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New Report Details Global Restrictions on Religious Freedom

by Paul Rasor, Center Director

International law has affirmed the principle of religious freedom for more than sixty years. The 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." This basic freedom has been reaffirmed in several international human rights documents since then. (The relevant language from these documents can be found in the booklet "Religious Freedom: Key Documents and Texts," available from the Center.)

Beyond these international declarations, three-fourths of the world's approximately 200 countries provide for freedom of religion in their constitutions or other basic laws, and another 20% protect at least some religious practices. Yet despite these legal protections, every country in the world, including the United States, imposes some restrictions on the practice of religion. And in many countries these restrictions are severe.

A Report released in December 2009 by the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life entitled Global Restrictions on Religion now offers a quantitative study of these restrictions. This study is the first of its kind, and its findings are both interesting and significant.

The Report measures two types of restrictions: government restrictions – those imposed by law or official policy, and social hostilities – restrictions on religion that are the result of violence or intimidation by private individuals and groups, including other religious groups. The report places countries into four categories for each type according to the degree of restrictions found in these countries: very high, high, moderate, or low. Disturbingly, the Report finds that 64 countries have high or very high restrictions on religion. Worse, while this number represents about one-third of the world's countries, many of them are among the world's most populous. This means that nearly 70% of the world's population, some 4.8 billion people, live in countries that impose major restrictions on religion, most often religious minorities.

Among the world's 25 most populous countries, the most restrictive overall is Iran, followed by Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, and India. The least restrictive high-population country is Brazil, followed by Japan, the U.S., Italy, and South Africa. China, the world's most populous country, ranks approximately in the middle of this group. It is among the worst offenders in terms of government restrictions, but ranks quite low in terms of social hostilities. Similar patterns are found in other countries; only one country, Saudi Arabia, appears in the "very high" category for both government restrictions and social hostilities. Other countries with very high government restrictions include Iran, Burma (Myanmar), and Eritrea; countries with very high social hostilities include Afghanistan, Somalia, and Israel.

When all countries are considered, the United States falls roughly in the middle. In terms of government restrictions, the U.S. is in the "low restrictions" group, as we might expect, though it appears 88th on the list of 119 countries in this group, roughly on a par with Nicaragua, Djibouti, and Argentina. On the social hostilities index, however, the U.S. fares far worse, falling into the "moderate" group alongside Vietnam, Australia, and the Republic of Macedonia. The main reason for this difference is the large number of religious hate crimes reported in nearly every state against many different religious groups. In other words, in the U.S., as in most other countries, there is a significant gap between the legal protection for religious freedom and the actual tolerance of religious difference in practice. This is one reason the work of the Center is so important.

As noted on the first page of this Newsletter, the Center's Spring 2010 Symposium will examine the importance of religious freedom in international relations, including the conduct of diplomacy. This has become an increasingly important topic in recent years. Advocacy of religious freedom has been an official part of U.S. foreign policy since the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998. This Act created an Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Though their roles are somewhat different, both the State Department office and the Commission are charged with monitoring religious freedom around the world and making annual reports and policy recommendations. These reports have become major resources for tracking religious freedom in the world today.

The speakers in the Center's Spring 2010 Symposium include the first Director of the State Department office, Dr. Thomas Farr, and the current Vice Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Dr. Elizabeth Prodromou. This Symposium offers Virginia Wesleyan College and the Hampton Roads community a unique opportunity to explore these important issues. The full text of the Pew Forum Report is available online at

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