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The current state of religious freedom

Source: International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Publication date: 2001-04-01
Arrival time: 2001-05-10

During the late 1990s and into the new millennium, the overall situation of religious freedom in the world has deteriorated. It is particularly bad in the larger Asian countries such as China, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia and in other largepopulation countries such as Nigeria. Western Europe has also become less religiously free because of widespread concern over "cults." Some areas, such as Latin America, have improved. Others such as Africa, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East have remained fairly stable, the latter two at a low level of religious freedom, and the last having one of the poorest records of the world.

Another important feature is the increasing religious element in conflict. The fighting between Israel and the Palestinians reflects much more religious rhetoric, identification, and claims than did the intifada of the late 1980s, and more than the overtly secular/ nationalist struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. Similar tendencies have been manifest in Kashmir, Nigeria, and Indonesia.

The Spread of Religious Freedom

Religious freedom and religious persecution affect all religious groups. A variety of groups-Christians and animists in Sudan, Baha'is in Iran, Ahmadiyas in Pakistan, Buddhists in Tibet, and Fahm Gong in China-are now perhaps the most intensely persecuted, while Christians as a group are the most widely persecuted. But there is no religious group in the world that does not suffer to some degree because of its beliefs. Religions, whether large, such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism, or small, such as Baha'i, Jehovah's Witness, or Judaism, all experience some degree of repression. In many cases restrictions come from people who are members of the same general religious group but who are part of a different subgroup. Thus nonOrthodox Christians in Russia, Greece, and Armenia suffer discrimination from the Orthodox, while Shiite Muslims in Pakistan and Afghanistan suffer persecution and even death from some of the dominant Sunni groups.

Religious freedom is also not confined to any one area or continent. There are relatively free countries in every continent (see figure 1). South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia are freer than France and Belgium. Latin America also has relatively high scores. There are absolutely no grounds for thinking that religious freedom is an exclusively Western concern or achievement.

Some Westerners and Third World leaders in China and Vietnam emphasize "economic rights," "Asian values," and "cultural relativism" and denigrate civil rights, such as religious freedom, as quasiluxuries that need be advanced, if at all, only when more basic needs such as food and shelter have been achieved. Proponents of these views should be challenged with the fact that several Asian countries, such as South Korea and Taiwan, which have a background of poverty and exploitation, and with Confucian traditions as strong as China and Vietnam, both value and successfully defend religious freedom, and that desperately poor African countries can do the same. Religious freedom is desired throughout the world and has been achieved throughout the world. It is a moral travesty of the highest order to pretend that because people are hungry and cold it is legitimate to repress and persecute them as well.

Regional Variations

While high levels of religious freedom occur in every area, there are still large regional variations. The Western European and North Atlantic area countries covered in this survey all score from 1 to 3 and thus show a high level of religious freedom. (This survey covers seventy-five countries, which contain approximately 90 percent of the world's population. Following Freedom House practice, I will call countries with a score of 1-3 "free," 4-5 "partly free," and 6-7 "not free.") The countries of Latin America also score well; all those listed are "free," except Colombia, Mexico, and Cuba. A similar pattern occurs in sub-Saharan Africa, where several countries score "free"; Nigeria ("5") and Tanzania ("41 score "partly free." In the African case, however, we cover relatively few countries, and it is probable that other countries (such as war-torn Angola, Congo, Liberia, or Sierra Leone) would not rate well. Yet, given the fact that several African countries are "free," one must conclude that there is nothing endemic to the continent preventing other countries from doing as well.

Figure 1.

The countries of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union cover a very wide spread, from Estonia, rated a 1, to Turkmenistan, rated a 7. There are countries at each level, with those bordering the Baltic (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland), as well as Hungary, Romania, and Ukraine, rated "free." Most countries (ten out of nineteen) are at the intermediate levels of 4 and 5. Other Freedom House surveys indicate that these countries are in transition, cannot remain at an intermediate level, and are likely to move to higher or lower levels.

Asian countries also show a wide spread, though with more countries at the "partly free" and "not free" levels. East Asian countries (Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, as well as Mongolia) score best for religious freedom. The poorest scores are registered by Communist powers (China, Tibet, North Korea, and Vietnam) and East Timor, where chaos rules. The only other "not free" countries surveyed are Burma and Bhutan.

