Freedom of religion is becoming harder to find worldwide. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg
Freedom of religion is becoming harder to find worldwide. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

The Pew Research Center Religion and Public Life Project's annual report on religious oppression around the world features some disturbing results. The study is divided into two categories: religious hostility and government restrictions on religion. The level of reported hostility is the highest in the report’s six-year history:

A third (33 percent) of the 198 countries and territories included in the study had high religious hostilities in 2012, up from 29 percent in 2011 and 20 percent as of mid-2007. Religious hostilities increased in every major region of the world except the Americas. The sharpest increase was in the Middle East and North Africa, which still is feeling the effects of the 2010-11 political uprisings known as the Arab Spring. There also was a significant increase in religious hostilities in the Asia-Pacific region, where China edged into the “high” category for the first time.

And here is what the study has to say about government restrictions:

About three-in-ten countries in the world (29 percent) had a high or very high level of government restrictions in 2012, compared with 28 percent in 2011 and 20 percent as of mid-2007. Europe had the biggest increase in the median level of government restrictions in 2012, followed closely by the Middle East-North Africa -- the only other region where the median level of government restrictions on religion rose.

These grim data may be only the tip of the iceberg, says Pew: “It is very likely that more restrictions exist than are reported.”

The study’s methodology is far from perfect. For example, Pew considers the preferential treatment of one religion over others an attribute of religious restriction, and it certainly can be. But we mustn’t draw broad international conclusions from the relatively narrow American understanding. There are countries that honor religious freedom quite broadly despite official preferences. Nobody imagines that Finland’s preferred treatment of the Finnish Orthodox Church oppresses anybody. Panama’s special privileges for the Catholic Church haven’t stopped an enormous religious flourishing.

Still, Pew’s conclusions are sobering -- especially on the issue of religious harassment and intimidation: “Two of the seven major religious groups monitored by the study -- Muslims and Jews -- experienced six-year highs in the number of countries in which they were harassed by national, provincial or local governments, or by individuals or groups in society. As in previous years, Christians and Muslims -- who together make up more than half of the global population -- were harassed in the largest number of countries (110 and 109, respectively).”

The International Religious Freedom Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1998, commits the U.S. to using its influence to battle religious persecution around the world -- including the channeling of foreign aid “to governments other than those found to be engaged in gross violations of the right to freedom of religion.” As noted by this 2009 report from Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, however, the goals of the act have been shoved out of the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy, especially in the wake of the war on terrorism.

The mandated annual State Department report on religious freedom, the Georgetown critique points out, is largely ignored at home and attacked abroad as one more act of the U.S.'s cultural imperialism. This sidelining is especially troubling because “the scale of religious persecution and discrimination worldwide continues to be vast, resulting in a level of suffering that simply demands a response from any nation committed to human rights and social justice.”

That was in 2009. The new Pew report is a reminder that things are getting worse, not better.