Around the world, every year, there are many property crimes against religious groups – overturned headstones in Jewish cemeteries, broken windows in mosques, fires set in churches, and other kinds of vandalism at religious sites. These attacks not only cause physical damage but also can have lasting psychological effects on religious communities.

In our annual tracking of restrictions on religion in nearly 200 countries and territories, Pew Research Center compiles statistics on these kinds of property attacks. We don’t have a reliable way of learning about every incident, so we don’t try to count the total number of cases. Rather, we track the number of countries in which at least one incident is reliably reported each year, using approximately 20 publicly available, widely cited sources, including the U.S. Department of State’s annual Reports on International Religious Freedom. And we categorize the incidents in two big buckets, depending on whether the perpetrator is a government actor (including any government official) or a private actor (including mobs, groups or individuals acting alone).

How we did this

This Pew Research Center analysis looks at the number of countries where at least one instance of religion-related property vandalism by governments or social groups occurred in 2020. It also includes raids, seizures, forced closures and confiscations, and cases where religion-related properties remained confiscated in unresolved restitution cases. Actions by recognized religion-related terrorist groups are excluded.

This post is based on data from the Center’s 13th annual report on restrictions on religion, which examined the extent to which governments and societies around the world restrict religious beliefs and practices. The annual restrictions reports are part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project, which analyzes religious change and its impact on societies around the world.

To track indicators of government restrictions and social hostilities, Center researchers combed through approximately 20 publicly available, widely cited sources, including the U.S. Department of State’s annual Reports on International Religious Freedom and annual reports from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, as well as reports and databases from European and UN bodies, universities, and independent nongovernmental organizations.

To measure global restrictions on religion in 2020 – the most recent year for which data is available – the study rated 198 countries and territories by their level of government restrictions on religion and social hostilities involving religion. The new study is based on the same 10-point indexes used in the previous studies:

  • The Government Restrictions Index (GRI) measures government laws, policies and actions that restrict religious beliefs and practices.
  • The Social Hostilities Index (SHI) measures acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations or groups in society.

Read the methodology for more details on the sources used in the study.

Since we’re tracking past events, there is always a time lag. Our latest numbers are for 2020. That year, properties were damaged, confiscated or forced to close by government officials or private actors who had targeted religious groups or acted out of religious bias in 102 of the 198 countries and territories in the study, or 52%, according to the Center’s analysis of external data.
Attacks against property in this analysis also include raids, seizures and unsolved restitution cases for confiscated properties. Property attacks by religion-related terrorist groups are not included. Religion-related physical attacks on people – such as assaults, detentions, displacements and killings – are also excluded from this analysis, although we cover these types of harassment in our annual report on restrictions on religion.

Europe had the highest share of countries with property attacks tied to religion in 2020. Of the 45 European countries analyzed, 34 (or 76%) recorded at least one incident of property damage or confiscation. In many European countries, religious groups were asking for governments to return their properties in restitution cases, and some of these cases dated back to the Holocaust or communist rule.

For example, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Jewish community was pursuing the return of a building in Sarajevo that had been turned into a government ministry. The Orthodox Church, Catholic Church and Muslim community also had properties tied up in restitution cases in 2020. Delays in property restitution cases, or a lack of legal mechanisms to recover confiscated property, were also an issue for religious groups in Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania and Ukraine.

A bar chart that shows in Europe confiscation and property damage tied to religion were reported in 34 countries in 2020.

Vandalism of cemeteries by private individuals was also common in European countries in 2020. In a Jewish cemetery in Moldova, 82 graves were defaced with drawings of Nazi symbols. Jewish cemeteries were also vandalized in Bulgaria, Finland, France, Germany, Greece and Hungary, among other countries.

Houses of worship were vandalized in Europe as well, including mosques in France and Germany. In Poland, more than 70 cases were recorded of abortion rights protesters defacing Catholic churches in response to a court ruling that banned certain types of abortions.

Many cases of vandalism in Europe involved Nazi symbols, such as swastikas. In Serbia, perpetrators spray painted a billboard that depicted a synagogue with a Nazi phrase referencing the deportation and killing of Jews during the Holocaust. Meanwhile, in several cities in Italy, perpetrators spread antisemitic graffiti and posters after International Holocaust Memorial Day.

In the Middle East and North Africa, properties were targeted in 12 of 20 countries (60%). In Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia, authorities demolished a Shiite mosque and Shiite graves in 2020. And in Algeria, a governor ordered two Protestant churches to close. At least 18 churches had been shut down in Algeria since 2017 for operating without permits, distributing evangelical Protestant materials and violating building safety codes, according to the U.S. Department of State’s annual Report on International Religious Freedom.

In Israel and the Palestinian territories, there were reports of arson attacks by individuals on mosques, churches and rabbinical courts in 2020. An Orthodox Jewish man was committed to a psychiatric institution after attempting to set fire to the Church of All Nations in East Jerusalem. And in the Palestinian city of al-Bireh in the West Bank, arsonists set fire to a mosque and spray painted anti-Arab graffiti.

In the Asia-Pacific region, 27 of 50 countries (54%) experienced religion-related attacks on properties. Many incidents involved mob violence in South Asia. In Bangladesh, a Muslim crowd burned and looted Hindu homes in the district of Comilla after rumors spread that Hindu residents supported the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. In India, more than 200 people reportedly attacked a house church in the state of Haryana and beat the pastor for allegedly converting Hindus to Christianity. Multiple other cases of mobs attacking Christians or churches, “fueled by false accusations of forced conversions,” occurred in 2020, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Mosques and Muslim majority neighborhoods in New Delhi also were targeted in escalating mob violence between Hindus and Muslims, due to tensions over the contested Citizenship Amendment Act passed in 2019. Elsewhere in South Asia, mob violence caused damage to religious properties in Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 2020.

In the Americas, 15 of 35 countries (43%) had incidents of property damage, confiscation or closure. In Cuba, authorities demolished a Baptist church that they claimed was unauthorized, and razed another church affiliated with a pastor at odds with the government. Private individuals also vandalized a Jewish cemetery in Argentina and defaced property at a synagogue and at Buddhist temples in Canada. And in the United States, the FBI reported more than 800 incidents against religious properties, affecting Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes called Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Eastern Orthodox, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists and other groups.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 14 of 48 countries (29%) experienced religion-related attacks on properties. In the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia, soldiers accompanied by Eritrean forces attacked and looted historic Muslim and Christian sites in late 2020. And in Cameroon, security forces and insurgents fighting a separatist conflict attacked or occupied churches.  

Worldwide, social groups were the perpetrators of religion-related attacks on properties in 81 countries and territories, while governments were the perpetrators in 56. In the Americas and Europe, more countries faced such property crimes instigated by social groups and individuals than by governments. In other regions, the number of countries that experienced attacks by governments was similar to those with instances of property damage carried out by social actors.

Note: Read the methodology for more details on the sources used in the study.

Samirah Majumdar  is a research associate focusing on religion research at Pew Research Center.