- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2012

The recent spasm of religious violence in the Middle East is part of a larger pattern: A major survey released Thursday finds official and unofficial hostility toward religious freedom rising in every corner of the world — including in the U.S., which is no longer ranked among world’s most tolerant nations.

The annual study, compiled by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, concluded that three-fourths of the world’s population live in countries that impose significant political and social restrictions on religion, with the United States being moved out of the list of countries with the best records on religious tolerance.

“During the latest year studied, the U.S. moved from the low category of government restrictions on religion to the moderate category for the first time,” Pew said in a news release outlining key findings of the report.

The U.S. saw a rise for the first time, particularly at the state and local level, where incidents restricting religious groups from practicing their faith were up.

Among those problems cited in the U.S. as keeping people from practicing their religion, were restrictions on the wearing of religious attire or symbols, obtaining zoning or building permits for new religious school and houses of worship, a climate of increasing “social hostilities” including a rise in “religion-related terrorist attacks” and an increase in workplace discrimination complaints based on religion.

Among major religions studied, Christians, Jews and Buddhists saw four-year highs in the number of countries where harassment by government or by individuals or groups rose. By mid-2010, Christians in 111 countries saw increases in social or government harassment, while Jews in 68 countries faced similar problems.

The study marks the third time that the Pew Forum has sought to measure religious restrictions. It uses two indexes to score 197 countries and territories — containing nearly all the world population — and charts “restrictions due to government actions as well as acts of violence and intimidation by private individuals, organizations and social groups.”

Absent from the report is data on North Korea, whose government is described by Pew as “the most repressive in the world including toward religion.” Because of the lack of access to the communist nation, “sources are unable to provide the kind of specific, timely information that formed the basis of this analysis,” Pew researchers said.

The most recent Pew study, available at www.pewforum.org, describes a deteriorating tolerance for the practice of religion around the world. As of mid-2010 and before the “Arab Spring,” the report found religious tensions increasing in all five top regions of the world with 75 percent of the global population experiencing the highest government restrictions and social hostilities.

The share of countries registering “high” or “very high” on religious restrictions was up from 31 percent in mid-2000 to 37 percent by mid-2010, according to the study, a part of the Pew Templeton Global Religious Futures project.

Among those regions under assault, Europe, the Middle East-North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa saw median levels of both social hostilities and government restrictions rise. Social hostilities were up in the Asia-Pacific region, while government restrictions rose in the Americas.

Among the world’s 25 most-populous countries, Egypt, Indonesia, Russia, Myanmar (Burma), Iran, Vietnam, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nigeria were cited as the most restrictive on religion based on government restrictions and social hostilities through mid-2010.

The United States, along with Brazil, Japan, Italy, and Congo registered as the most-populous nations with the fewest restrictions and hostilities, Pew researchers said.