Pew measures global religious restrictions

December 16, 2009

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has come out with a new report that tries to measure, country by country on a global level, government and social restrictions on religion. You can see our coverage of the report here and here and can download the whole report here.

The report, which Pew says is the first major quantitative study of the subject on a global level, ranks countries under two indices — one measures government restrictions on religion, the other social hostilities or curbs on religion that stem from violence or intimidation by private individuals or groups.

NIGERIA RELIGION

A damaged mosque in Onitsha in southeastern Nigeria

The Government Restrictions Index is based on 20 questions used by the Pew Forum to assess state curbs on religion at the national, provincial and local levels.

Is public preaching by religious groups limited by any level of government?,” and “Taken together, how do the constitution/basic law and other national laws and policies affect religious freedom?” are among the questions asked.

The Social Hostilities Index is based on 13 questions including “Was there mob violence related to religion?” and “Was there a religion-related war or armed conflict in the country?”

Both lists rank 198 countries worldwide and are based on scales of 0-10. Saudi Arabia was the only country to appear on both “Very High” lists. The categories overall fall into “Very High,” “High,” ”Moderate” and “Low”.

Pew says it has aimed to be impartial in its assessments and “this study does not attach normative judgments to restrictions on religion … (and) does not attempt to determine whether particular restrictions are justified or unjustified.”

Here are some highlights and observations:

The “Very High” rankings in both categories have mostly (though not exclusively) Muslim countries.

SAUDI

Saudi religious police trainees in Riyadh

Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil producer and a long-time U.S. ally, is the only country that is found at the top of both rankings.

So almost all of the countries ranked as the most restrictive on the government index are not found at the very top of the social hostilities one and vice versa. Does this suggest that a heavy-handed state can quell social tensions based on faith? Nigeria for example, which has an almost 50-50 Muslim/Christian population split, is ranked “moderate” in government restrictions (which one guesses would mostly come from  some of its Muslim-dominated states in the north that practice a generally moderate form of Sharia law) but is “high” in the social tensions category.

On Afghanistan, which is ranked “high” on government restrictions, the report says: “Afghanistan’s constitution appeared to protect its citizens’ right to choose their faith “but qualifies that measure of protection by stipulating that ‘no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam’“. This is a potential political minefield for President Barack Obama as he tries to sell his increased military effort there to a war-weary U.S. public.

China is near the top of the restrictions list because of its curbs on Buddhism in Tibet and on Uighur Muslims, its ban on the Falun Gong movement and its pressure on religious groups not registered by the government.

The governments of Belarus and Russia were seen as the most restrictive European countries in affairs of faith.

The relatively high government restrictions score for Europe’s 45 countries is due in part to former communist countries, such as Russia, which have replaced state atheism with state-favored religions that are accorded special protections or privileges,” the report said.

Western European countries Germany, France and Austria scored above their region’s medium because of laws designed to protect citizens from dangerous cults or sects, it said.

Some readers will perhaps be surprised by the fact that on a regional level sub-Saharan Africa is regarded as less restrictive in both categories than Europe. This is of more than academic interest as it is seen as a “growth region” for both Islam and Christianity but, with notable exceptions, Pew’s researchers found the continent generally tolerant in matters of faith. That will surely be taken is a good sign by many.

The United States has had lots of “church-state” battles within its wider culture wars and under the Bush administration there was lots of talk by liberal critics about an “American Theocracy” because of the influence of conservative Christians in Republican Party circles. But the United States ranked low on the Government Restrictions Index. This will come as no surprise to most Americans.

Another thing that stands out is some of the countries that are seen as having low levels of government restriction on religious activities and beliefs that would no doubt be viewed as far more heavy-handed in other areas by groups such as Human Rights Watch.  These include the failed state of Congo, Swaziland (an absolute monarchy) and Guinea Bissau, which is seen as a corrupt “narco-state.”

One conclusion that can probably be safely drawn from this is that the autocratic states in the bottom list probably don’t see any threat from the church, mosque, temple or traditional faiths. If they did you can bet that some of their scores would be different.

The report raises many more questions and is sure to spark some debate (and raise a few eyebrows). Pew plans to do this study again, though it remains to be seen if it becomes an annual event. We’ll stay tuned.

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