Governments in nearly a quarter of the world’s nations, including the United States, used force to prevent religious gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, a new Pew Research Center study says.
Twenty-three percent of world governments employed “arrests and detentions; physical assaults; damage, confiscation or raiding of private property; displacements of people from their homes; or killings” to enforce restrictions on religious gatherings in the first year of the pandemic, according to Pew’s “How COVID-19 Restrictions Affected Religious Groups Around the World in 2020” report.
The report is part of an annual survey on global restrictions on religion. Many of the governments it cites had restricted certain religions and practices within their borders before the pandemic, while others, like those within the U.S., sought to enforce specific bans on large gatherings to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
The report noted a drop in the number of countries with “very high” government restrictions — from 23 in 2019 to 19 in 2020. The number of nations with “high” restrictions, however, rose from 34 in 2019 to 38 in 2020.
According to the report, “detentions were the most common type of force” used against religious groups, such as arrests in Azerbaijan of Shiite Muslims who gathered for an Islamic holiday.
Raids were carried out on ultra-Orthodox synagogues in Israel, while Mexican authorities raided a “clandestine Mass” at a church in the state of Durango and expelled the worshippers. Pew reported that two churches in South Korea, including the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, were raided over public health restrictions violations.
“During 2020, religious groups in 54 countries (27% of all analyzed) criticized public health measures related to [COVID-19] — such as restrictions on public gatherings — and in many cases alleged that the measures violated their religious freedom,” Pew said.
In the U.S., authorities in Lakewood, New Jersey, arrested 15 people at a rabbi’s funeral in defiance of a stay-at-home order. Officials in other state and local governments employed similar methods to enforce bans on large gatherings. One such ban in the state of New York was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2020.
The Pew report indicated several governments “scapegoated” religious groups over allegations they spread COVID-19.
For example, officials in Pakistan’s Balochistan province blamed Shiite Muslims of Hazara ethnicity after the pilgrims returned from a trip to Iran. Cambodia, a majority-Buddhist nation, targeted Muslims who returned from a gathering in Malaysia.
Hutterites, an Anabaptist Christian group, said they were subject to “cultural and religious profiling” after provincial governments in Canada “publicized” outbreaks in their communities, the report noted.
Such attempts by governments to blame religious groups were not the only effort to paint religious communities as sources of the virus’ spread, Pew said.
In 39 nations, private individuals or groups attempted to blame those communities, with 23 of the 39 explicitly targeting Jews. France and the United Kingdom each saw antisemitic theories spread on social media.
Muslims were targeted in 15 countries, Pew said, “including some Muslim-majority” nations. Along with the reports from Cambodia and Pakistan, Muslims were targeted in India, according to the report.
The Pew report indicated that Christian groups were subject to propaganda attacks in nine countries. Armenian Orthodox Christians were attacked in Turkey, while Coptic Orthodox believers were the subject of conspiracy theories in Egypt.
Christians in 155 nations and Muslims in 145 countries were harassed, the report noted. Jews were subjected to harassment in 94 nations, a 10-year high.
Pew said the study represented research on religious restrictions in “192 of the 193 member states of the United Nations as of 2020, plus six territories — Kosovo, Hong Kong, Macao, the Palestinian territories, Taiwan and Western Sahara.” North Korea was not surveyed.
The report, which used several government and human rights organizations’ reports and media accounts as sources, is available online at https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2022/11/29/how-covid-19-restrictions-affected-religious-groups-around-the-world-in-2020/.