Government restrictions and social hostilities hinder religion globally
By Kevin J. Jones
Vietnamese Catholics face off against police. Credit: VietCatholicNews
Vietnamese Catholics face off against police. Credit: VietCatholicNews

.- More than 2.2 billion people live in countries where government restrictions on religion or social hostilities involving religion rose “substantially” in recent years, a new report says.

Restrictions on religious beliefs and practices substantially rose between mid-2006 and mid-2009 in 14 of the world’s 198 countries and substantially decreased in eight countries, says the Pew Forum’s report “Rising Restrictions on Religion.” Countries with rises in government restrictions on religion included Algeria, Egypt, France, Hong Kong, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Serbia and Malaysia.

Ten countries had a substantial increase in social hostilities: Bulgaria, China, Denmark, Mongolia, Nigeria, Russia, Sweden, Thailand, the United Kingdom and Vietnam.

Restrictions on religious beliefs and practices are “particularly common” in countries that prohibit blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion. By mid-2009, 59 countries had such laws, rules or policies at some level of government. Penalties ranged from fines to imprisonment or death and were enforced in 44 of the 59 countries.

“While such laws are sometimes promoted as a way to protect religion and reduce social hostilities involving religion, in practice they often serve to punish religious minorities whose beliefs are deemed unorthodox or heretical, and who therefore are seen as threatening religious harmony in the country,” the Pew report said.

Social hostilities, including mob violence, occurred more often in countries with such laws. Eighty percent of the countries in the Middle East-North Africa region have such laws and these are enforced in 60 percent of them. Nearly 40 percent of European countries have such laws and 31 percent of countries actively enforce them.

The report also cited French discussion on whether women should be allowed to wear the burqa as well as government attempts to declare the Church of Scientology to be a “criminal enterprise.” In Serbia the government refused legal registration for Jehovah’s Witnesses and several other minority religious groups. Some Serbian officials referred to minority religious groups as “sects” or “other pejorative terms,” Pew said.

Christians were harassed in 130 countries while Muslims were harassed in 117. Jews faced harassment in 75 countries, Hindus faced harassment in 27 countries, while Buddhists faced harassment in 16. Members of other religious groups in 84 countries reported harassment.

The report said harassment and intimidation take many forms, including physical assaults, arrests, the desecration of holy sites and discrimination against religious groups in employment, education or housing. Harassment also includes verbal assaults.

Christians experienced governmental and social harassment in about the same number of countries, while Jews experienced social harassment in many more countries than they faced government harassment.

In recent years there were at least 1,300 annual hate crimes in the U.S. involving religious bias, FBI reports say.

The Pew report was based on 18 sources of information, including reports from the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and Human Rights Watch.

Since the time period covered by the report, social tensions and government restrictions concerning religious belief have flared up in some countries. Controversies over mosque construction and Catholic adoption agencies’ desire to follow Christian ethics when placing children continue to arise in the United States.

In Egypt, Coptic Christian women are increasingly forced to marry and convert to Islam. Forced conversions are also a problem in Pakistan, where extremist defenders of the country’s strict blasphemy law have assassinated several high-ranking government officials who have criticized the law.

The communist government of Vietnam has been accused of religious freedom violations, including detention of priests and crackdowns on Catholics seeking the return of confiscated property. Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, has called for the country to be re-designated as a Country of Particular Concern for its “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”

In June 2011, over two years into the Obama presidency, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted the swearing in of Baptist pastor Suzan Johnson Cook as the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Critics saw the delay in her appointment as a sign of the Obama administration’s lack of vigilance concerning global religious freedom.

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