- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 21, 2018

Governments around the world continue to increase restrictions on religious belief and practice, according to a survey published Thursday.

The Pew Research Center study found that 28 percent of all countries have significant legal restrictions on the exercise of faith, up from 25 percent the previous year and up from 20 percent in 2007, when the Washington-based think tank began tracking the trend.

“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 report found. “A subset of countries, however, has particularly high levels of government restrictions on religion.”

The survey comes as the Trump administration has pushed to bolster religious liberty around the world. The State Department issued its annual Report on Religious Freedom last month, targeting a number of regimes that deny their citizens the right to live by their faith.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also announced the inaugural Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, a global summit that the department will host in Washington from July 25-26.

Many of the countries singled out in the State Department report appeared at the top of Pew’s Government Restrictions Index, which assigns each nation a score, 1 to 10, assessing the level of official hostility toward religion.

The score is determined through 20 indicators, such as whether a country has constitutional protections guaranteeing freedom of religion.

The country with the highest score — meaning the most restrictive toward religion — was China at 8.8. Other notable offenders were Iran at 8.5, Russia at 8.1 and Saudi Arabia at 7.7.

The United States received a score of 3.2, down from 3.7 the previous year but up from 1.6 in 2007.

The nation in the Western Hemisphere with the most restrictive policies toward religion was Cuba with a score of 5.0. The report points out that large-scale detentions of Christians continue to take place in the communist nation, such as when Cuban officials arrested 200 members of Emmanuel Church in Santiago de Cuba and demolished the church in 2016.

The country with the fewest restrictions on religion was the tiny Oceanic nation of Palau, which received a score of 0.2.

The median score among the 198 countries surveyed was 2.8, which was up 1 point from a decade ago.

Middle Eastern and Northern African governments were the worst violators of religious freedom on a regional level with a median score of 6.1. Countries in the Asia-Pacific region had a median score of 4.0, while Europe came in at 2.7, Sub-Saharan Africa at 2.5 and the Americas at 2.2.

Although governments in the Americas are the most tolerant as a whole, the region experienced the sharpest increase in official hostility toward religion this year, rising from last year’s median score of 1.7. Out of 35 countries in the region, 26 saw increases in government restrictions on religion.

The Pew report cited examples of the Ava Guarani peoples being forced from their ancestral homeland in Paraguay, and the prohibitions on proselytizing by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Mexico.

The report found that Christians, Muslims and Jews are the faith traditions most likely to be subject to harassment, whether governmental or social.

Harassment against Christians was documented in 144 countries, up from 128 the year before; against Muslims in 142 countries, up from 125; and against Jews in 87 countries, up from 74 countries. Harassment against atheists was documented in 14 countries in 2016, which is unchanged form the year prior.

• Bradford Richardson can be reached at brichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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