In the context of a tense global climate impacted by the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, the fallout of the war in Ukraine, the military and economic concerns around the South China Sea, and the rapid, worldwide increase in the cost of living, religious freedom was violated in countries where more than 4.9 billion people live. We count 61 countries where the citizens faced severe violations of religious freedom.
The Red category, which denotes the existence of persecution, includes 28 countries which are home to 4.03 billion people who altogether make up more than half (51.6 percent) of the world’s population. Of these 28 countries, 13 are in Africa where in many regions the situation deteriorated sharply.
The Orange category, which denotes the existence of discrimination, includes 33 countries, home to almost 853 million people. The situation worsened in 13 of these countries.
The “under observation” classification includes countries where newly emerging factors of concern have been observed which have the potential to cause a fundamental breakdown in freedom of religion. The Regional Analysis maps (pages XX) identify these countries with the symbol of a magnifying glass.
In all classifications, hate crimes and atrocity crimes may occur. These incidents are the manifestation of the violation of religious freedom.
The remainder of the countries were not classified, but that does not necessarily mean all was perfect in matters relating to religious freedom.
During the period under review, intense persecution became more acute and concentrated, and impunity grew. This persecution included extreme violations of Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
1 Globally, the retention and consolidation of power in the hands of autocrats and fundamentalist group leaders led to increased violations of all human rights, including religious freedom. A combination of terrorist attacks, destruction of religious heritage and symbols (Turkey, Syria), electoral system manipulation (Nigeria, Iraq), mass surveillance (China), proliferation of anti-conversion laws and financial restrictions (Southeast Asia and Middle East) increased the oppression of all religious communities.
2 “Hybrid” cases of “polite” and bloody persecution became more frequent. Occurring mostly without protest, governments applied controversial laws restricting freedom of religion or discriminated against certain religious communities (cfr anti-conversion laws). At the same time, violent attacks against those of the “wrong” religion were “normalized” and mostly not prosecuted (Latin America). This was also observed in Western nations but there was better recourse to justice.
3 An increase in the number of majoritarian religious communities suffering persecution. To date, most faith groups suffering persecution were from minority religious communities. Increasingly majoritarian religious communities were also experiencing persecution (Nigeria, Nicaragua).
4 An increasingly muted response from the international community towards atrocities by “strategically important” autocratic regimes (China, India), demonstrated a growing culture of impunity. Key countries (Nigeria, Pakistan) escaped international sanctions and other punishment following revelations of religious freedom violations against their own citizens.
5 The rise of “opportunistic caliphates” During the review period, transnational jihadist networks in Africa increasingly changed tactics. By degrees, they shifted from conquering and defending fixed territories towards hit and run attacks aimed at creating isolated communities (cfr Mozambique) in poorly defended rural areas, (preferably ones) with mineral resources (cfr D.R. Congo). Traditional kill and loot strategies gave way to a tendency to impose illegal tax and trade, resulting in a state within a state. The insecurity and lack of government control led to revolts and military coups (two in Mali and one in Burkina Faso).
6 Divergent trends within Muslim communities became more visible. On the one hand, disenfranchised, impoverished, and frustrated youth were increasingly attracted by Islamist terrorist and criminal networks (Africa). On the other hand, recent surveys, notably in Iran, showed growing numbers of Muslims were self-identifying as non-religious.
7 Increased persecution of Muslims, including by other Muslims. Brutal persecution continued in China against the Uyghurs, with Muslims in India and Myanmar also suffering discrimination and persecution. Increasing incidents of intra-Muslim persecution were also reported between Sunni and Shi’a (Hazara in Afghanistan), between national and “foreign” Muslim interpretations as well as between dominant and so-called “deviant” forms of Islam (Ahmadi in Pakistan).
8 Reported aggression against the Jewish community in the West increased after the Covid-19 lockdowns. Anti-Semitic hate crimes reported in OSCE countries increased from 582 in 2019 to 1,367 in 2021.
9 Abductions, sexual violence, including sexual enslavement and forced religious conversion continued unabated and remained largely unpunished (West Africa, Pakistan). Abductions and human trafficking were fuelled by worsening poverty and increased armed conflicts. In dozens of countries religious minority women and girls suffered especially from this form of violence.
10 Inflating numbers of faithful as a means of maintaining political power. In some cases, faith communities, seeking to preserve their political, religious, and social status, exaggerated numbers of faithful by giving misleading religious data when officially registering children, or by postponing population census indefinitely (Lebanon, India, Malaysia).
11 Increased scrutiny, including mass surveillance, impacted faith groups. In the West, social media was used to marginalise and target religious groups. These developments undermined fundamental liberties, including freedom of conscience, thought, religion, freedom of expression, movement, and assembly.
12 In the West, “cancel culture”, including “compelled speech”, evolved from (verbal) harassment of individuals, who for religious reasons take different views, to include legal threats and loss of job opportunities. Individuals who, because of their faith, failed to articulate positions specifically endorsing views in line with prevailing ideological demands (“cancel culture”) were threatened with legal sanctions. Social media was an important factor driving this trend.
13 Derogatory content about minority faiths was inserted into school textbooks (India, Pakistan) with potentially significant consequences for the future of inter-faith relations.
14 Proliferation of anti-conversion legislation, as well as reconversion initiatives offering economic benefits to those who join the majority religion or return to it (Asia, North Africa). Evidence revealed new legislation and harsher implementation of existing anti-conversion laws where the religious majority sought to entrench political power. Renewed reconversion efforts offered economic privileges to members who revert. Conversely, these benefits were withdrawn from converts compromising the welfare of the entire family in poverty-stricken areas.
15 Increased attacks on religious leaders and other Church personnel by organised criminal groups (Latin America). Religious representatives, champions of migrants and other disadvantaged communities, were targeted – abducted and even murdered – for speaking out against criminal gangs and taking action to stop them.
16 Record participation in popular religious celebrations after Covid-19 lockdowns. After three years of suspension and restrictions in most regions of the world, the return of major religious feasts – public expressions of popular religiosity – attracted millions of faithful. (cfr Case Study on religious celebrations).
17 Interreligious dialogue initiatives have increased. Pope Francis and other Church leaders across the world expanded their outreach to other religious communities. Indonesia’s religious leaders, Nahdlatul Ulama, increased dialogue with their Hindu counterparts, and at the G20 set up a permanent group on religion, involving other major faith communities.