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RELIGION: Few States Enjoy Freedom of Faith, Report Says

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Dec 17 2009 (IPS) - About one-third of the countries in the world have high or very high restrictions on religion, and nearly 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with heavy restrictions on freedom of religion, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The study examines restrictions on religion which originate from both government policies and social hostilities undertaken by private individuals, organisations and social groups.

Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran topped the list of countries with the overall highest levels of restriction on religion, while the Middle East and North Africa were the regions with the highest government and social restrictions on religion.

North and South America have some of the lowest levels of government and social restrictions on religion, found the Pew study.

Of the world’s 25 most populous countries, Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and India have the most restrictions, while Brazil, Japan, the United States, Italy, South Africa and Britain have some of the lowest levels.

While the Middle East, North Africa and the Americas exhibit either extremely high or low levels of government and social restrictions, these two variables do not always move together.

“Vietnam and China, for instance, have high government restrictions on religion but are in the moderate or low range when it comes to social hostilities,” said the report. “Nigeria and Bangladesh follow the opposite pattern: high in social hostilities but moderate in terms of government actions.”

The study uses data gathered from 16 governmental and non-governmental organisations – including the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and Human Rights Watch – and represents over 99.5 percent of the world’s population.

Government restrictions examined by Pew include constitutional limitations or other prohibitions on free speech.

Social hostilities were measured by religion-related terrorism and violence between religious groups.

The study found that government restrictions are relatively low in the U.S. but the levels of religious hostilities are higher than those reported in a number of other large democracies, such as Brazil and Japan.

Also of interest was the finding that while most countries provide for the protection of religious freedom in their constitutions or laws, only a quarter of those countries examined by the Pew study were found to fully respect these legal rights in practice.

In 75 countries – four in 10 in the world – governments limit the efforts of religious groups to prosthelytise and in 178 countries – 90 percent – religious groups must register with the government.

Two of the most populous countries in the world, India and China, also exhibited extreme restrictions on religion.

But the restrictions were different, with China exhibiting very high levels of government restriction but low to moderate levels of social hostilities, while India exhibits very high social hostilities but only moderate to high levels of government restrictions.

“It’s not just populous countries [which exhibit high levels of restrictions on religion]. There are also some very small countries like the Maldives [which have high levels of restrictions]. But having said that, the larger the country becomes the multiplied number of issues it has to deal with in its population,” Brian Grim, senior researcher at the Pew Forum, told IPS.

Topping the government restrictions index were Saudi Arabia, Iran, Uzbekistan, China, Egypt, Burma, Maldives, Eritrea, Malaysia and Brunei.

At the top of the social hostilities index were Iraq, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Somalia, Israel, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

Israel stands out on the list of countries with high scores on the social hostilities index as most of the other countries are either failed states, highly authoritarian or have recently undergone civil wars.

“Israel’s social hostilities score includes acts of religion related terrorism and war and hostilities between Israel and Palestinians,” said Grim.

“Hostilities also include hostilities between Jews and all these various factors add up, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect negatively on Israeli society. The effect these hostilities have on the ability to freely practice religion is real and that’s why it’s counted,” Grim concluded.

Grim also pointed out the trait shared by most countries exhibiting very high levels of restrictions on religion.

“A common feature within these countries is a movement to define the countries religiously. The aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a struggle between Sunni and Shia. It’s a conflict like this to define the religious identity of the country,” said Grim.

The study reflected a general trend of the highest levels of government restrictions appearing in the Middle East and North Africa followed by Asia and the Pacific.

Government restrictions on religion appear to generally be lower in Sub-Saharan Africa than in Europe.

Recent concerns over the role of immigration and religion – such as the November referendum in Switzerland to prevent the construction of new minarets – and the number of relatively new states in Eastern Europe may contribute to the higher levels of government restrictions observed in Europe.

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