Pew Research: global rise in religious restrictions

Restrictions on religion increased around the world in 2016, according to Pew Research Center’s ninth annual study on global restrictions on religion. This is the second year in a row that overall restrictions on religion – whether the result of government actions or by individuals or societal groups – increased in the 198 countries included in the study.

Nationalist parties and organizations played an increasing role in harassment of religious minorities, especially in Europe, the report highlights.

The share of countries with “high” or “very high” levels of government restrictions – that is, laws, policies and actions by officials that restrict religious beliefs and practices – rose from 25% in 2015 to 28% in 2016. This is the largest percentage of countries to have high or very high levels of government restrictions since 2013, and falls just below the 10-year peak of 29% in 2012.

Meanwhile, the share of countries with “high” or “very high” levels of social hostilities involving religion – that is, acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations or groups in society – remained stable in 2016 at 27%. Like government restrictions, social hostilities also peaked in 2012, particularly in the Middle East-North Africa region, which was still feeling the effects of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. The number of countries with high or very high levels of social hostilities declined in 2013 and has remained at about the same level since, but it is higher than it was during the baseline year of this study (2007).

In total in 2016, 83 countries (42%) had high or very high levels of overall restrictions on religion – whether resulting from government actions or from hostile acts by private individuals, organizations and social groups – up from 80 (40%) in 2015 and 58 (29%) in 2007.

Number of countries with high or very high levels of government restrictions on religion continues to climb, while overall social hostilities dip in 2016


In many countries, restrictions on religion resulted from actions taken by government officials, social groups or individuals espousing nationalist positions. Typically, these nationalist groups or individuals were seeking to curtail immigration of religious and ethnic minorities, or were calling for efforts to suppress or even eliminate a particular religious group, in the name of defending a dominant ethnic or religious group they described as threatened or under attack. In the Netherlands, for instance, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party announced an election platform in 2016 that called for the “de-Islamization” of the country, including barring asylum seekers from Islamic countries, prohibiting Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public, closing all mosques and banning the Quran. In another case, the Czech group Block Against Islam (which opposes allowing Muslim refugees into the country and calls for restrictions on the Muslim community) organized about 20 anti-Islam rallies around the country during the year.

Government actors – whether political parties or individual public officials – at times used nationalist, and often anti-immigrant or anti-minority, rhetoric to target religious groups in their countries in 2016. About one-in-ten (11%) countries had government actors that used this type of rhetoric. This marks an uptick from 2015, when 6% of cases involved political parties or officials that espoused nationalist views.

Overall, Muslims were the most common target of harassment by nationalist political parties or officials in 2016, typically in the form of derogatory statements or adverse policies. Nationalist parties also singled out Jews, Christians and members of other minority faiths. In Bulgaria, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported an ongoing campaign against their religion by two nationalist parties, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria and the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, which together form the Patriotic Front political alliance in the country’s legislature. And, in Sweden, representatives of the Sweden Democrats Party made anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim remarks on multiple occasions during the year.

Key Findings

  1. More than a quarter (28%) of countries had “high” or “very high” levels of government restrictions on religion in 2016, an increase from 25% the year before.
  2. The share of countries with “high” or “very high” levels of social hostilities involving religion remained stable at 27%.
  3. A growing share of the incidents of government restrictions or social hostilities in 2016 involved political parties or social groups espousing nationalist positions.
  4. Overall, the number of countries where various religious groups were harassed either by governments or social groups increased in 2016.
  5. Among the 25 most populous countries in the world, Egypt, Russia, India, Indonesia and Turkey had the highest overall levels of religious restrictions.


All information from Pew Research Center