Government restrictions on religious practice remained high during the year before the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center.
Pew released findings from its 12th annual study on global religious persecution Thursday, analyzing 198 countries during 2019, the most recent year with data available.
When it came to public policy and laws that infringed on religious practices, 2019 had a similar rate of intolerance to 2018, which was noted as a year with a high rate of government-imposed restrictions.
Pew found that 57 countries had “high” or “very high” restrictions on religious practice, which was slightly higher than 2018’s 56 countries that reported the same and the highest rate since 2012, which also reported 57 countries.
It was also a considerable increase from 2014, when 47 countries were listed as having “high” or “very high” government restrictions on religious belief and practice.
“The analysis shows that government restrictions involving religion, which in 2018 had reached the highest point since the start of the study, remained at a similar level in 2019,” explained Pew.
“The global median score on the Government Restrictions Index (GRI), a 10-point index based on 20 indicators, held steady at 2.9. This score has risen markedly since 2007, the first year of the study, when it was 1.8.”
While government restrictions across the world remained high in 2019, the level of social hostilities toward religion and religious terrorism both saw a decline compared to earlier years.
Pew found that 43 countries were found to have “high” or “very high” social hostilities regarding religion, which was lower than the 53 countries reporting the same in 2018 and well below the 65 countries reporting the same in 2012.
Additionally, there was a decline reported in the number of countries experiencing “religion-related terrorism,” defined as including “deaths, physical abuse, displacement, detentions, destruction of property, and fundraising and recruitment by terrorist groups.”
“In 2019, 49 countries experienced at least one of these types of religion-related terrorism, a record low for the study. That was down from 64 countries in 2018, and from a record high of 82 countries in 2014,” continued Pew.
"Among the reasons for the decline in the study’s terrorism measures is that ISIS subsequently lost control of a large swath of territory in Iraq and Syria," The report added.
In 2017, the Trump administration declared that the U.S.-led coalition had defeated the Islamic State terror group in Iraq and seized the de facto capital of its self-declared caliphate in Raqqa, Syria. On Dec. 9 of that same year, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared that the country is now "fully liberated" from ISIS.
Since 2014, it's believed that over 40,000 people from more than 110 countries had traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS' caliphate. In the U.K., it was estimated that more British Muslims were fighting for IS than served in its armed forces.
Although U.S.-led troops killed tens of thousands of jihadis, insurgents still remain in parts of the country and ISIS terror cells are operating worldwide.
The Pew report added that "the number of violent attacks perpetrated by the group declined in Iraq in 2019, according to the Global Terrorism Database.
"Still, ISIS’ multinational network of organizations remained active. Groups pledging allegiance to ISIS carried out bombings in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, 2019, killing more than 250 people and injuring approximately 500 others at churches and hotels," Pew added.
Pew noted that the numbers reported in this study came before the 2020 government lockdowns that took place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which often involved controversial measures believed by many to be in violation of civil liberties, including freedom of religion.
There has been extensive litigation in the United States aimed at state-level measures that critics claimed unlawfully treated houses of worship worse than comparable non-religious businesses.
In the decision Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that pandemic restrictions could not treat churches worse than secular entities.
“Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area. But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” read the majority opinion.
“The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”