Religious Restrictions Worldwide

The Pew Research Center released a report detailing the latest trends in religious restrictions and hostilities worldwide, showing notable declines while concluding that government restrictions of religious communities are still staggering.
In February 2015 the Pew Research Center released a report detailing the latest trends in religious restrictions and hostilities worldwide. The report leads with good news: social hostilities involving religion declined somewhat in 2013 after peaking in 2012. However, the data on social hostilities involving religion and government restrictions of religious communities is still staggering. According to Pew, 39% of countries have high or very high overall levels of restrictions on religion resulting either from social hostilities or government restrictions. Taking into account the population size of some of these countries, 77% of the world’s population lives in countries with high or very high levels of restrictions on religion. Christians and Muslims face harassment in the largest number of countries, but the harassment of Jews reached a seven-year high in 2013. These statistics represent countless tragic stories of individuals and communities verbally, legally, and physically assaulted for their religious identities. Media outlets widely reported on the horrific kidnapping, torture, and murder committed by the Islamic State against religious minorities across the Middle East and North Africa: the beheading of twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya in February 2015, the kidnapping of over two hundred Assyrian Christians in Syria in the same month, and the massacre of hundreds of Yazidis in August 2014. These atrocious acts have shocked the conscience of people worldwide, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is critical to remind ourselves that the Pew numbers also reflect religious restrictions and hostilities in Europe and the United States. In February 2015 Denmark buried the Jewish victim of a shooting spree by a terrorist who identified a Muslim, the same month that the Danish government banned the slaughter of animals according to kosher and halal requirements. Also in February 2015, Austria banned foreign funding for Islamic organizations, also requiring any group representing Austrian Muslims to use a standardized German translation of the Qur’an. In the UK in 2014, anti-Semitic incidents more than doubled from the previous year, reaching the highest annual number since the British Jewish community began compiling statistics. In the United States, Duke University revoked permission for the broadcast of the traditional call to prayer of Muslims from the university’s chapel’s bell tower in January 2015, citing anonymous threats of violence against students. In February 2015, vandals covered the Islamic School of Rhode Island with anti-Muslim graffiti. Some of these stories splash across the front pages of newspapers while others appear tucked away in oft-discarded sections, if at all. Religiously literate consumers of mass media should ask themselves if and how selective reporting on religious restrictions and hostilities creates meta-narratives that inflame tensions between religious communities. We must remind ourselves that countries worldwide have a responsibility to combat religious persecution, starting at home. We must avoid constructing narratives that single out one country or religious group for religious intolerance, even as we continue to unequivocally and loudly condemn the most brutal violence perpetrated by and against religious groups, wherever such violence takes place. In order to reduce tensions between religious groups, the media must also actively highlight instances of inter-religious cooperation and peacebuilding. Far too few people know about the one thousand Norwegian Muslims who formed a protective human ring around a local synagogue on Shabbat in February 2015, or the hundreds of Norwegians of all religious backgrounds who formed a protective human ring around a local mosque in the same month. There are countless stories like these, stories of inter-religious cooperation that grow respect and love at a time when our communities need it most. Amidst the darkness of religious persecution there is light, and we must do all we can to let that light shine.