A report released last week by the Pew Research Center has found that there has been a 50 percent increase in government restrictions on religion across the globe between 2007 and 2018, the most recent year studied. Such a drastic number indicates that religious freedom is on a rapid downward spiral.
This is troubling, and it presents a myriad of security, economic, and human rights challenges for the millions of people who live under governments that are tightening restrictions on peaceful religious practices. For world leaders and advocates to successfully begin addressing these issues, it is critical to understand what is happening around the world and what is driving increasing attacks on religious freedom.
Pew’s extensive survey reveals a lot about what religious believers are enduring around the world—both from governments and from social hostilities. Here are four take-aways from Pew’s new report:
1. Government restrictions on religion are rising in Asia.
Asia and the Pacific had the biggest increase in the amount of government restrictions on religion in 2018. Pew researchers found that governments used force against religious believers and groups in 62 percent of countries in Asia and the Pacific, including detention, displacement, abuse, and killings.
Asia is a worsening hotspot for religious persecution. Just in the last several years, China has started a campaign of mass detention of Uyghur Muslims, North Korea remains the world’s worst persecutor of Christians, and apostasy, blasphemy, and anti-conversion laws across Asia restrict individuals’ rights to choose and change their faith. These developments are all concerning and all deserve the world’s attention and advocacy.
2. Authoritarian regimes pose the greatest threat to religious freedom.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pew found a “strong association between authoritarianism and government restrictions on religion.” Around 65 percent of countries with very high government restrictions on religion have authoritarian governments. In contrast, no countries with very high government restrictions were classified as full democracies.
3. Three Middle Eastern countries have both the highest levels of government restrictions and social hostility to religion.
Egypt, Syria, and Iraq are the only three countries which were found to have both very high government restrictions and very high social hostilities toward religion in 2018. Targeted religious believers in these countries endure governments that impede their freedom to practice their faith and face private groups or individuals that regularly harass or abuse them. This is a deadly combination, and it is indicative of the severe challenges faced by believers throughout the entire Middle East.
4. Harassment due to religion remains high.
Harassment due to religion occurs in 185 out of 198 countries—the vast majority of the world. While this is slightly down from the previous year, the number of countries where Christians experienced harassment rose slightly.
Pew considers harassment to include everything from verbal abuse to physical violence and killings which are motivated because of a person’s religious identity. Christians and Muslims reportedly faced the most harassment for their faith worldwide. The region of the Middle East and North Africa is especially dangerous. In 2018, Christians in 19 out of the 20 total countries faced harassment by social groups or the government.
Ultimately, it should be a wake-up call to the world that religious persecution is at the highest point it has been in the past 11 years when Pew began tracking it. Things are getting worse, not better. And that is tragic for millions of religious people around the world just trying to live out their faith. The persecuted—especially those living under highly restrictive authoritarian regimes—are often unable to speak up for themselves. It falls, then, to those of us in free societies to speak up on their behalf.