The area from northern Africa through the eastern Mediterranean to East Asia exhibits a nearly complete range of scores. Israel (excluding the occupied territories) scores a 3, Lebanon and Greece and Morocco a 4, and Egypt and Turkey a 5. The other countries score 6 (Mauritania, Pakistan) or 7 (Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran). These findings (as well as those for other areas) are consistent with the general area findings for all political rights and civil liberties contained in Freedom House's general survey "Freedom in the World 2000" (available at http//, which also explains the criteria for assigning the scores 1-7).

Religious Variations

There is similar variation in the religious background of religious freedom. This is obviously a complex matter, since current regimes may reflect comparatively little of a country's religious background. China, Tibet, and Vietnam all have a largely Buddhist background, but current religious repression comes at the hand of Communist regimes, which profess to be atheistic materialists. Turkey has an Islamic background, but the present government is an aggressively secular one that represses peaceful Muslim expression. Similarly, largely Catholic East Timor had, until the fall of 1999, been under Indonesian occupation, and the current lack of religious freedom reflects the damage and chaos left in the aftermath of Indonesian military withdrawal rather than explicit faults in the current administration. A survey taken thirty years ago would have found many traditionally Christian countries in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union "not free," since they were ruled by Communists. Nevertheless the overall patterns can be revealing (see figure 2).

Historically Christian countries tend to score well in religious freedom, with an average rating of 3. This result parallels other Freedom House findings, which indicate that traditionally Christian countries have tended to score well on political rights and civil liberties. Of the thirty-four countries covered in the survey that can be rated as religiously "free" (i.e., scoring 1-3), twenty-nine are traditionally Christian. Conversely only one of the forty-two traditionally Christian countries surveyed (Cuba) registers on the "not free" end of the scale. Within Christianity, Protestantism tends to score better than Catholicism, and both score better than Orthodoxy.

The other religiously "free" countries surveyed are Israel and four countries of largely Buddhist background-Japan, Mongolia, South Korea, and Taiwan. This finding suggests that a Buddhist tradition also has had a tendency to produce relatively high religious freedom. The Buddhist countries with markedly poor scores reflect the Communist regimes in China, Tibet, North Korea, and Vietnam. If these four are excluded, the remaining countries, except Bhutan and Burma, score relatively well. These patterns are also congruent with the findings of "Freedom in the World." There is, however, some difference with respect to Hindu countries. Whereas both India and Nepal have relatively free elections, they have tended to score lower on civil liberties generally and, in this survey, score even lower on religious freedom. In Nepal the difference is not great, but in India the difference reflects the upsurge in India within recent years of a militant and intolerant Hinduism, coupled with violent attacks on religious minorities, especially Christians.

The religious areas with the largest current restrictions on religious freedom are the Islamic countries. This finding parallels problems with democracy and civil liberties, but the negative trend with respect to religion is even stronger. No traditionally Islamic country surveyed is religiously "free," while half of those surveyed are "not free." Four countries (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Turkmenistan) score a 7, \the lowest category for religious freedom. This situation may ultimately show some improvement, since Indonesia, the country with by far the world's largest Muslim population, appeared to become freer following its 1999 election, and Nigeria, which is about half Muslim, may also be establishing itself as a democracy. In both these cases, however, the transition to democracy is coupled with large-scale regional religious violence (in northern Nigeria and in Ambon in Indonesia) that has been exacerbated by a minority of Islamic radicals.

Figure 2. 1

It is clear from this survey, as well as State Department reports and other surveys, that violations of religious freedom worldwide are massive, widespread, and, in the last five years, increasing. Moreover, with the collapse of Communism, any regime looking for an alternative to "Westernization," "globalization," or "capitalism" is now more likely to look to religious traditions as a source of legitimacy or national unity. Many of these regimes are now also governed by leaders who, unlike earlier elite generations under colonialism, have not been exposed to Western education.

These trends suggest four other conclusions. First, that religious repression in the world is likely to increase. Second, that attention to and action on religious freedom has been comparatively weak. Third, that the important role of religion in conflicts and in political orders has been comparatively neglected. Fourth, that both of these situations are now beginning to change, a change we hope this present survey will accelerate.

Paul Marshall is Senior Fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom, Freedom House, Washington, D.C. He is the General Editor of Religious Freedom in the World: A Global Report on Freedom and Persecution (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000), from which this article is adapted.

©Copyright 2001, Overseas Ministries Study Center

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