WASHINGTON (BP) - The world's religious adherents experienced greater government restraints and social animosities after two years of declines, according to a newly released study.
The Pew Research Center reported Tuesday the percentage of countries with "high" or "very high" levels of anti-religious policies or acts increased in 2015. The share of countries with such levels of government restrictions - including laws, policies and actions - edged up from 24 percent in 2014 to 25 percent in 2015. The percentage of countries with such degrees of religious hostility - performed by individuals, organizations or societal groups - jumped from 23 to 27 percent.
Among Pew's other findings for 2015 in its study of 198 countries:
- 40 percent of the world's countries have "high" or "very high" levels overall of restrictions/hostilities, a rise of six percent from 2014.
- 79 percent of the world's population lives in these countries, a hike of five percent.
- 53 percent of countries reported "widespread government harassment of religious groups," an increase of 10 percent.
- 12 percent of countries documented more than 200 cases of the use of government force against religious groups, a growth of one percent.
Among factors in the global increase in social animosities were rises in religiously related mob violence, assaults against and displacement of people of faith, and attacks to impose religious rules.
Southern Baptist religious freedom leader Russell Moore said in response to the Pew report, "For millions, including many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world, conscience freedom is constantly in peril. This new data confirms how urgent the need is for advocacy on behalf of so many who face danger for their convictions.
“I pray that the United States would continue its important work for global religious freedom and, more importantly, that the church of Jesus Christ would tirelessly work and pray for our fellow believers who are being persecuted by Caesar," said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in written comments for Baptist Press.
Government harassment and use of force against religious groups surged in 2015, Pew reported. Four of the five geographic regions examined in the report - the Middle East-North Africa, Asia-Pacific, sub-Saharan Africa and Europe - had increases in these categories.
Europe experienced the greatest growth in government harassment or use of force against religious groups, with 53 percent of its countries showing such increases in 2015, according to the study. Sub-Saharan Africa was next, with 48 percent of its countries experiencing growth in such actions.
The Middle East-North Africa, however, continues to lead all regions, with 95 percent of its countries marked by government harassment or use of force against religious bodies.
In Europe, Jews and Muslims experienced social hostilities in more countries than did Christians, according to Pew. Such animosities against Jews were found in 33 of Europe's 45 countries and against Muslims in 32 European countries. Christians experienced such hostilities in 21 countries.
Harassment and the use of force by European governments against Muslims came in a year when 1.3 million immigrants - more than half from the Muslim-majority countries of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria - sought asylum on the continent, Pew noted. It also was a year marked by threats and deadly attacks by Islamic terrorists in European countries.
Worldwide, Christians and Muslims continue to be harassed in the largest number of countries, according to the study. The number of countries in which Christians were harassed jumped from 108 to 128 in 2015. For Muslims, the number surged from 100 to 125.
Twenty-three countries had "very high" levels of government limitations in 2015, an increase of seven from 2014. At the top of the list were Egypt, China, Iran, Russia, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Syria and Morocco.
Last year, the U.S. State Department designated 10 "countries of particular concern," a category reserved for especially severe violators of religious liberty. They were Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
For its study, Pew relied on nearly a dozen sources, including annual reports from the State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.