In a new report by the Pew Research Center, China leads the pack of the world’s 25 most populous nations in government restrictions on religion.
The study, which appraised 198 countries around the world, is based on the newest global data on religious freedom, from 2013.
According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Chinese government “continues to perpetrate particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” When the commission released its 2014 Annual Report, it once again recommended that China be designated as a “country of particular concern,” based on what it termed “systematic, egregious, ongoing abuses.”
The US Commission also found that since 2011, “more than 100 human rights defenders from China, many of whom often work on religious freedom cases, were forcibly disappeared, tortured, detained, stripped of legal licenses, or sentenced to prison terms.”
The remarkable fact is that despite ongoing abuse, outlaw religions like Christianity continue to grow in China, with Christians now outnumbering communists in China. Though the Chinese Communist Party is the largest explicitly atheist organization in the world, with 85 million official members, it is now overshadowed by an estimated 100 million Christians, a number that increases every year.
According to the new Pew report, the world situation itself is fairly dismal, with 77% of the global population living in countries with “high or very high” restrictions on religion, related to government regulation or hostility by social groups. Part of the cause of this phenomenon is the very high populations in two of the world’s most notoriously restrictive countries: China and India. Populations in both of these countries exceed one billion people, and each of these nations is among the most hostile toward religious minorities.
The religion to face the greatest level of persecution worldwide is Christianity. “Christians were harassed,” the study found, “either by government or social groups, in 102 of the 198 countries included in the study,” which equates to 52% of the countries analyzed, more than any other religious group.
Jewish populations are also experiencing a rise in harassment, with hostilities toward Jews, either by government or social groups, happening in 77 countries, or 39% of the 198 countries evaluated. The Pew Research Center has been carrying out this study for the last seven consecutive years, and in that period harassment of Jews reached a seven-year high in 2013. The report also found that Jews are “much more likely to be harassed by individuals or groups in society than by governments.” In the case of Europe, Jews experienced harassment by individuals or social groups in 34 of the region’s 45 countries, or just over three quarters of European nations.
Among the regions of the world, the Middle East stands out as the area with the highest level of both government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion. Syria, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia all have “very high restrictions in one of the two categories,” the study found.
The Pew Research Center’s latest report on global restrictions on religion “ranks 198 countries and territories by their levels of government restrictions on religion and social hostilities involving religion.” Among the countries evaluated, North Korea is conspicuous by its absence. Although sources indicate that “North Korea’s government is among the most repressive in the world, including toward religion,” the Pew Center chose to leave the country out of the study because “independent observers lack regular access to the country.” This means that it is difficult, if not impossible, “to provide the kind of specific, timely information that formed the basis of this analysis.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome