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Religious freedom under increasing threat worldwide, study says

September 20, 2012 |  1:26 pm

Religion

More countries around the world are clamping down on religious freedom and harassment and intimidation of religious groups has surged, according to a new study released Thursday by the Pew Research Center.

The report tracked changes in religious tolerance through the middle of 2010. Though the findings are based on research done long before the recent eruption of widespread protests over insults to Islam, they shed new light on rising tension over faith

In every region on the globe, government restrictions, hostility or both were on the rise against religious groups, the sweeping study found. Signs of the trend eyed by researchers included governments banning particular faiths or prohibiting conversions, mob violence against religious groups and harassment over religious attire. Many such attacks or restrictions were levied against religious minorities.

Intolerance increased not only in countries with simmering religious tension such as Indonesia and Syria, but in relatively less restrictive countries such as the United States and Switzerland, the study found. Countries where governments that favor one religion over others were especially likely to have hostilities.

Two of three countries studied had increased state restrictions on religious groups in 2009 and 2010, putting three of four people worldwide under governments that heavily restrict religious practices. Nearly half of the countries in the study were strained by growing hostility over religion, researchers found.

Harassment of Christians, Jews, Buddhists and several other groups, including Sikhs, Bahais and folk religions, spread to the highest number of countries measured since Pew first began tracking the phenomenon three years earlier; intimidation of Muslims also increased.

Government restrictions on religion and hostility involving it were highest in the Middle East and North Africa, most notably in Egypt, but the study was based on information gathered before the "Arab Spring" uprisings erupted across North Africa and the Middle East, which have reshaped the region.

Other countries where religious intolerance and restrictions were strikingly high included Indonesia, Russia, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Iran, Vietnam, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nigeria, according to the study. China heavily restricts religion, but tension over it are relatively low, researchers found. The report said North Korea was known as being extremely repressive, but so little information was available that it was not scored.

Though the U.S. was singled out as one of the countries with the lowest level of religious restrictions and hostility, Pew researchers pointed to a Colorado county denying a Christian church permits to expand its school, a Sikh prisoner being ordered to trim his beard in violation of his beliefs, and Oklahoma legislators seeking to ban Islamic law.

Along with the U.S., researchers also noted  Brazil, Japan, Italy and the Democratic Republic of the Congo for having low levels of hostility and government restrictions on religion.

Researchers at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life examined 197 countries and territories in the new report, covering more than 99.5% of people worldwide. To gauge religious restrictions and hostilities, they scoured publicly available reports from groups such as the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department, tracking concrete reports of specific laws, policies or incidents.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Indonesian members of Ahmadiyah, an Islamic sect, demonstrate for religious freedom May 8, 2008,  in Jakarta, Indonesia. Credit: Ed Wray / Associated Press

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