi Christian youths enter a Sunday service

Government restrictions on religion are at a global high.

Social hostility toward religion, however, has ticked downward.

So concludes the Pew Research Center in its 14th annual analysis of the extent to which 198 nations and territories—and their citizens—impinge on religious belief and practice.

Some sort of harassment of religious groups was recorded in all but eight.

The 2024 report, released earlier this month, draws primarily from more than a dozen UN, US, European, and civil society sources, and reflects conditions from 2021, the latest year with fully available data.

The global median on Pew’s 10-point scale of government restrictions reached 3.0 for the first time ever, continuing a steady rise since the baseline score of 1.8 in 2007. Overall, 55 nations (28%) recorded levels marked “very high” or “high,” only two lower than last year’s total of 57.

Nicaragua was highlighted for harassment of Catholic clergy.

Regional differences are apparent: The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) scored 5.9, up from its baseline score of 4.7. Asia-Pacific scored 4.2, up from 3.2. Europe scored 3.1, up from 1.7. Sub-Saharan Africa scored 2.6, up from 1.7. And the Americas scored 2.1, up from 1.0.

Pew’s 20 measures of government restrictions included efforts to “ban particular faiths, prohibit conversion, limit preaching, or give preferential treatment to one or more religious groups.”

Some pertained to COVID-19, such as Canada’s fines against open churches.

A further 13 measures for acts of religious hostility by individuals or groups included “religion-related armed conflict or terrorism, mob or sectarian violence, harassment over attire for religious reasons, and other forms of religion-related intimidation or abuse.”

Social hostilities toward religion continued to trend downward since a high of 2.0 in 2018, decreasing to 1.6, the lowest score since 1.2 in 2009. But 43 nations (22%) still recorded levels marked “very high” or “high,” though significantly fewer than the 65 offending nations in 2012.

Nigeria was cited for clashes between Muslim herders and Christian farmers.

The order of regional differences in social hostility matches that of government restrictions. MENA scored 3.6, returning to near its baseline score of 3.7 after peak years from 2012–2014. Asia-Pacific scored 1.9, up from 1.7. Europe scored 1.9, up from 1.2. Sub-Saharan Africa scored 1.3, up from 0.4. And the Americas scored 0.8, up from 0.3.

Only four nations recorded “very high” status in both categories: Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, and Syria.

Joining them as repeat offenders for government restrictions were Algeria, Azerbaijan, China (highest with a score of 9.1), Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Pakistan joined the list this year with Turkmenistan, while Brunei and Eritrea dropped out.

Fewer nations were designated “very high” on social hostilities, but repeat offenders also included India, Israel, and Nigeria—highest with a score of 8.9. No new nations joined the list this year, while Iraq, Libya, Mali, and Somalia dropped out.

Grading took place on a scale. The top 5 percent of nations in each index were categorized as “very high,” while the next 15 percent were “high.” The following 20 percent were categorized as “moderate,” while the remaining 60 percent were “low.” (Though Pew recognizes North Korea as a clear offending nation, it was not included in the report due to the inability of independent observers to have regular access.)

Most nations in both indexes showed little to no change in their rating. Only 16 recorded a moderate increase of 1.0–1.9 or higher in their combined score, while only nine nations experienced a similar decrease. And only one country, Sudan, witnessed a decline of 2.0 or more for government restrictions, as a new constitution, now in limbo amid civil war, decriminalized apostasy.

For social hostilities, only Turkey and Bolivia declined similarly, the latter due to no reports—as in previous years—of Protestant missionaries expelled from indigenous areas. Conversely, Uganda and Montenegro witnessed 2.0 increases in their scores, the latter due to vandalization of mosques and harassment of Christian proselytization.

Most common, according to Pew, is government harassment. More than 9 in 10 nations (183 total) tallied at least one incident. Social harassment occurred in more than 8 in 10 nations (160 total), and 157 nations experienced both.

Pew also tallied the type of force or violence inflicted around the world. Property damage was most common with 105 offending nations, with Europe registering the highest with 71 percent occurrence. The MENA region led percentage occurrence in all other types, with physical assaults recorded in a global total of 91 nations, detentions in 77, displacement in 38, and killings in 45.

Ethiopia was noted for the deaths of 78 priests during its civil war.

Christians and Muslims remain the religious groups receiving harassment most widely. The number of nations harassing Christians increased from 155 to 160, up from a baseline total of 107. Nations harassing Muslims decreased from 145 to 141, but still up from the baseline number of 96. Harassment of Jews also declined from 94 to 91, but was only recorded in 51 nations in 2007.

An “other” category of Baha'is, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians followed, harassed in 64 nations, followed by folk religions in 40. Violations against Buddhists (in 28 nations), Hindus (in 24), and an “unaffiliated” category of atheists, agnostics, and humanists (in 27) were less widespread.

A new feature in Pew’s report tracked nations that provided benefits to religious groups. With a total of 161 countries qualifying, 127 supported religious education, 107 offered funds to construct or maintain religious buildings, and 67 compensated clergy to some degree. Of the latter, more than half (36 nations) gave preferential treatment to certain religions. And of the total, 149 governments nonetheless harassed believers or interfered in their worship.

Saudi Arabia, Pew noted, gives stipends to imams yet restricts their sermons.

In addition to a tally of nations, Pew also organized data to measure the impact of restrictions and hostilities on a wide scope of humanity. Among the 25 largest nations—representing 5.8 billion of the 7.8 billion world population in 2021—Egypt, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and Nigeria recorded the highest overall levels. Japan, the United States, South Africa, Italy, and Brazil ranked lowest.

[ This article is also available in Português Français 简体中文, and 繁體中文. ]

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