Washington, D.C. Sept. 20, 2012— Even before the recent turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa – including attacks on U.S. embassies and the killing of an American ambassador – the region was experiencing increasing hostilities and tensions involving religion. A new report by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that as of mid-2010 – six months before the outbreak of events that would become known as the Arab Spring – the Middle East-North Africa had by far the world’s highest levels of social hostilities involving religion as well as government restrictions on religious beliefs and practices.
The new study, which is part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project, finds that the share of countries with high or very high restrictions on religion rose from 31% in the year ending in mid-2009 to 37% in the year ending in mid-2010. Because some of the most restrictive countries are very populous, three-quarters (75%) of the world’s approximately 7 billion people live in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion, up from 70% a year earlier.
A rising level of restrictions occurred in each of the five major regions of the world. In three regions – Europe, the Middle East-North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa – the median levels of both government restrictions and social hostilities increased from mid-2009 to mid-2010. In the Americas, the median level of government restrictions increased, while in the Asia-Pacific region, the median level of social hostilities increased.
Restrictions Also Increasing in United States
Restrictions on religion rose not only in countries that began the year with high or very high restrictions or hostilities, such as Indonesia and Nigeria, but also in many countries that began with low or moderate restrictions or hostilities, such as Switzerland and the United States.
During the latest year studied, the U.S. moved from the low category of government restrictions on religion to the moderate category for the first time. In the year ending in mid-2010, there was an increase in the number of incidents in the U.S. at the state and local level in which members of some religious groups faced restrictions on their ability to practice their faith. This included incidents in which individuals were prevented from wearing certain religious attire or symbols, including beards, in some judicial settings or in prisons, penitentiaries or other correctional facilities. Some religious groups in the U.S. also faced difficulties in obtaining zoning permits to build or expand houses of worship, religious schools or other religious institutions. The U.S. also experienced an increase in social hostilities involving religion during this same period. A key factor behind the increase was a spike in religion-related terrorist attacks in the U.S. The increase also reflects a rise in the number of reported religion-related workplace discrimination complaints.
This is the third time the Pew Forum has measured restrictions on religion. The new study scores 197 countries and territories on the same two indexes used in the previous studies – the Government Restrictions Index (GRI) and the Social Hostilities Index (SHI). The 197 countries and self-administering territories covered by the study contain more than 99.5% of the world’s population.
The full report – including a summary of results, index scores by region, results by country, the methodology and an interactive graphic showing the levels of restrictions in the worlds’ 25 most populous countries – is available on the Pew Forum’s website.
The Pew Forum’s work on global restrictions on religion is part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project, an effort funded by the The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation to analyze religious change and its impact on societies around the world.
The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life conducts surveys, demographic analyses and other social science research on important aspects of religion and public life in the U.S. and around the world. As part of the Washington-based Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, nonadvocacy organization, the Pew Forum does not take positions on policy debates or any of the issues it covers.