Report Highlights Difficulties for Believers
By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, 28 AUG. 2011 (ZENIT)
In the three-year period up to mid-2009, there was a significant increase in restrictions on religion in many countries. This is the finding of a recent report published by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The study examined the situation in 198 countries and rated them according to their performance in 33 measures. A variety of information sources, from reports by U.S. agencies, private research centers, and human rights organizations was used in compiling the results.
Between mid-2006 and mid-2009 restrictions increased in 23 countries. There was a decrease in 12 countries, and in the rest there was little change.
The findings were worse than a first glance at the data would suggest, as some of the countries with increasing restrictions have large populations. In fact, nearly a third of the world's population, more than 2.2 billion people, live in countries that experienced either greater government restrictions or more intense social hostility regarding religion.
By contrast, only about 1% of the global population was affected by the reductions in restrictions.
The 25 most populous countries make up about three-quarters of the world's population. In this group, restrictions substantially increased in eight countries, according to the report, and none of the 25 saw any substantial decrease.
In six of the eight — China, Nigeria, Russia, Thailand, the United Kingdom and Vietnam — the worsening situation was mainly accounted for as a result of higher levels of social hostility. While in Egypt and France, it was principally the consequence of government action.
In Egypt the report noted that the government continued to ban the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time Christians suffered discrimination in a number of ways, including in being able to find jobs in the public sector.
With regard to France the report mentioned events such as the debate in parliament over whether women should be allowed to wear the burqa. In addition, there was governmental pressure on groups considered to be cults, such as Scientology.
Overall, there were 101 countries that in the year ending mid-2009 had used some degree of force against religious groups or individuals. The force ranged from physical abuse, to imprisonment and destruction of property. This was an increase of 10 countries compared to the situation in mid-2008.
When it came to actions by people or groups there was hostility in 142 countries for the year ending mid-2009, which was roughly the same as for the previous year. But mob violence increased sharply, from 38 countries in mid-2008 to 52 by mid-2009.
Dividing up the world in regions results in the Middle East-North Africa area as having the largest proportion of countries where government restrictions escalated. According to the report, six of the 14 countries where government restrictions rose substantially were in the Middle East-North Africa region: Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Qatar, Syria and Yemen.
The Pew Center singled out Egypt as a notable offender, both for the governmental action and social hostility. The other country that also scored high results in both categories was Indonesia.
The region with the highest proportion of problems regarding social hostility was Europe. Half of the 10 countries that experienced a greater intensity of social hostility were European — Bulgaria, Denmark, Russia, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Asia took second place, with the report finding an increase in China, Thailand and Vietnam.The region with the least state restrictions or social hostility was the Americas.
Another finding of the report was that there seems to be a worldwide trend toward polarization in matters regarding religion. Most of the countries that intensified their control over religion or where social hostility increased already scored high on these measures. Thus, in the group of 62 countries who already had high ratings for restrictions or hostility, there were substantial increases in 14 of them.
The same held true at the other end of the spectrum. Nearly half of the countries with marked decreases in controls or hostility already had low scores. The group of 94 countries with low scores in the indexes of controls or hostility saw five of them reducing still further their levels and only two had an increase.
When it comes to those who are most affected for their religion, the report found that Christians and Muslims were harassed in the largest number of countries. In the three years up to mid-2009, Christians reported problems in 130 countries and Muslims in 117 countries.
Some smaller religions experienced difficulties out of proportion to their numbers. Jews, for example, while making up less than 1% of the world's population, reported harassment in 75 countries.
Other groups that experienced difficulties ranged from older faiths such as Sikhs and Zoroastrans, to newer ones such as Baha'is and Rastafarians. These along with other tribal and folk religions reported problems in 84 countries.
Those countries that have laws prohibiting blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion are also singled out by the report. While, in theory, they are defended as being a necessary protection for religion, in practice they are often used to repress religious minorities, the report stated.
On the other hand, the report also noted that sometimes it is religion that is at fault. In the three-year period covered, there were religion-related terrorist groups active in no less than 74 countries.
In half of these nations the groups carried out acts of violence that ranged from kidnappings to destruction of property and killings. One country particularly affected was Russia, with over 1,100 deaths as a result of religion-related terrorist attacks in the two-year period up to mid-2009.
The importance of protecting religious liberty was emphasized earlier this year by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, permanent representative of the Holy See to the U.N. offices in Geneva.
"At the heart of fundamental human rights is freedom of religion, conscience and belief: It affects personal identity and basic choices and it makes possible the enjoyment of other human rights," he said in a speech given March 2 at the 16th ordinary session of the Human Rights Council on religious freedom.
Archbishop Tomasi lamented the increase in religious conflict in recent times and cited a report published last year by the private organization Aid to the Church in Need, which revealed that of every 100 people killed out of religious hatred 75 are Christian.
He called on governments to carry out their duty of defending religious freedom and argued that unless this is done, it undermines democracy. It's clear, Archbishop Tomasi said, that this freedom is linked to liberty of opinion, expression and assembly.
In conclusion he affirmed that "the state has an ethical and legal obligation to uphold and make applicable the right to freedom of religion or conviction both because it is a fundamental human right, and because it is its duty to defend the rights of its citizens and to seek the welfare of society."
A freedom all too often denied, or even actively impeded by those who should be protecting it.