Pakistani Christian asylum seekers are taken away in police vans in Thai capital Bangkok on July 8, 2019. (Photo supplied)
Government restrictions on religion have reached an all-time high across the globe with the Asia-Pacific region as the worst offender, according to the latest study by Pew Research Center.
The Washington-based think tank found that the levels of restrictions — laws, policies and actions that invade religious beliefs and practices — increased significantly in 2018.
In 2007, the first year of the study, the global median score on the Government Restrictions Index (a 10-point scale based on 20 indicators) was 1.8. It now stands at 2.9 for 2018, the most recent full year for which data is available, says the study published on Nov. 10.
The study reports a rise from 2017 in the number of governments using force, such as detentions and physical abuse, to intimidate religious groups.
The number of countries with “high” and “very high” levels of government restrictions rose from 52 countries (26 percent of the 198 countries and territories included in the study) in 2017 to 56 countries (28 percent) in 2018.
Some 25 of the 56 countries with high or very high levels of government restrictions on religion are in the Asia-Pacific region, while 18 are from the Middle East-North Africa region.
Asia-Pacific had the largest increase in its government restrictions, with its score rising from 3.8 in 2017 to 4.4 in 2018, partly because more governments used force against religious groups, including property damage, detention, displacement, abuse and killings.
In total, 31 out of 50 countries (62 percent) in Asia-Pacific experienced government use of force related to religion, up from 26 countries (52 percent) in 2017.
In the Philippines, three United Methodist Church missionaries were forced to leave the country or faced issues with visa renewals due to their involvement in investigating human rights violations.
In Myanmar, large-scale displacement of religious minorities continued, including the mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims to neighboring Bangladesh to escape abuses. In Kachin and Shan states, fighting between the military and armed ethnic rebels led to the displacement of religious minorities, mostly Christians.
In Uzbekistan, an estimated 1,500 Muslims languish in jail on charges of religious extremism or membership of banned groups.
China continued to have the highest score on the Government Restrictions Index (GRI) out of all 198 countries and territories. It had been near the top of the list in each year since 2007 and reached a new peak in 2018 with its score of 9.3 out of 10.
The Chinese government has banned entire religious groups such as the Falun Gong movement and several Christian groups, prohibits certain religious practices, raids places of worship and detains and tortures individuals.
In 2018, the government continued a detention campaign against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and other Muslims in Xinjiang province, holding at least 800,000 (and possibly up to 2 million) in detention facilities “designed to erase religious and ethnic identities.”
In 2018, the Tajikistan government amended its religion law, increasing control over religious education domestically and over those who travel abroad for religious education. The Tajik government continued to deny official recognition of minority religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
India reached a new peak in its GRI score in 2018, scoring 5.9 out of 10 on the index, while Thailand also experienced an all-time high of 5.4.
In India, anti-conversion laws affected minority religious groups. In Uttar Pradesh state in September, police charged 271 Christians with attempted conversion of people by drugging and “spreading lies about Hinduism.” Politicians made comments targeting religious minorities.
In December, the Shiv Sena Party, which holds seats in parliament, published an editorial calling for measures such as mandatory family planning for Muslims to limit their population growth.
In Jammu and Kashmir, four police personnel, among others, were arrested in connection with the kidnapping, rape and killing of an 8-year-old girl from a nomadic Muslim family, reportedly to push her community out of the area.
In Thailand, the government arrested hundreds of immigrants who did not have legal status, including religious minorities from other countries who were seeking asylum or refugee status in 2018. Christians and Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan as well as Christian Montagnards from Vietnam were included on the list.