Pew: Religious Practice Faces Increasing Legal Restrictions Worldwide, Christians Hardest Hit

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In a study released this week, the Pew Research Center revealed that restrictions on religious belief and practice increased around the world for the second year in a row in 2016, the latest year for which comprehensive data were available.

As the United States gears up for an unprecedented global summit on religious liberty to be held in late July, Pew found that 28 percent of all countries have “high” or “very high” levels of government restrictions on religion, up from 25 percent the prior year and up from 20 percent in 2007, when the Washington-based think tank began following the trend.

Between 2015 and 2016, more than twice as many countries had increases in their level of government restrictions on religion as had decreases.

At the rollout of the State Department’s annual Report on Religious Freedom last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called religious freedom the “most fundamental of human rights” and declared that “the United States will not stand by as spectators” while people around the world are persecuted for their religious beliefs.

Mr. Pompeo also said that he will personally host the department’s first-ever international “Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom” in Washington on July 25-26.

“Most countries around the world have some form of restrictions on religion — whether it is through laws that limit actions like public preaching or conversion, or actions that can include detaining, displacing or assaulting members of religious groups,” the Pew report declared. “A subset of countries, however, has particularly high levels of government restrictions on religion.”

The persecution of Christians increased dramatically from 2015 to 2016, with the number of countries in which Christians are harassed—either by governments or social groups—rising from 128 to 144 in the space of just one year, Pew found.

The study revealed that Christians are actively harassed in more countries around the globe than any other religious group.

Among all nations, China had the highest levels of government restrictions on religion, while India had the highest levels of social hostilities involving religion. “Both countries had the highest levels of restrictions in these respective categories, not only among the 25 most populous countries but also in the world at large,” Pew said.

As a group, Middle Eastern and Northern African governments were the worst violators of religious liberty on a regional level, followed by the Asia-Pacific region, Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Americas, Pew found.

In the Western Hemisphere, the country with the most restrictive policies toward religion continues to be Cuba, despite promises to the contrary. Broad-ranging detentions of Christians continue to take place in the communist nation, the study found, such as when Cuban officials arrested 200 members of Emmanuel Church in Santiago de Cuba and demolished the church in 2016.

In his May 29 address at the release of the State Department’s 2017 International Religious Freedom Report, Secretary of State Pompeo called religious freedom “a right belonging to every individual on the globe” and said the U.S. “stands with those who yearn for religious liberty.”

The year 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Religious Freedom Act, which singles out religious liberty as an important U.S. foreign policy. The Act created within the State Department the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, a post held since February by Samuel D. Brownback.

“Religious freedom was vital to America’s beginning,” Pompeo said. “Defending it is critical to our future.”

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