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Religious restrictions on the rise worldwide, Pew survey shows

Religious restrictions on the rise worldwide, Pew survey shows

A study released today by the Pew Forum shows that religious intolerance is on the rise globally, and that a majority of the world’s population live in countries with “high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion,” a 5 percent increase percent over the previous year. The Guardian reports:

While the survey notes growing religious restrictions in places where that might be expected, including in Nigeria which has seen a spate of attacks against Christians, as well as in Indonesia, where pressure from Islamists forced dozens of churches to close, it also identifies growing problems in some western democracies including Switzerland, which, in 2009, banned the construction of minarets, and the US.

The report – which detailed religious freedom up until the end of 2010 and is the third such survey Pew has carried out – says it identified a four-year high involving “harassment or intimidation of particular religious groups” – including five out of seven of the main religious groupings – including Jews, Christians, Buddhists and adherents of folk or traditional religions.

Not all religions, however, faced harassment in the same way.

“Christians,” the survey reports, “were harassed by government officials or organisations in 95 countries in the year ending in mid-2010 and by social groups or individuals in 77 countries.

“Muslims also were more likely to be harassed by governments (74 countries) than by social groups or individuals (64 countries). Jews, by contrast, experienced social harassment in many more countries than they faced government harassment.”

The United States has moved from the low category of government restrictions on religion to the moderate category for the first time, according to the study. NPR quotes from the Pew report:

“In the year ending in mid-2010, there was an increase in the number of incidents in the U.S. at the state and local level in which members of some religious groups faced restrictions on their ability to practice their faith. This included incidents in which individuals were prevented from wearing certain religious attire or symbols, including beards, in some judicial settings or in prisons, penitentiaries or other correctional facilities. Some religious groups in the U.S. also faced difficulties in obtaining zoning permits to build or expand houses of worship, religious schools or other religious institutions. The U.S. also experienced an increase in social hostilities involving religion during this same period. A key factor behind the increase was a spike in religion-related terrorist attacks in the U.S. The increase also reflects a rise in the number of reported religion-related workplace discrimination complaints.”

The report mentions the incidents we’re familiar with, including the attempt to stop the building of the Murfreesboro, Tenn. mosque. But it also said that for the first time, this report included allegations that “some level of government in the U.S. had imposed limits on conversion.”

They cite a case in which an inmate was denied the right to change his religious affiliation to Muslim.

“The inmate complained that he could not participate in Ramadan observances without an official change to his religious designation in the New York Department of Correctional Services’ records,” Pew reports.

Read NPR’s full story here; The Guardian story here; and the text of the Pew report here.


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Bill Dilworth

David, thanks for the explanation. It probably makes sense to do so in order to prevent the sort of revolving cycle of conversion you describe.

David O'Rourke

Bill, I looked at the policy on the NYS Department of Correctional Services website. Inmates are able to list what their religion is when they enter the system, and are allowed to change the designation only once a year. This is the same as in the Department of Corrections in the state where I am am volunteer with a prison ministry.

I don’t know the details of the case mentioned in the article, but correctional departments have to find a balance between supporting inmates in the practice of their faith with the need to maintain order in the system. This prevents inmates from changing their religious designation from week to week or month to month in order to say participate in Ramadan last month, the Jewish High Holy Days in September and then Christmas in December.

The expectation is that an inmate will be able to participate in the services and activities of their own faith community, and it is the role of the department to reach out to the local faith communities to find chaplains and volunteers who are willing to come in to the facilities to help support these activities. I see in the NYS policy that inmates who want to learn more about another faith tradition can request permission to attend up to 3 services or study sessions to learn more about that faith tradition. In the program I support, we can have only a certain number of offenders attending our service, so once those who are listed as Protestant have been admitted, we can admit others who are not listed as Protestant as long as seats are available.

It can be a difficult balancing act to allow inmates to exercise their religious beliefs and practices while maintaining security and order in the facilities. It depends heavily on the willingness of the faith communities on the outside to come in to the facilities. In my state, the Department does a great job of reaching out to the local faith communities to find volunteers and chaplains to support the offenders. For those who are interested in supporting Christians on the inside, I encourage you to contact the corrections department in your state to find out what volunteer opportunities they have. The Prison Congregations of America is also a great resource.

Bill Dilworth

Why on Earth would the NY prison system restrict the change of a prisoner’s religious affiliation? What purpose does that serve? I tried to find out details from the articles, but because of a bad link wasn’t able to learn much about this case.


But it also said that for the first time, this report included allegations that “some level of government in the U.S. had imposed limits on conversion.” They cite a case in which an inmate was denied the right to change his religious affiliation to Muslim.

Strangely enough, not a case I heard about at the “Obama’s War on Religion!!1!1!” rally in Tampa (otherwise known as the RNC).

JC Fisher

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