Government restrictions on religion and social hostilities involving religion are on the rise around the world, a new study from the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life disclosed.
Social hostilities include “abuse of religious minorities by private individuals or groups in society for acts perceived as offensive or threatening to the majority faith of the country,” according to Pew.
Social hostilities in a third of the 198 countries or territories surveyed were viewed as high or very high, with acts of religious violence rising everywhere in the world except the Americas, Pew noted in its study, which covered the six years from 2007 to 2012.
“We monitor this in two ways that religious freedom is restricted — actions of government and actions of individual groups of society,” the study’s lead author Brian Grim told Newsmax. “We’ve seen a steady climb overall. It’s a global phenomenon.
“There’s an association between social hostilities and government restrictions. As one goes up, the other goes up. And that may be part of what is going on,” said Grim, president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation in Annapolis, Md.
Among the Pew study’s key findings:
• The number of countries with religion-related terrorist violence has doubled over the past six years.
• Women were harassed because of religious dress in nearly a third of countries in 2012 (32 percent), up from 25 percent in 2011 and 7 percent in 2007.
• The Middle East and North Africa were the most common regions for sectarian violence, with half of all countries in the regions seeing conflicts in 2012.
• China, for the first time in the study, experienced a high level of social hostilities involving religion, with multiple types reported during 2012, including religion-related terrorism, harassment of women for religious dress, and mob violence.
• The number of countries with a very high level of religious hostilities increased from 14 in 2011 to 20 in 2012. Six countries — Syria, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Myanmar (Burma) — had very high levels of religious hostilities in 2012 but not in 2011.
Raymond Ibrahim, a religious scholar and author who studies hostilities against Christians, said persecution of Christian minorities was rising across the Islamic world, as well as in North Korea and to a smaller extent in India and China.
Ibrahim said the U.S. culture’s embrace of tolerance makes it different from other places where religious traditions tend to discount other faiths as false.
“I think the historical position on religions is about truth. If I have the truth, you don’t. I don’t want your falsehoods to get out in the open. We in the West don’t appreciate this kind of logic and we take for granted the idea of religious tolerance,” Ibrahim said.
The difference between the United States and other countries around the world is that America has “many mechanisms to address religious freedom problems as they come up,” Grim noted, citing the Department of Justice’s special branch dedicated to reviewing discriminatory issues related to religious dress as well as land use problems involving churches and mosques.
In current hot zones of violence, like the Central African Republic and Nigeria, and across sub-Saharan Africa, “there’s a real trend toward major fighting and religious violence along this Christian-Muslim line,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
In Nigeria, “you have a largely Muslim north and a largely Christian south and extremist groups stoking tensions between the two and carrying out acts of violence,” Rassbach told Newsmax.
“I think what happens is those conflicts aren’t just limited to their own countries. What you are seeing is they end up resulting in inter-religious disagreements in other countries,” Rassbach said.
Ethnic and economic conflicts are also tied up in regional disputes, and those add to the mix of religious differences, he said.
“In other parts of the world, it tends to be government-driven, especially in more authoritarian governments. You tend to see a crackdown, so to speak,” noting the crackdown on Christian house churches in China.
In Pakistan, “the government doesn’t officially target religious groups, but the way it runs itself, it ends up essentially green-lighting inter-religious violence by individuals who can often act with impunity,” Rassbach said.
In the Middle East, “the Arab Spring has intensified a lot of previously quieter disputes,” many of which have spilled over to other countries within the region as governments have been destabilized. “I think, anecdotally, you can tell that the violence and resentment is going up. But I think it’s for different reasons in different places,” he said.
There also has been some hostility toward religion in the United States, Rassbach added. “I think a lot of it has been stoked by the government,” including “issues like the contraceptive mandate that we are litigating.”
“It used to be that everybody agreed that religious liberty was a good thing. Now you are starting to see people here opposed to religious liberty.
“I think it’s because of the politicization,” he said. “Some political actors have seen it as useful to pick fights with religious groups. That ends up stoking religious tensions.”
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By Andrea Billups