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Worrying Trends in the World of Religious Liberty

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The new report released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project highlights a number of troubling trends that should concern anyone -- whether private citizen or public official -- about the state of religious freedom around the world as of 2012.

That "the share of countries with a high or very high level of social hostilities involving religion reached a six-year peak in 2012," according to the Pew study is disheartening, if not altogether surprising. The report found that a full third of the nearly 200 countries and territories surveyed "had high religious hostilities in 2012." This continues the disturbing trajectory seen in recent years (just under 30 percent in 2011 and an even 20 percent in 2007). It is alarming to see the more than 10 percent increase that took place just in the 12 months between 2011 and 2012.

Potentially even more disturbing is that "while the share of countries with a high or very high level of government restrictions on religion stayed roughly the same," Europe saw the highest level of increase in restrictions in the last year. Not the Middle East, or certain traditionally anti-religious countries in Asia, not Africa... but supposedly reasonable and tolerant Europe! It begs the question: If religious liberty is vulnerable in a place like Europe, who's to say that any place in the world is safe from new restrictions? And here's another frightening statistic: More than three-quarters of the world's population now resides in an area marked by religious restrictions, be they government-imposed or the product of social hostilities.

Pew also gauges the status of religious liberty worldwide by measuring levels of harassment or intimidation of minority religious groups. Here too, the results show deterioration. The current study found a six-year high in the number of countries in which two key faith groups -- Muslims and Jews -- were harassed by individuals, governments or other groups in society.

And it's not just people and groups that are overtly and consistently hostile to religion that are the problem. Hostilities among religious groups are a significant factor, as well. For example, Pew's study specifically cites the well-publicized attack by monks in Sri Lanka on Muslim and Christian places of worship. During the attack, they they used force to seize control of a Seventh-day Adventist church in Deniyaya, turning it into a Buddhist temple in the process. But that's just one disheartening example of thousands that could be cited as, overall, the Pew Report documents that "religion-related terrorist violence" occurred in about a fifth of countries worldwide, up from nine percent in 2007.

Truth be told, there is little good news at all in Pew's latest research, despite the fact that overall, government restrictions on religion worldwide increased only slightly from 2011. But even within that arena, there was an increase in use of government force against religious groups, to 48 percent of countries in 2012 (compared to 41 percent in 2011).

I would encourage anyone interested in religious liberty to read Pew's full report here.

If there is a true silver lining in this research, perhaps it is that 29 percent of countries actually saw a decrease in the level of restrictions on religious liberty between 2011 and 2012. Yes, that is more than offset by the 61 percent of countries that experience increased restrictions during the same time period. However, it shows that motivated governments, seriously focused on ensuring the rights of their citizenry, can make a difference.

And reducing the assault on religious freedoms is something every government leader and elected official around the world should be intently focused on as we enter this New Year.