Washington, D.C. — A new study by the Pew Research Center finds that the already high level of restrictions on religion in the Middle East and North Africa – whether resulting from government policies or from social hostilities – continued to increase in 2011, when most of the political uprisings known as the Arab Spring occurred. The findings run contrary to expectations expressed by many world leaders that the uprisings would lead to greater freedoms for the people of the region, including fewer restrictions on religious beliefs and practices.


Liga Plaveniece or Jemila Woodson
Communications Associates

Before the Arab Spring, government restrictions on religion and social hostilities involving religion were higher in the Middle East and North Africa than in any other region of the world. Government restrictions in the region remained high in 2011, while social hostilities markedly increased. For instance, the number of countries in the region experiencing sectarian or communal violence between religious groups doubled from five to 10.

The new study also finds that the Americas, Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific region all had increases in overall restrictions on religion in 2011. Government restrictions declined slightly in Europe, but social hostilities increased. Asia and the Pacific had the sharpest increase in government restrictions, though the level of social hostilities remained roughly the same. By contrast, social hostilities edged up in sub-Saharan Africa, but government restrictions stayed about the same. Both government restrictions and social hostilities increased slightly in the Americas.

Globally, the share of countries with high or very high restrictions on religion rose from 37% in the year ending in mid-2010 to 40% in 2011, a five-year high. Because some of the most restrictive countries are very populous, more than 5.1 billion people (74%) were living in 2011 in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion, the brunt of which often falls on religious minorities.

These are among the key findings of the fourth 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. The new study scores 198 countries and territories (comprising more than 99.5% of the world’s population) on the same two indexes used in the previous studies: The Government Restrictions Index (GRI) measures government laws, policies and actions that restrict religious beliefs or practices, and the Social Hostilities Index (SHI) measures acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations and social groups. Other key findings include:

  • Reports of harassment or intimidation of Muslims increased. Muslims were harassed by national, provincial or local governments or by individuals or groups in society in 101 countries in 2011, up from 90 countries the year before. Christians continued to be harassed in the largest number of countries (105), although this represented a decrease from the previous year (111 countries). Jews were harassed in 69 countries, about the same as the year before (68 countries).
  • Among the world’s 25 most populous countries, Egypt, Indonesia, Russia and Pakistan had the most restrictions on religion. Two countries had record high levels of restrictions or hostilities. Egypt – the most populous country in the Middle East-North Africa region – had a higher level of government restrictions in 2011 than any country in the world previously had in the five years covered by the study. Pakistan had the highest level of social hostilities in the world across the five years of the study. Indeed, the country had all 13 types of hostilities measured by the study and was the first country to score 10 out of 10 points on either restrictions index.
  • Increases in social hostilities, in particular, contributed to increases in overall religious restrictions. In Egypt, for instance, attacks on Coptic Christian communities went up during 2011. In China, increasing numbers of Buddhist monks, nuns and laypeople protested government policies toward Tibet by setting themselves on fire. And in Nigeria, there was rising violence between Muslims and Christians, including attacks by the Islamist group Boko Haram.
  • The number of countries with overall increases in restrictions compared with the previous year outnumbered those with decreases. However, a larger share of countries (35%) had a decrease in at least one of the 20 types of government restrictions or 13 types of social hostilities measured by the study compared with the previous year (28%). Examples include a relaxation of registration requirements for religious groups in Austria; efforts to overturn a centuries-old law barring the British monarch from marrying a Catholic; and elimination of a requirement in Jordan that groups, including religious groups, obtain prior permission from the government before holding public meetings or demonstrations.
  • Government or societal initiatives to reduce religious restrictions or hostilities were reported in 150 of 198 countries, or 76% of the countries and territories studied. The most common types of initiatives, in descending order of prevalence, were interfaith dialogue, efforts to combat or redress religious discrimination, educational and training initiatives, and land- or property-related initiatives.

The full report – including a summary of results, index scores by region, results by country, the methodology and an interactive graphic showing the levels of restrictions in the world’s 25 most populous countries – is available on the Pew Forum’s website.

The Pew Research Center’s work on global restrictions on religion is part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project, an effort funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation to analyze religious change and its impact on societies around the world.


The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life conducts surveys, demographic analyses and other social science research on important aspects of religion and public life in the U.S. and around the world. As part of the Washington-based Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, non-advocacy organization, the Pew Forum does not take positions on policy debates or any of the issues it covers. 

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