Equal Opportunity Oppression

Religious Persecution Is a Global Problem

A pigeon flies past a metal cross at a Catholic church in Beijing April 7, 2005. Jason Lee / Reuters

In some corners of the world, Christian persecution is apparently on the rise, fueled, as The Guardian recently put it, “by Islamic extremism and repressive governments.” The report (and others like it) notes that extremists persecute Christians and non-Christians alike, but it leaves the impression that this trend is recent and primarily concerns Christians living in the Muslim world. That is incorrect: religious discrimination is an equal opportunity endeavor.

There is little doubt that religious freedom is under serious threat in many Muslim-majority countries. Some of the world’s most repressed religious minorities include Egypt’s Christian Coptic minority; the Baha’i in Iran; the Ahmadis in Pakistan; and Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Shiite Muslims in Saudi Arabia. In these places, religious repression has been a ubiquitous fact of life for years, irrespective of a person’s creed. Yet religious repression is not limited to the autocratic Muslim-majority governments.

The Religion and State Project (which I head) tracks religious freedom across the globe and has established a number of clear patterns of pan-religious persecution dating as far back as 1990­—the year when the project began tracking religious freedom. Of the 30 specific types of limitations tracked by the Religion and State Project, 28 are now more common than in 1990. Proselytizing, for example, is now restricted by 99 countries around the world, compared with 79 in 1990.  Meanwhile, 82 countries, including Austria, Belarus, China, and Russia, require people from minority religions to register with the state, compared with 60 in 1990. Further, 73 countries limit places of worship from being erected, and 65 restrict public observance of religion. In 1990, those numbers were 53 and 36, respectively.

Western democracies, despite professing freedom, are not immune to religious persecution, either. Denmark’s 2004 “Imam Law,” for example, limits the number of religious residence visas—the kind of visa that clergy and religious workers need—that it issues based on the size of the community that person will serve. It also requires the visa applicant to be associated with a recognized religion, to demonstrate a proven relevant background

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