This is the third in a series of reports by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life analyzing the extent to which governments and societies around the world impinge on religious beliefs and practices. These reports have drawn widespread attention to the fact that a substantial portion of the world’s population – 75% as of mid-2010 – lives in countries where governments, social groups or individuals restrict people’s ability to freely practice their faith. The reports also have generated significant interest for how they bring social science research methods to bear on the study of religious restrictions. The methodology used in the reports provides a quantitative framework that those involved in the study of religious freedom can use to monitor changes in restrictions on religion over time, across the world, in specific geographical regions and in individual countries.

The new report looks at the extent and direction of change in religious restrictions from the year ending in mid-2009 to the year ending in mid-2010. Where appropriate, it also compares the situation as of mid-2010 with the situation in the baseline year of the study (mid-2006 to mid-2007).

The Pew Forum’s previous report on religious restrictions, published in August 2011, found that restrictions tended to increase the most in countries that already had high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion. In the latest year, however, there were increases in restrictions even in countries that previously had low or moderate levels of restrictions – including the United States, which is examined in a sidebar starting on page 15. As the title of the report suggests, the overall level of restrictions was higher in the latest year studied than it was in the previous year.

As we have noted in the two previous reports, it is important to keep in mind some limitations of this study. The indexes of government restrictions and social hostilities that serve as the basis of the study are designed to measure obstacles to religious expression and practice. As a result, the report focuses on the constraints on religion in each country and does not look at the other side of the coin: the amount of free or unhindered religious activity that takes place in particular countries. The study also does not attempt to determine whether restrictions are justified or unjustified, nor does it attempt to analyze the many factors – historical, demographic, cultural, religious, economic and political – that might explain why restrictions have arisen. It simply seeks to measure the restrictions that exist in a quantifiable, transparent and reproducible way, based on published reports from numerous governmental and nongovernmental organizations.

As was the case in the two previous reports, North Korea is not included in this study. The primary sources used in this study indicate that North Korea’s government is among the most repressive in the world, including toward religion. But because independent observers lack regular access to the country, the sources are unable to provide the kind of specific, timely information that formed the basis of this analysis.

The Pew Forum’s work on global restrictions on religion is part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project, which analyzes religious change and its impact on societies around the world. Previous reports produced under this initiative, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation, include “The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity” (August 2012), “Faith on the Move: The Religious Affiliation of International Migrants” (March 2012), “Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population” (December 2011), “Rising Restrictions on Religion” (August 2011), “Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders” (June 2011), “The Future of the Global Muslim Population: Projections for 2010-2030” (January 2011), “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa” (April 2010), “Global Restrictions on Religion” (December 2009), “Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Muslim Population” (October 2009) and “Spirit and Power: A 10-Country Survey of Pentecostals” (October 2006).

The principal researcher for this report was Brian J. Grim, a senior researcher and director of cross-national data at the Pew Forum. He was assisted by Peter Henne, a former Pew Forum research analyst, and by several Georgetown University graduate and undergraduate students. For helping to recruit these very capable students, we are grateful to Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and its director, professor Thomas Banchoff.

Luis Lugo, Director
Alan Cooperman, Associate Director for Research