While religious freedom continues to be a hot topic in the United States, other nations across the globe are far more restrictive of religious exercise. A Pew Research Center study published this week found that global government restriction of religion has hit an all-time high.
The study tracks government restrictions on religion, including a government’s “laws, policies, and actions by officials that impinge on religious beliefs and practices.” Governments are scored according to the Government Restrictions Index (GRI), which is a 10-point scale based on 20 different indicators. These include government efforts to ban particular faiths; harass, intimidate, or physically harm members of religious groups; prohibit conversion; or limit religious literature and preaching.
When Pew began tracking data in 2007, the global median score was 1.8. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, the median score, which has risen steadily each year, was 2.9. This change includes an increase in the number of governments using force against religious groups.
The study also found that the number of governments with “high” or “very high” levels of restriction rose to 56, matching the previous all-time high in 2012. Of those 56 countries, 25 were in the Asia-Pacific region and 18 countries were in the Middle East or North Africa. Of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa, 90 percent had high or very high levels of restriction.
The study found that while governments in the Middle East and North Africa continued to have the highest median score (6.2), the Asia-Pacific region saw the greatest increase in median score, rising from 3.8 to 4.4. Of the 50 nations in the Asia-Pacific region, 31 had governments that use force related to religion.
Some of these nations had very few incidents, while others were rampant. In Burma (Myanmar), the government has targeted Rohingya Muslims with force and harassment, causing 14,500 of them to flee to escape abuses. Uzbekistan is reported to be holding at least 1,500 Muslims as religious prisoners. In Tajikistan, a new religious law requires religious groups to register and increasing control over religious education; the government does not recognize Jehovah’s Witnesses and has reportedly interrogated its members and pressured them to renounce their faith.
As has been the case in prior years, Communist China had the highest level of government restriction on religion, a fact that didn’t stop it from being elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council this past October. China earned a new peak score of 9.3, followed by Iran, the next highest scoring nation, which had a score of 8.5. China’s restrictions are well-documented. One of China’s most horrific offenses is its detention of more than 1 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz, and other members of religious minority groups in internment camps, which are intended to “erase religious and ethnic identities.”
China requires that religious congregations register with the state, and the Communist government harshly restricts their activities. Churches can be closed and pastors jailed for arbitrary reasons. China also regulates religious messages and requires pastors to teach communist ideology.
The study sought to determine if there was a correlation between the system of government and religious restriction. As you might expect, the analysis “finds a strong association between authoritarianism and government restrictions on religion.” Authoritarian governments run 65 percent of the countries with very high levels of restriction on religion. Only 7 percent of nations with low levels of restriction are authoritarian. “There were no countries with very high government restrictions that were full democracies,” according to researchers.
The message of this study is clear: Restriction of religion is on the rise across the globe, and there is a strong connection between higher levels of government control and restriction of religious groups. This should serve as a warning to Western nations. As religious liberty is viewed less favorably and authoritarian systems such as socialism and communism are viewed more favorably, America will drift closer to nations like China in how religion and its adherents are treated — a sad and ironic fact, given that this country was founded on religious liberty.
Marxist systems, in particular, make their appeal by promising equity for all, but what they deliver is equity of suffering for all but a chosen few in charge. Ask the religious minorities in China’s internment camps how they feel about the Marxist promise of equal outcomes. Ask those being forced to worship in secret or those being forcibly sterilized how they feel about a more centralized power structure.
Christians in the West should praise God that we still enjoy religious freedom and pray for those who do not. We must also remain vigilant and speak out against government restrictions on our own exercise of religion — or we too will lose that freedom.