Nationalist political parties and pressure groups are playing a growing role in harassing religious minorities in Europe, especially Muslims, according to an annual review of restrictions on religion around the world.
The 138-page report by Pew Research in Washington on such restrictions in 2016, the latest year for which statistics are available, provided additional context to the current crises over immigration in several European countries and reports of rising hostility to Muslims and Jews.
An estimated 1.35 million migrants — mostly Muslims — poured into Europe in 2015 fleeing war and unrest in the Middle East, sparking a backlash among far-right groups and turning anti-migrant sentiments into a powerful challenge to Europe’s established parties.
The study published on Thursday registered a small increase worldwide in the number of countries with serious violations of religious freedom in 2016.
Countries leading the list of high or very high levels of government restrictions included names that regularly top this index such as China, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran and Russia. Laos, Myanmar and Western Sahara joined that list in 2016, it said.
Even though religious freedom was better assured by governments in Europe, which ranked behind the Middle East-North Africa and Asia-Pacific regions on that scale, the continent registered the sharpest increase in what the report called “social hostilities involving religion”.
“About a third of European countries (33 per cent) had nationalist parties that made political statements against religious minorities, an increase from 20 per cent of countries in 2015,” said the report, which measured both official government restrictions on religion and social pressures coming from political parties and other organised social groups.
The study of conditions in 198 countries found organised groups actively agitating against minority religions and immigrants in 32 countries around the world in 2016.
“The majority of social groups displaying this kind of nationalist or anti-immigrant and anti-minority activity – 25 out of the 32 – were in European countries,” it said. “Muslims were the focus of nationalist groups in 20 of the 25 European countries where these types of groups were active.”
India, where Hindu nationalists have been increasingly aggressive toward Muslims, Christians and other minorities, had by far the highest level of social hostility based on religion.
The report recorded religiously motivated harassment by governments and social groups in 187 countries in 2016 after 169 countries the previous year. “This marks the biggest number of countries where harassment was observed against religious groups since Pew Research Center began analysing restrictions on religion in 2007,” it said.
In the report, harassment includes everything from assaults, arrests and detentions to desecration of holy places, discrimination and verbal assaults on members of a religious group.
Christians were harassed in 144 countries in 2016, up from 128 countries the year before, with the Asia-Pacific region the most restrictive.
Muslims came under pressure in 142 countries, up from 125 in 2015. Harassment of Jews, a far smaller group worldwide, jumped from 74 to 87 countries, the third-largest number of countries pressuring religious groups.
Hindus were harassed in 23 countries (up from 18 in 2015) and Buddhists were pressured in 17 countries (up from seven). These are both the highest figures since Pew began tracking these trends in 2007.
The study noted that not all religious groups were targeted equally by governments and social groups. Jews have been harassed by social groups or individuals in more countries than by governments (66 v 56 in 2016) while Christians have been restricted in more countries by governments (114) than by social groups (107).