Comment Opinion & Features

It won’t be easy to shore up religious freedom


In the decade from 2007 to 2017, religious freedom declined around the world. That is the conclusion of a major new study by the Pew Research Center published last week.

Pew found that 52 governments were imposing “high” or “very high” constraints on religion in 2017, up from 40 in 2007. They included such populous countries as China, Indonesia and Russia. Fifty-six countries had high levels of “social hostilities” related to religion in 2017, an increase from 39 in 2007.

These figures are depressing because they mean that millions more people worldwide are facing restrictions or outright violence simply because of their religion.

It will not surprise readers to learn that Christians are the most persecuted group in the world, suffering harassment in 143 countries out of the 198 studied. But according to Pew, Muslims are not far behind. They face discrimination of various kinds in 140 nations.

The new study is significant because it is based on unparalleled research. Every year since 2007, Pew has scoured global data to compile two indexes. The first, the Government Restrictions Index, monitors state repression of religion. The second, the Social Hostilities Index, records social pressures on religious groups. The distinction between the two is pertinent. The study found, for example, that Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus are experiencing greater government restrictions, while Jews are suffering more social harassment. If Pew only recorded state persecution then this Jewish suffering would go unrecorded.

Inevitably, the study identifies the Middle East and North Africa as a black spot for religious freedom. Conditions were already poor when research began in 2007, but they have deteriorated further. The average score for government harassment in the region has increased by an alarming 72 per cent. The report also concludes that religious freedom is shrinking in parts of Europe. The average rating for government restrictions on religious activities – including proselytising and male circumcision – has doubled since 2007.

Some readers may quibble with Pew’s approach to Europe. Part of the report, for example, focuses on government favouritism of religions. Nations such as Greece, Iceland and the United Kingdom are lumped in with Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia because they have state churches. But Iceland and the UK, at least, are highly secular societies in which such favouritism has far less impact on society than it does in strongly religious Islamic countries.

While the big picture is gloomy, the study does note one or two rays of light. Inter-religious tension and violence – such as confrontations between Hindus and Muslims in India – declined over the 10-year period. In 2007, 91 countries were affected by violence between religious communities. By 2017, that figure had fallen to 57.

What are Catholics, in particular, to make of these new findings? First of all, we should recall that we have a duty to uphold religious freedom. As the Vatican II declaration Dignitatis Humanae put it, “the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs.”

This teaching was controversial in its time, and remains so among members of the Society of St Pius X and other groups. But it was enshrined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and developed in “Religious Freedom for the Good of All”, a document published by the International Theological Commission in March this year.

We are beginning to stand up effectively for the rights of persecuted Christians around the world. But this report suggests that we must also speak out on behalf of other communities. If we truly believe that religious liberty is a universal right then we must denounce the recent explosion of anti-Semitism, in both the UK and other Western nations, as well as violence against Muslims in countries such as China.

The Holy See has a special role to play here. While it is understandably reluctant to provoke Beijing, the Vatican could, for example, loudly condemn the detention of an estimated 1.5 million Muslim Uighurs in the north-west province of Xinjiang. That would indicate that, when it comes to religious liberty, we are prepared to put principle ahead of pragmatism.