Restrictions on religion around the world, both by governments and their citizens, are once again on the rise after a hiatus in recent years, according to a new study issued by the Pew Research Center.
Of the 198 countries and self-administered territories in the study, released yesterday, 105 experienced widespread government harassment of religious groups in 2015 - the most recent year for which statistics are available. This is up from 85 in 2014 and 96 in 2013.
What the study called "limited harassment" - cases that were isolated or affected a small number of groups - also rose, taking place in 52 countries in 2015, up from 44 in 2014.
The eighth such Pew report on religious intimidation, it contains both a Government Restrictions Index and a Social Hostilities Index to reach its conclusions. It identified Russia, Egypt, India, Pakistan and Nigeria as having the highest overall levels of government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion among the world's 25 most populous countries. Egypt had the highest levels of government restrictions in 2015, scoring 8.7 on a scale of zero to 10, while Nigeria had the highest levels of social hostilities at 9.1; a fractured Syria scored 9.2, and Iraq's score in 2007, the first year studied, was 10.
The Government Restrictions Index, according to Pew, measures government laws, policies and actions that restrict religious beliefs and practices, including banning particular faiths, prohibiting conversion, limiting preaching or giving preferential treatment to one or more religious groups in its 20 measures. The Social Hostilities Index measures 13 different acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organisations or groups, such as religion-related armed conflict or terrorism, mob or sectarian violence, harassment over attire for religious reasons or other religion-related intimidation or abuse.
The United States scored "high" on social hostilities at 4.2, placing it 41st overall among the 198 nations, and "moderate" and in 68th place in government restrictions at 3.7. Both figures are more than double the 2007 numbers of 1.9 and 1.6, respectively.
The report observed the situation in Europe, as 2015 opened with the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine in France, and ended with countless numbers of refugees from Syria and Iraq fleeing to the continent to escape protracted wars in the Middle East.
In Europe, there were 17 incidents of "religion-related mob violence" in 2015, up from nine the previous year, the report said. "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."
The study noted, "In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan concert hall shootings, some Muslims in France faced violent attacks by social groups or individuals. For example, two Muslim places of worship in the cities of Le Mans and Narbonne were attacked by grenades and gunshots the day after the Charlie Hebdo shooting. France's Interior Ministry reported that anti-Muslim incidents more than tripled in 2015, including cases of hate speech, vandalism and violence against individuals."
"More than half of the 45 countries in the region experienced an increase in government harassment or use of force from 2014 to 2015," the report said. "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."
Worldwide, governments' use of force to keep religionists in line increased in 2015, with 23 nations each recording at least 200 incidents that year. "There was an even bigger increase in the number of countries with at least one, but no more than 200, incidents of government use of force against religious groups," the report said - 83 in 2015, compared to 60 in 2014.
Christians were subjected to some form of restriction in 128 countries, and Muslims were subjected to hostility in 125 - an indication of each faith system's global spread. But Jews, who make up 0.2 percent of the world population, faced some form of harassment in 74 countries in 2015 - down from 81 in 2014. And Hindus, while facing harassment in just 18 countries, were persecuted in India, home to 95 percent of the world's Hindus - mostly because of attacks by one caste against another.
PICTURE - Christians come up against Egyptian riot police during a demonstration in the street outside the church of St Peter and St Paul in the Coptic Cathedral complex, in Cairo, last December after at least 25 people were killed and dozens injured in a terrorist attack