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Survey to show 'increase in direct attacks' on religious freedom worldwide amid COVID-19 pandemic

india church, delhi
An Indian man walks outside a deserted church, as India remains under an unprecedented extended lockdown due to COVID-19 on May 5, 2020, in Delhi, India. |

A forthcoming survey is slated to reveal how adverse treatment of certain religious groups in several countries significantly worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.

The SMART survey, conducted as part of the Religious Freedom Institute’s Freedom of Religious Institutions in Society (FORIS) Project, was designed to fulfill an “unmet need for policy-relevant data to identify, understand and address religious freedom restrictions on religious communities across the globe.” A detailed report analyzing the survey's results will be published soon. 

Rebecca Shah, a senior fellow at the Archbridge Institute and principal investigator for the Religion and Economic Empowerment Project (REEP), elaborated on the results of the SMART survey during an RFI panel discussion on Wednesday.

“The SMART survey stands for Simple, Meaningful, Accessible, Relevant and Timely,” she said. While the survey initially received funding to question experts on the ground about the state of religious freedom in Malaysia, Pakistan, Indonesia and Iraq, the survey was later expanded to other countries, about 10 countries, including India, Egypt, Mexico, Turkey and Greece.

According to Shah, “policymakers … needed reliable reports that drew on the deep expertise of individuals who could analyze religious freedom violations on the ground in key global locations and provide policymakers with real-time and reliable data on strategic countries.”

While “a lot of reports on religious freedom restrictions, both individuals and religious institutions,” existed prior to the SMART survey, Shah stressed the need for “information that comes from local experts on the ground in their own countries, rather than, say, somebody’s desk in Washington, D.C., or Geneva.”

She contended that the findings of such a survey were “more likely to be owned by actors in the country and in the region.” The “local experts in these different countries” who participated “were asked to fill out the survey from the perspective of a minority religious community or a majority religious community” based on expertise or membership in a particular religion.

“We started the survey before the pandemic, but as soon as the pandemic hit, we were able to retool the questionnaire to some extent, a great extent, and resubmit the questions to the experts and ask them to fill out COVID-related questions. And so, a lot of the data we got was over the COVID-19 period … at the height of the Delta variant and others, where we were able to examine and explore the impact of restrictions on religious communities as the pandemic was ongoing,” Shah said.

Shah reported that the survey found “an increase in deliberate and direct attacks on houses of worship … and religious and charitable and other religious institutions across the globe.” Specifically, “In Nigeria … 85.7% of respondents writing about minority Christian communities in northern parts of Nigeria said they were aware of direct attacks of houses of worship in their country.”

“In Iraq, 30% of respondents reporting about minority communities, which included Yazidis and Christians, said they were aware of attacks on houses of worship in their countries.”

“Again, when asked who, in their view, were the perpetrators of these attacks, our data revealed that political actors, which might include local government officials, were responsible for 60% of high or very high levels of restrictions on religious institutions, which include houses of worship … religious and charitable institutions,” she added.

The survey also asked respondents if they knew of “any acts of discrimination perpetrated against individuals or communities on account of their religion or belief that may have been prompted by the current COVID-19 pandemic.” The results revealed that “one out of three respondents from India said they were aware of such types of religiously motivated discrimination during COVID.”

Additionally, “one out of five respondents in Indonesia said the same and 10% of Nigerian respondents also said they were aware of this type of … discrimination.”

Shah discussed “significant restrictions on both minority and majority institutions in India,” emphasizing that “the impact of these restrictions have come to the fore during this COVID-19 pandemic.”  She explained that “state-sanctioned restrictions on Hindu institutions” during the coronavirus pandemic severely “limited the ways in which they could actually provide services to their adherents.”

“The current pandemic enabled many governments to pass stringent regulations that severely restricted the freedom of individuals and institutions they deemed ‘a threat to national security,’” Shah lamented. “More than four out of every 10 respondents in our survey said they were aware of peaceful prisoners of conscience who were being held and not released due to concerns about COVID-19. This happened even as the deadly Delta variant raged across Asia.”

Shah cited Indonesia’s treatment of political prisoners as a cause for concern, sharing the finding that “more than 70% of respondents from Indonesia were concerned about the well-being of political prisoners during COVID-19 in their country.”  Respondents also reported “increasing levels of persecution against people who overly criticized the government and their handling of COVID-19.”

“The current COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented increase in hate speech stigma and discrimination,” Shah asserted. “Ninety-nine percent of respondents in Egypt, 78% of respondents in Pakistan, and 70% of respondents in Indonesia, 64% of respondents in Nepal said there were laws on blasphemy and apostasy that were open to abuse.”

Discrimination also ran rampant in India, with 68% of respondents from the country alleging that “the religious communities suffered because there was a failure to address acts of religious persecution or discrimination on the part of non-state actors, state actors or levels of government.” In Israel, Orthodox Jews faced “heavy levels of discrimination” because of their opposition to the coronavirus vaccine.

Shah concluded the discussion about the SMART survey by noting that Nigeria, Egypt, Indonesia and Iraq reported very high levels of communal beatings and lynchings on the basis of religion or belief. At the same time, very high levels of communal or group expulsions based on religion or belief were India, Nigeria, Egypt and Sri Lanka. India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Malaysia and Egypt reported very high levels of communal killings.

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: ryan.foley@christianpost.com

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