Three-quarters of the world's 7 billion population live in countries with high levels of government restriction on religion or where there exist serious "social hostilities" involving faith issues, according to researchers, with the US and the UK among countries showing a worrying rise in religious discrimination.
A research project conducted by the US thinktank Pew Research Centre's Forum on Religion and Public Life, whose findings were published on Thursday under the title The Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion, identified a sharp rise in religious restrictions worldwide. It reports a staggering 6% increase in restrictions in the four years until 2010.
The survey is the second successive one by Pew to note rising intolerance worldwide.
Painting a stark picture of a "rising tide" of intolerance and government restrictions on religious matters, the report cites evidence including "crimes, malicious acts and violence motivated by religious hatred or bias, as well as increased government interference with worship or other religious practices".
Rather than seeing a moderation of the tendency of towards religious intolerance the project has seen an acceleration, reporting a 63% rise from mid-2009 to mid-2010 in the number of countries that increased government restrictions, in comparison with Pew's last survey that had noted a 56% rise.
Remarking on this trend, the report says: "The number of countries where harassment or intimidation of specific religious groups took place rose from 147 as of mid-2009 to 160 as of mid-2010.
In the new survey the UK is second in the group of countries marked "high" – on a scale from very high (which takes in the top 17 offending countries) to low – on one of the two indices used to evaluate levels of intolerance: "social hostility" relating to religion.
That places it after Kenya and above Burma, marking a rise since the last survey. In the group of European countries only Russia fared worse on this index. In the second index – government restrictions – the UK remains on the "moderate" list.
Among other countries showing marked increases in religious intolerance for the first time – albeit still only classed as "moderate" – was the US.
Among countries that registered an increase for the first time on both scales was the US, which moved from a low category of religious restrictions to moderate.
"During the period from mid-2009 to mid-2010," the report's authors note, "a number of the sources used in the study reported an increase in the number of incidents at the state and local level in which members of some religious groups faced restrictions on their ability to practice their faith." These included "religious groups in the US [which had] faced difficulties in obtaining zoning permits to build or expand houses of worship, religious schools or other religious institutions.
A more marked increase was recorded in the social hostilities index, moving the US from the lower end of the moderate range of hostilities to the upper end of the moderate range. This was largely driven by an increase in religion-related terrorist attacks in the year to mid-2010. The report also noted legislation by some states to ban "sharia law" or prevent the construction of mosques"
The percentage of the world's population living in countries with low levels of restriction on religion, the report calculates, declined between 2007 and 2010 by more than 50% from 14% to only 6% at the end of the period studied.
The report is being published, ironically perhaps, in the midst of a rash of deadly protests in the Muslim world following the posting online of a crude video that offensively mocks the life of Muhammad.
The survey reports that in all five major regions of the world – including the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa where religious restrictions previously had been declining – freedom of faith was coming under increasing pressure.
While the survey notes growing religious restrictions in places where that might be expected, including in Nigeria which has seen a spate of deadly attacks against Christians, as well as in Indonesia, where pressure from Islamists forced the closing of dozens of churches, it also identifies growing problems in some western democracies including Switzerland – which in 2009 banned the construction of minarets – and the US.
The report – which detailed religious freedom up until the end of 2010 and is the third such survey Pew has carried out – added that it had identified a four-year high involving the "harassment or intimidation of particular religious groups" – including five out of seven of the major religious groupings – including Jews, Christians, Buddhists and adherents of folk or traditional religions.
Not all religions, however, faced harassment in the same way.
"Christians," the survey reports, "were harassed by government officials or organisations in 95 countries in the year ending in mid-2010 and by social groups or individuals in 77 countries. Muslims also were more likely to be harassed by governments (74 countries) than by social groups or individuals (64 countries). Jews, by contrast, experienced social harassment in many more countries than they faced government harassment."
The survey marks 197 countries and territories using two indices: a government restrictions index that marks countries on a list of 20 indicators of religious restrictions, including efforts to prohibit the practise of various faiths, and a social hostilities index. This second measure attempts to calculate levels of religious hostility by individuals and groups against rival sects and religions.
Using these two scales the survey's authors identified an increase of countries with "very high" levels of government restrictions from 10 in 2007 to 18 in 2010.
In that period 10 countries were added to the list of countries with very high levels of restriction – Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Indonesia, Maldives, Russia, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen – while only two, Brunei and Turkey, were actually downgraded.
The report adds: "The number of countries with very high social hostilities also rose, from 10 as of mid-2007 to 15 as of mid-2010, as five countries (Egypt, Nigeria, the Palestinian territories, Russia and Yemen)
were added to the 'very high' category and none were removed (see table above). Meanwhile, half of the 197 countries in the study (98) had low levels of social hostilities in mid-2010, down from 114 in mid-2007." North Korea was excluded from the study because of the difficulty of accessing up-to-date information on the country.
Perhaps even more telling has been the level of increase of countries experiencing social hostilities over religion, with four times as many countries (17) showing a marked increase as had seen a decrease (four).
The increase in religious restrictions comes as recent surveys have appeared to demonstrate that the world is becoming more religious.
Commenting on the rise in the current survey for the UK on the "social hostility" index, lead researcher Brian Grim said it had been driven by a number of issues. "That included Christians voicing concern about being able to talk about their religion, a spike in anti-semitic incidents and also anti-Muslim sentiment. It also included concern about issues within the Muslim community itself and honour killings." He added that in the period covered by the survey there had been an upsurge in sectarian tension in Northern Ireland which had since subsided.