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The Story

Across the globe, social hostilities related to religion declined in 2019, while government restrictions remain at peak, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The Background

In an analysis of 198 countries and territories and based on policies and events in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, social hostilities around the world involving religion declined to the lowest level in five years, while government restrictions on religion remained at a peak. The study provides a snapshot of the state of religious restrictions just before the pandemic, when government restrictions in general increased considerably.

In 2019, 43 countries (22 percent of all those included in the study) had “high” or “very high” levels of social hostilities. That is down from 53 countries (27 percent) in 2018, and from a peak of 65 countries (33 percent) in 2012. These figures have fluctuated since the study began in 2007, but the number of countries with at least “high” levels of social hostilities related to religion is now the lowest since 2009.

In contrast, government restrictions, such as interference in worship, stayed at a record high for the study. The number of countries with “high” or “very high” levels of government restrictions ticked up from 56 in 2018 to 57 (29 percent of all countries analyzed) in 2019, matching the 2012 peak. In total, governments in 180 countries harassed religious groups in some way in 2019 and 163 governments interfered in worship. Both are peaks for the study.

Overall, people were harassed, either by governments or social groups, in religion-related incidents in 190 countries, the highest number since the study began.

The Takeaways

Some of the more interesting findings from the survey include:

• Christians experienced harassment in more countries (153) than other religious groups in 2019. This is up from 107 countries when the study began in 2007.

• A key factor in the decrease in social hostilities was a decrease in reports of terrorism, mob violence, and other hostilities against proselytizing. Religion-related terrorism fell for a fifth consecutive year, pushing the number of countries experiencing such events to a record low for the 12 years the study has been conducted.

• There also were fewer countries where religion-related terrorism led to deaths or injuries. In 2019, 47 countries had at least one casualty due to religion-related terrorism, down from 57 countries in 2018. (Terrorism in general has been on a decline since peaking in 2014.)

• In 2019, there were fewer countries with reports of mob violence related to religion (down from 41 countries in 2018 to 34 in 2019), hostilities over proselytizing (from 35 in 2018 to 28 in 2019), organized groups using force or coercion in an attempt to dominate public life with their perspectives on religion (104 to 94 countries), and individuals using violence or the threat of violence to enforce religious norms (85 to 74 countries).

• Four of the five regions analyzed in the study experienced a drop in religion-related terrorism: the Americas, the Asia-Pacific region, Europe and the Middle East–North Africa region. In Iraq, for example, the number of violent attacks by the armed group ISIS decreased in 2019, and the group lost a large swath of territory in both Iraq and Syria.

• The total number of countries with “high” or “very high” levels of government restrictions rose in 2019 to 57 (29 percent of all countries in the study). This is up one country from 2018 and matches the study’s highest mark, from 2012.

• As has been the case in all previous years studied, most countries with “high” or “very high” levels of government restrictions in 2019 were either in the Asia-Pacific region (25 of the 50 countries in that region) or in the Middle East–North Africa region (19 of 20 countries). Among the world’s 25 most populous countries, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Russia had the highest levels of restrictions on religion overall.

• Two specific measures of government restrictions on religion increased globally in 2019: government harassment against religious groups and government interference in worship. More countries had at least one reported incident of government harassment or interference in worship in 2019 than in any other year since the study began in 2007.

• Governments in more than 80 percent of the countries in each of the study’s five regions harassed religious groups in some way, including all 20 countries in the Middle East–North Africa region and 44 of 45 in Europe (98 percent of countries in the region). In sub-Saharan Africa, 90 percent of the region’s 48 countries had such incidents, followed by 89 percent of the 35 countries in the Americas and 84 percent of countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

• In total, 180 countries (91 percent of all countries in the study) had at least one instance of government harassment against religious groups, compared with 175 countries in 2018. In this study, harassment against religious groups ranged from verbal intimidation to physical violence motivated at least in part by the target’s religious identity.