Government restrictions on religion, defined as “laws, policies and actions by state officials that limit religious beliefs and practices,” have increased since tracking began in 2007, reaching a global peak in 2021. This and other related trends are part of the Pew Research Center’s 14th annual analysis of government restrictions on religion, released March 2024. These findings encompass 198 countries and territories worldwide, grouped in five regions: Middle East-North Africa, Europe, the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Asia-Pacific region.

Two significant measures, “harassment of religious groups” and “interference in worship,” were widespread, occurring in each of the five regions. The report cites specific examples of religious harassment, including targeting of minority religions for discrimination and imposing policies that make religious practices (such as religious dress and/or worship rituals) more difficult.

Religious harassment

One egregious example of religious harassment occurred in Europe, where the Netherlands government leader Geert Wilders used a social media network to call for the “de-Islamization” of the country. The U.S. State Department recorded his proposal of measures “including closing all mosques and Islamic schools, banning the Quran, and barring all asylum seekers and immigrants from Muslim-majority countries.”

In the Americas, government officials in Nicaragua have openly derided Catholic clergy as “terrorists” and “coup-plotters” for their support of democracy.

Policies imposing restrictions on religious dress, such as headscarves and face coverings, tend to affect Muslim women disproportionately, while government oversight of meat production can interfere with Halal and Kosher dietary guidelines, primarily impacting Muslims and Jews.

Interference in worship

Interference in worship can include forbidding minority religions to build places of worship or publicly express their faith, as is the case in the Maldives, where Islam is the state religion. Similarly, in Egypt, only three recognized religious groups—Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism—are allowed these privileges.

Unique to 2021, several religious groups claimed government interference in worship due to COVID-19 restrictions, which they alleged were “unevenly or unfairly applied to their activities and places of worship.”

Social hostilities

Another finding: social hostilities, defined separately as “violence and harassment by private individuals, organizations or groups,” fell slightly, resting between the highs and lows of previous years’ reports. While government restrictions have gradually increased, social hostilities have shown more fluctuation from year to year.

Complex interplay between benefits and restrictions

Adding a further layer of complexity, the report shows that many governments impose restrictions on religion and grant benefits to religious groups simultaneously. Governments may provide resources for religious education or buildings, or benefits to clergy, for example, while also dictating their teaching and preaching. Failure to comply may result in fines or even imprisonment. Governments may also extend benefits to the majority religion only while singling out other religious groups for harassment.

In Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-majority country where the government gives financial support to imams and to the construction of mosques, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs also monitors the content of their sermons. One Sunni cleric who apparently violated content parameters has been in prison since 2017. The situation is similar in neighboring Jordan.

Additional findings

Following these initial findings, the report delves deeper, offering statistics and tables on a wide variety of data, from the most extensive government restrictions and social hostilities (according to established indices), to which religious groups suffer the most harassment worldwide.

Christians and Muslims, the largest religious groups in the world, face harassment in the largest number of countries. These figures do not reflect the severity of harassment, however, and do not equate to these religions being the “most persecuted.” The third religious group in that statistic are Jews, who make up just 0.2% of the global population.

More specific breakdowns are offered by region, by the world’s 25 most populist countries, and by cases of more severe physical harassment, including property damage, assaults, detentions, displacements and killings. Physical harassment of religious groups was reported in 2/3 of the study’s countries, with property damage highest among countries in Europe and assaults and detentions highest in the Middle East and North Africa.

Displacements, driven both by governments and by social groups and individuals, occurred in 38 countries, or 19% of those studied, notably in Afghanistan where the Taliban expelled and seized property of thousands of Shiite Hazaras, as well as in Indonesia and Myanmar.

Killings based on religion, also driven by governments, social groups and individuals, were reported in 45 countries, or 23% of those studied. These include the Falun Gong in China, Hindus in Bangladesh, and priests and worshipers in Ethiopia.

See the full report here: Government Restrictions on Religion: Pew Research Report.