Pew Research Center study shows government restrictions on religion rose in 2016, with Muslims the most common target

The Pew Research Center’s ninth annual study of global restrictions on religion, which analyses the extent to which governments and societies around the world impinge on religious beliefs and practices, has revealed that restrictions on religion around the world continued to climb in 2016, marking the second year in a row of increases in the overall level of restrictions imposed either by governments of by private actors in the 198 countries analysed in the study.


The study analysed levels of government restrictions on religion – laws, policies, and actions by officials that restrict religious beliefs and practices. The proportion of countries with “high” or “very high” levels of government restrictions climbed from 25% in 2015 to 28% in 2018. This marks the largest percentage of countries in this category since 2013 and falls just below the 2012 10 year peak of 29%.

The study also analysed social hostilities involving religion – acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organisations, or groups in society. The proportion of countries with “high” or “very high” levels of social hostilities remained stable at 27% in 2016. Like government restrictions, their levels had previously peaked in 2012 partly due to the effect of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. While the number of countries with high or very high levels of social hostilities has declined since then, analysis of 2016 revealed it is still higher than it was in 2007, the baseline year of the study.

The number of countries with “high” or “very high” levels of overall restrictions on religion (which combines the previous two categories) was 42% (83 countries) in 2016. This was up from 40% in 2015 and 29% in 2007. This also means that most countries in the world have low to moderate levels of religious restrictions.

Since some of those countries with “high” or “very high” levels of overall restrictions on religion are among the world’s most populous (such as India and China), it follows that a large share of the world’s population in 2016 (83%) lived in countries with high or very high religious restrictions. This is up from 79% in 2015. However, it is important to note that such restrictions and hostilities do not necessarily affect the religious groups and citizens of these countries equally as certain groups and individuals may be targeted more frequently by these policies and actions. Therefore, “the actual proportion of the world’s population that is affected by high levels of religious restrictions may be considerably lower than 85%”.

Religious restrictions vary by region and religious group. The Middle East-North Africa region continued to have the highest median level of government restrictions on religion in 2016. However, the Americas had the sharpest increase in its median score, which rose from 1.7 in 2015 to 2.2 in 2016. This was partly due to incidents where worship or proselytizing were restricted, such as in Mexico where Jehovah’s Witnesses were prohibited from proselytizing by the municipal authority in San Jorge Nuchita.

Europe and the Americas were the only regions to experience increases in median levels of social hostilities involving religion, with Europe seeing the sharpest increase. While the Middle East-North Africa region remained the region with the highest levels of social hostilities, it continued to experience a decline in its median score.

The study found that among the world’s 25 most populous countries, Egypt, Russia, India, Indonesia, and Turkey had the highest overall levels of government restrictions and social hostilities in 2016. India had the highest score on the Social Hostilities Index and China had the highest score on the Government Restrictions Index.

Harassment of members of the world’s two largest religious groups, Christians and Muslims, by both governments and social groups continued to be widespread around the world in 2016, with both experiencing sharp increases in the number of countries where they were harassed. Jews also experienced an increase in the number of countries where they were harassed following a small decrease in 2015.

The changing nature of religious restrictions

Analysis of the global median scores on the Government Restrictions Index (a 10-point scale based on 20 indicators of government restrictions on religion) and the Social Hostilities Index (a 10-point scale based on 13 measures of social hostilities involving religion) shows how religious restrictions are changing. The global median score on the Government Restrictions Index moved upward in 2016 from 2.7 to 2.8, while the median score on the Social Hostilities Index moved downward from 2.0 to 1.8.

The influence of nationalist political parties, officials, and groups

In many countries, restrictions on religion in 2016 resulted from actions taken by government officials, social groups, or individuals espousing nationalist positions as shown by the Government Restrictions Index (GRI). This involved them seeking to curtail immigration and/or calling for efforts to suppress or eliminate particular religious groups in an effort to defend what they perceive to be a dominant religious or ethnic group. 11% of the countries analysed had government actors that used nationalist, anti-immigrant, or anti-minority rhetoric, marking an increase from the 6% of cases of such rhetoric involving political parties or officials in 2015. Examples include Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands calling for the “de-Islamization” of the country as part of their election campaign and the Czech group Block Against Islam organising around 20 anti-Islam rallies around the country.

The use of such rhetoric was especially common in Europe, where 33% of countries had nationalist parties that made political statements against religious minorities. This represents an increase from the 20% of countries who were found to have such parties in 2015. Nationalist political parties targeting religious groups were found in 12% of countries in the Asia-Pacific region including Burma (Myanmar), India, and New Zealand.

The Pew Research Center observed that, “Muslims were the most common target of harassment by nationalist political parties or officials in 2016, typically in the form of derogatory statements or adverse policies”. Such targeting was evident in the rhetoric of presidential nominee, and later President-elect, Donald Trump, for example in his support of a temporary ban on Muslim immigration to the US. Members of other faiths were also targeted, however, including Jews, Christians, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In addition to an increase in the number of political parties and officials who targeted religious minorities, 2016 also saw an increase in the number of nongovernmental nationalist organisations targeting religious groups, as demonstrated by the Social Hostilities Index (SHI). One of the 13 measures that comprises this index is whether any organised group or groups “sought to dominate public life with their perspective on religion” at the expense of other religious groups. In 2016, the study found 77 countries where groups sought to do this, up from 72 in 2015.

While not all of these groups were nationalist or anti-immigrant/anti-minority, the number who were did rise from 27 countries in 2015 to 32 in 2016. The majority (25 out of 32) of social groups propounding nationalist or anti-immigrant/anti-minority activity were in European countries, with a few additional groups being found in the Asia-Pacific region.

In these countries, religious minorities (including Jews and Christians) were often the targets of demonstrations, derogatory comments, or violent acts by nationalist groups. Again, in European countries, Muslims were targeted most frequently – they were the focus of nationalist groups in 20 out of the 25 European countries were these types of group were active.

Nationalist groups and parties gained standing in 2016

While nationalism is not a new phenomenon in most of the places where it was active in 2016, some nationalist parties did gain more support in 2016 and extended their operations to new locales. For example, support in the polls for Marine Le Pen of the National Front party increased leading up to the 2017 French presidential election (which she ultimately lost), and the Finland-based group, Soldiers of Odin, spread to multiple cities in Finland and neighbouring countries, including Estonia, where it organised marches against “Islamist intruders”.

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Pew Research Center. (2018) ‘Global Uptick in Government Restrictions on Religion in 2016’. [online] 21 June. [Accessed 10 July 2018].