Trends in Global Restrictions on Religion

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Source: Pew Research Center

Worldwide, both government restrictions on religion and social hostilities involving religion decreased modestly from 2013 to 2014 despite a rise in religion-related terrorism, according to Pew Research Center’s latest annual study on global restrictions on religion.1

Of the 198 countries included in the study, 24% had high or very high levels of government restrictions in 2014 (the most recent year for which data are available), down from 28% in 2013.2 There was a similar decline in the share of countries with high or very high social hostilities involving religion, which dropped from 27% to 23%. This is the second year in a row the number of countries with this level of religious restrictions has declined, after three years of steady increases.3

Although only about a quarter of the countries included in the study fall into the most religiously restrictive categories, some of the most restrictive countries (such as Indonesia and Pakistan) are very populous. As a result, roughly three-quarters of the world’s 7.2 billion people (74%) were living in countries with high or very high restrictions or hostilities in 2014, down slightly from 77% in 2013.

Number of countries with religion-related terrorism rose in 2014The modest declines in countries with high restrictions or hostilities took place despite a marked increase in the number of countries that experienced religion-related terrorist activities, including acts carried out by such groups as Boko Haram, al-Qaida and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). Of the nearly 200 countries and territories included in the study, 82 (41%) had religion-related terrorist activities in 2014, up from 73 (37%) in 2013. In some countries, the terrorist activities were limited to recruitment or fundraising. But in 60 countries, religion-related terrorism led to injuries or deaths, including at least 50 casualties in each of 28 countries. Casualties from religion-related terrorist activities have been rising in recent years. (See below for more details.)

The increase in the number of countries with religion-related terrorist activity – which is counted as a social hostility in this study – was offset by decreases in the number of countries that experienced other types of social hostilities involving religion.4 For example, there was a decline in the number of countries in which individuals were assaulted or displaced from their homes in retaliation for religious activities considered offensive or threatening to the majority faith in their country, state or province. There also was a decline in the number of countries where threats of violence were used to enforce religious norms and a global decline in the incidence of mob violence related to religion.

Several factors contributed to the overall decline in government restrictions on religion. For instance, there was a decrease in the number of countries where some level of the government – national, provincial or local – interfered with worship practices. There also was a sizable drop in the number of countries where governments used force against religious groups that resulted in individuals being killed, physically abused, imprisoned, detained or displaced from their homes.

Looking at the overall level of restrictions in 2014 – whether resulting from government policies and actions or from hostile acts by private individuals, organizations or social groups – the new study finds that restrictions were high or very high in 34% of countries, down from 39% in 2013 and 43% in 2012.

This is the seventh in a series of reports by the Center analyzing the extent to which governments and societies around the world impinge on religious beliefs and practices. The studies are part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project, which analyzes religious change and its impact on societies around the world. The project is jointly funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation.

To measure global restrictions on religion in 2014, the study ranks 198 countries and territories by their levels of government restrictions on religion and social hostilities involving religion. The new study is based on the same 10-point indexes used in the previous studies.

  • The Government Restrictions Index measures government laws, policies and actions that restrict religious beliefs and practices. The GRI is comprised of 20 measures of restrictions, including efforts by government to ban particular faiths, prohibit conversion, limit preaching or give preferential treatment to one or more religious groups.
  • The Social Hostilities Index measures acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations or groups in society. This includes religion-related armed conflict or terrorism, mob or sectarian violence, harassment over attire for religious reasons or other religion-related intimidation or abuse. The SHI includes 13 measures of social hostilities.

To track these indicators of government restrictions and social hostilities, researchers comb through more than a dozen publicly available, widely cited sources of information, including the U.S. State Department’s annual reports on international religious freedom and annual reports from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, as well as reports from a variety of European and U.N. bodies and several independent, nongovernmental organizations. (See Methodology for more details on the sources used in the study.)

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