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World's less friendly to those of faith

ALBANY HERALD EDITORIAL: Sobering numbers remind us why we should be thankful for religious freedom in the U.S.

A new study by the Pew Research Center has some sobering numbers for religious individuals. Social hostilities involving religion reached its highest point in six years in 2012.

In all, 198 countries and territories were included in the study. A third of the countries surveyed had what the report termed as high religious hostilities in 2012, up from 29 percent in 2011 and substantially higher than the 20 percent found in 2007.

The worst culprits were located where you might expect — the Middle East and North Africa, where the repercussions of the Arab Spring uprisings are still being felt. But the report says that there was also a big increase in hostilities in the Asia-Pacific region, where China made its debut into the “high” religious hostilities list.

Across the Pacific Ocean from there were the only places that did not exhibit and increase — North and South America.

Governments are, more or less, cracking down on religious groups at about the same rate as 2011, the report showed. Nearly three out of every 10 nations had a high or very high level of government restrictions, up 1 percentage point but still much higher than 2007’s 20 percent. As you might expect, the restrictions were higher than the previous year in the Middle East and North Africa, but the area with the largest year-over-year increase in the median level of government restrictions was in Europe.

According to the report, the world also hit a six-year high on the number of countries that have high or very high religious restriction — 43 percent, or more than two out of every five. Leading the charge against religion was China, which imposes very high restrictions on its massive population. As a result, 5.3 billion people, slightly more than three-quarters of the global population, live under religious oppression.

Pakistan had the highest level of social hostilities involving religion, while Egypt had the highest level of government infringement.

As to who was the likeliest target of hostilities, Christians were harassed in the most countries, 110, barely edging out Muslims, who were targeted in 109. That’s not surprising since the two religions are also the biggest targets, combining to comprise more than half of the planet’s population. The study broke the religious groups into seven and found that two — Muslims and Jews — experienced six-year highs in the number of countries where they were harassed in 2012.

Other numbers were equally concerning. For instance, the percentage of nations in which religious minorities were abused in 2012 was nearly half, 47 percent, up substantially from 2011’s 38 percent and nearly double the 24 percent found in 2007. The share of countries where violence or threats of violence were used to compel individuals to comply with religious norms was nearly two out of five at 39 percent, up 6 points from 2012 and dwarfing the 18 percent recorded in 2007. More women, 32 percent, were harassed for their religious dress in 2012 than the one-in-four in 2011 and the 7 percent found in 2007. And the countries where mob violence related to religion swelled from 12 percent in 2007 and 18 percent in 2011 to 25 percent in 2012.

Overall, there was little good news for religious people throughout the world. The persecution of and interference in the lives of individuals simply because of their faith has never been stronger in the six years that the Pew Research Center has been conducting these surveys, and the reality may be even harsher than the survey numbers show.

For those of us here who are religious and protected by the U.S. Constitution and the wisdom of its framers to include the Bill of Rights, that is something to remember — and to be thankful for — when freely entering a house of worship.

— The Albany Herald Editorial Board