Two-Thirds of World Population Lives Under High Levels of Constraints

Washington, D.C.—In a new report measuring infringements on religious beliefs and practices around the world, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that two-in-three people in the world today live in countries with high levels of restrictions on religion. The report gauges the level of restrictions due both to government actions and to acts of violence and intimidation by private individuals, organizations and social groups.


Mary Schultz
Communications Manager

Based on a battery of measures and careful analysis of publicly available information gathered from 16 governmental and nongovernmental organizations – including the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and Human Rights Watch – Global Restrictions on Religion assesses restrictions in 198 countries and territories, representing more than 99.5% of the world’s population. The report covers a two-year period, from mid-2006 through mid-2008, and includes two indexes – the Government Restrictions Index and the Social Hostilities Index – that categorize 198 countries and territories as having very high, high, moderate or low levels of religious restrictions.

The study analyzes more than 30 measures of restrictions on religion, 20 of which are based on government actions, such as constitutional limitations or prohibitions on religious speech. An analysis of social hostilities by private actors, such as religion-related terrorism and violence between religious groups, is also included in the report.

Key findings include:

64 nations, about one-third of the countries in the world, have high or very high restrictions on religion. The brunt of these restrictions are often felt most directly by religious minorities.

  • Among all world geographic regions, the Middle East and North Africa have the highest government and social restrictions on religion, while the Americas are the least restrictive region on both measures.
  • The most intense restrictions on religion are found in countries where government restrictions and religious hostilities within society are simultaneously high, such as in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran.
  • In the U.S., government restrictions are relatively few. But the level of religious hostilities in society exceeds those reported in a number of other large democracies, including Brazil and Japan.
  • Most countries provide for “religious freedom” in their constitutions or basic laws, yet only a quarter fully respect this legal right in practice.
  • In 75 countries, or four-in-ten countries in the world, national or local governments limit efforts by religious groups or individuals to persuade others to join their faith.
  •   In 178 countries (90%), religious groups must register with the government for various purposes, and in 117 (59%) countries the registration requirements resulted in major problems for, or outright discrimination against, certain faiths.

    The report, including an executive summary, graphics and tables, methodology, index scores by region and country, and a summary of results, is available online.

    The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life delivers timely, impartial information on issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs. The Pew Forum is a nonpartisan, nonadvocacy organization and does not take positions on policy debates. Based in Washington, D.C., the Pew Forum is a project of the Pew Research Center, which is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.