Global Restrictions on Religion Rose in 2015, Study Finds

(CN) – Government restrictions on religion and open hostility involving religion increased in 2015, reversing a recent downward trend in such activities, the Pew Research Center said Tuesday.

Pew Research Center’s annual study on global restrictions on religion found the share of countries with “high” or “very high” levels of government restrictions – for example, laws, policies and actions that restrict religious beliefs and practices – ticked up from 24 percent in 2014 to 25 percent in 2015.

Meanwhile, the percentage of countries with high or very high levels of social hostilities – defined as acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations or groups in society – increased in 2015, from 23 percent to 27 percent.

Both of these increases follow two years of declines in the percentage of countries with high levels of restrictions on religion by these measures, the researchers said.

When looking at overall levels of restrictions in 2015, a catch-all that includes hostile acts by both individuals and government actions, the new study finds that 40 percent of countries had high or very high levels of restrictions, up from 34 percent in 2014.

The Pew Research Center said the global rise in social hostilities reflected a number of factors, including increases in mob violence related to religion, individuals being assaulted or displaced due to their faith, and incidents where violence was used to enforce religious norms.

In Europe, for instance, there were 17 countries where incidents of religion-related mob violence were reported in 2015, up from nine the previous year.

And sub-Saharan Africa saw a spread in violence used to enforce religious norms, such as the targeting of people with albinism for rituals by witch doctors. This type of hostility was reported in 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa in 2015, up from nine countries in 2014.

The increase in government restrictions was linked to a surge in government harassment and use of force against religious groups, two of the specific indicators used to measure government restrictions on religion in the analysis.

Four of the five geographic regions analyzed in this report – the Middle East and North Africa, Asia and the Pacific, sub-Saharan Africa and Europe – saw increases in these two areas.

Of the 198 countries in the study, 105 experienced widespread government harassment of religious groups, up from 85 in 2014 and 96 in 2013.

Government use of force against religious groups increased as well, with 23 countries experiencing more than 200 cases of government force in 2015, up from 21 in 2014.

While the Middle East-North Africa region continued to have the largest proportion of governments that engaged in harassment and use of force against religious groups, Europe had the largest increase in these measures in 2015.

More than half of the 45 countries in the region experienced an increase in government harassment or use of force from 2014 to 2015.

Twenty-seven European countries saw widespread government harassment or intimidation of religious groups in 2015, up from 17 countries in 2014. And the governments of 24 countries in Europe used some type of force against religious groups, an increase from 15 in 2014.

The study found that many incidents of government harassment tied to religion were tied to the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.

In 2015, 1.3 million migrants applied for asylum in Europe, nearly doubling the previous annual high of about 700,000 in 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. More than half came from three Muslim-majority countries, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

But report found that the clash between government officials and religious groups, wasn’t confined to harassment. In many cases , governments employed force against specific religious groups.

As an example, the report points to a February 2015 incident in Germany in which German police raided the mosque of the Islamic Cultural Center in Bremen during an investigation of its alleged ties to terrorism.

The Pew Research Center says police broke down the front door of the mosque, handcuffed worshippers and forced some to lie on the floor for hours. No weapons were found in the mosque.

A Bremen regional court later ruled that the search was unlawful, the study says.

The report notes that the incidents it records took place in a climate influenced by threats and attacks from religiously inspired terrorist groups.

France experienced several religion-related terror attacks in 2015, including the Jan. 7 shooting at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and the Nov. 13 attacks claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria at the Bataclan concert hall and various other locations throughout Paris.

In the days following the Paris attacks, Germany cancelled an international soccer match because of security threats, and Belgian authorities arrested 16 people suspected of planning similar acts.

Altogether, European law enforcement officials reported record numbers of terrorist attacks either carried out or prevented by authorities in 2015, although not all of these events were directly related to religion, the study said.

Attacks that were influenced by religion, such as those in Paris, are counted in the study as social hostilities involving religion, hostile actions motivated by religion and carried out by individuals or social groups, separate from government actions.

In Europe, hostilities toward Muslims in particular increased considerably.

In 2015, 32 countries in Europe experienced social hostilities toward Muslims, up from 26 countries in 2014.

By comparison, social hostilities toward Christians spread from 17 countries in 2014 to 21 in 2015.

Hostilities against Jews in Europe remained common and increased slightly, from 32 countries in 2014 to 33 countries in 2015. Many of the incidents targeting these religious groups occurred in the form of mob violence, the study said.

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