Troubling Signs that the "Religious Freedom Divide" is Growing

Study also tracks jump in "social harrassment"of religious minorities

[Bettina Krause/IRLA]  The global religious freedom "forecast" looks grim for the 2.2 billion people around the world who suffer discrimination or persecution because of their faith, according to the results of a recent study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The study, released earlier this month, analyzed masses of reports and data from 2006 to 2009 and identified recent trends in the level of religious repression and protection in different countries. It found, in part, that there's no immediate relief in sight for those suffering for their faith. In fact, the situation seems to be worsening in many countries that already have high levels of religious restrictions.

John Graz, Secretary General of the IRLA, said the results of the study are troubling but not particularly surprising. "There's an old saying that 'The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.' Well, this study suggests that, globally, the 'free' are enjoying even stronger legal protections, while those who already suffer religious persecution are facing ever-more stringent restrictions on their freedom."

China, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Egypt topped the list of countries with the highest levels of government restrictions on religious freedom. The study also looked at "social harassment" of religious minorities. It cited China, Nigeria, United Kingdom, Russia and Sweden as among those countries with the largest recent upswing in the number of malicious acts or violence motivated by religious hatred.

Graz said these trends are borne out in the day-to-day work of the IRLA office in Silver Spring, Maryland, tracks and responds to religious liberty concerns.

"Just in the past few months we've seen the de-registration of many religious organizations in Hungary, the destruction of Christian churches in Ethiopia, the assassination of religious freedom advocates in Pakistan, and continuing legal persecution and social violence against religious minorities in some countries of the Middle East," Graz said.

Dwayne Leslie, Deputy Secretary General of the IRLA, says it's hard for those in the West, who can freely practice their faith, to understand just how vulnerable church members are in countries without strong traditions of religious freedom.

"Protection of religion becomes politicized," Leslie said. "Rights become dependent on political whims or changes in governments rather than established legal principles."

This reality often generates work for the IRLA team that falls into the "under-the-radar" category. "Often we're dealing with situations that are too sensitive to publicize," Leslie said.

He cites a recent example, where a church leader from an African country appealed for assistance following notice that some church property was about to be seized by the government based on a spurious legal claim.

The IRLA team, which also includes Dr. Ganoune Diop, director of United Nations relations, responded with a multi-faceted approach. They consulted with the U.S. State Department, reached out to the African country's Washington embassy, and extended counsel to the local church leaders as they worked through what quickly became a complex and sensitive situation.

"This incident ultimately had a happy outcome and the church property was saved," Graz said. "But far too often, the opposite is true."

The results of this new study paint a sobering picture for the immediate future of religious freedom around the world.

What does this mean for the IRLA team? "I expect we will be kept increasingly busy," Graz said.

See the results of the Pew Forum study at: pewforum.org/Government/Rising-Restrictions-on-Religion