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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Rising Restrictions on Religion Driven by Government Controls

Leviathan remains the main enemy of freedom of belief and practice.

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(Photo by HUSSEIN FALEH/AFP via Getty Images)

The world is an ugly place for religious believers. Every faith faces persecution somewhere. By numbers, at least, Christians are at greatest risk. In the 50 worst countries making Open Doors’ 2024 World Watch List, 317 million Christians are estimated to suffer from “very high or extreme” levels of persecution. 

Attacks come in many forms. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom explains, 

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Governments enforce laws and policies to restrict or punish peaceful religious activity and expression, to impose official religious interpretations, or to discriminate on the basis of religion. Societal actors, including individuals, mobs, and violent groups, often purporting to act in the name of religion, target those they deem the religious other. Derogatory and dangerous rhetoric against members of religious groups, including from government officials and religious leaders, heightens intolerance and can provoke violence.

Although private actors play an important role, persecution usually is driven by government. Social hostility remains significant in many countries, but politics is exacerbating the worst of religious persecution.

The Pew Research Center has long tracked attitudes and actions toward religion. It recently released its latest global assessment of religious trends, separating government restraints from social hostility. Although Pew’s work suffers from substantial lag times, its findings help us understand the reality of persecution. 

The survey found a drop in social antagonism. State controls, however, were worse than ever. Reported Pew: 

Globally, the median score on our 10-point Government Restrictions Index rose from 2.8 in 2020 to 3.0 in 2021—the highest level recorded since we began tracking this in 2007. The index tracks 20 measures on government laws, policies and actions that limit religious beliefs and preferential treatment of some groups over others; and restrictions on preaching, converting or proselytizing.

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In 2021, 183 governments, the most ever, harassed religious believers. In 163 countries, down just one from 2020, governments interfered with worship. Examples of the latter included “policies or actions that disrupt religious gatherings, deny permits for religious activities, bar access to places of worship, and restrict other rituals.” Covid restrictions played an important role. The comparable numbers from 2007 were dramatically lower: 118 and 112, respectively. Overall, attacks on religious believers were up more than 50 percent in both categories.

In 55 countries, government restrictions were either high or very high. That was down two from 2019–2020, the peak only previously reached in 2012. The lowest bound was a still significant 40 nations, set in 2007. The median score increased in 2021 since there were more increases than decreases among individual index scores.

Reflecting the variable and even paradoxical nature of religious persecution, government restrictions and social hostility do not necessarily correlate. The former tend to be consistent, increasing generally steadily over time, from 1.8 in 2007 to 3.0 in 2021. Social attitudes are more volatile, starting at 1.0 in 2007, peaking at 2.1 in 2017, and dropping to 1.6 in 2021.

State controls over religion were highest in China, which had the world’s second-lowest social hostility measure. The driving force for persecution there is political, fear of competition for influence, and especially of transcendent truths which trump the Chinese Communist Party’s claim to power. The situation has worsened dramatically over the last decade, as CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has greatly strengthened the party’s authority and his own.

In contrast, the worst social hostility in 2021 was in Nigeria. Formal state restrictions on religion are low given the almost evenly divided population. Yet violence from Islamic radicals and terrorists has had a particularly devastating impact on vulnerable Christian communities. Return violence is real but limited, while the Nigerian government’s response has been ineffective at best and malign at worst. Number two was India, where the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has inflamed religious conflict for political advantage.

Nineteen states had “very high” restrictions on religion. Fifteen were majority Muslim nations. The rest were various forms of autocracies. The list of discreditables: Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The list of “very high” social hostility was much shorter, just seven nations. Four were majority Muslim: Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, and Syria. Two were mixed, one Muslim-Christian (Nigeria) and the other Jewish-Muslim (Israel). The last was majority Hindu (India). Four others dropped out of the “very high” category from 2020, all Muslim: Iraq, Libya, Mali, and Somalia.

In terms of restrictions, harassment was the broadest problem, occurring in 190 of 198 countries studied. This returned to the 2019 peak. Government harassment increased from 178 to 183 countries. Private harassment stayed the same in 164 nations. In 157 of them harassment was both public and private. In 137 harassment was physical, including attacks on people and damage to property. Also counted were public verbal assaults. There were killings in 45 nations, assaults in 91, detentions in 77, displacements in 38, and property damage in 105.

The booby prize for worst harasser goes to the Middle East–North Africa, where all 20 nations committed at least one act of harassment. No region looked good. Perhaps surprisingly, 33 of 35 nations in the Americas and 43 of 45 in Europe also harassed believers. The Asia-Pacific was “only” 43 of 50. The pattern for interference was similar, with the MENA region again a 100 percent, and the other regions following in somewhat lower numbers than in harassment cases.

Yet the number of cases says nothing about the severity of the measures. European nations increasingly restrict dress typical for more observant Muslims. Islamic governments commonly enforce more draconian restrictions on religious minorities. When Covid hit Western countries often limited religious services in response. Muslim-majority states more often have restricted non-Muslim gatherings as a matter of course. Explained Pew, 

For example, in the Maldives, where Islam is the state religion, non-Muslim groups are forbidden to build places of worship or practice their faith publicly. Similarly, Egyptian law allows only members of recognized religious groups (Sunni Islam, Christianity and Judaism) to express their faith in public and construct houses of worship.

All faiths were at risk of mistreatment. According to Pew, 

In 2021, Christians were harassed by governments or private actors in 160 countries, up from 155 in 2020. Meanwhile, Muslims faced harassment in 141 countries, down from 145 in 2020. Christians and Muslims are the largest religious groups in the world, and since the beginning of the study, they generally have faced harassment in a larger number of countries than any other group. 

Jews were targeted in 91 countries, down from 94, a shockingly high number for a faith whose members make up just 0.2 percent of the world’s population. Other believers, including Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is, and adherents to assorted ancient and folk religions, were harassed in 64 nations.

Politics, and especially religious politics, is complicated. Many governments simultaneously restrict and subsidize religion. Pew found that 161 governments aided some religious groups. Most common were support of religious education, subsidies for construction or maintenance of religious properties, and aid for religious staff. Of these 161 governments, 149 also harassed religious groups while 134 interfered with worship. 

This often occurs when favored faiths, which are most likely to receive state benefits, back limits on their competitors. Russia is an example, with the Orthodox Church favored while proselytizing faiths such as Jehovah’s Witnesses are punished. Most often it is Islam doing the simultaneous subsidizing and persecuting, either Sunni or Shia, which extracts official favors as the state also ruthlessly punishes those who look elsewhere for spiritual sustenance.

Moreover, some states provide benefits to help control dominant faiths, using the religious establishment to advance dictatorial rule. Pew points to Saudi Arabia, where 

the government funds the construction of most Sunni mosques and gives a monthly stipend to imams at the mosques, sermons are restricted by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which directs the imams to choose from an approved list.… The Saudi government also has targeted Sunni clerics (along with Shiite clerics) when they express religious views deemed unacceptable by the government.

Pew does a special assessment of the 25 most populous nations, which collectively account for almost three-fourths of the world’s population. Among this group, China, Russia, Iran, Egypt, and Indonesia had the highest restrictions. Nigeria, India, Egypt, Pakistan, and Bangladesh had the worst social hostility. Those with the greatest persecution, meaning combined score, were Egypt, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and Nigeria.

It also is worth noting the best states. Japan, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, the Philippines, and the United States of America had the fewest restrictions. Enjoying lowest social hostility were Japan, China, the U.S., Turkey, and South Africa. Best in the combined category were Japan, America, South Africa, Italy, and Brazil. Even these are not perfect, of course. Tokyo has targeted members of the Unification Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The only good news from the Pew study is that there are countries where believers are free to respond to the transcendent as they, rather than the state or the majority, desire. Notable is America’s place on that list. Still, even American believers have reason for concern. The authoritarian left is increasingly willing to sacrifice religious liberty as it campaigns to remold and remake Americans, using the state to punish Christians who resist wokedom’s latest social dictates. Nevertheless, support for treating faith as the first freedom remains high and institutional protections for freedom of conscience remain strong. What occurs in the U.S. is not persecution.

Religious liberty is under siege around the world. There is ultimately no more personal and no more important right than to seek God, without interference, as one understands him. That is not the case in a shockingly large number of nations. But it remains the case in America. We must ensure that does not change.