Religious Hostility Is Rising. Where, Why, And Who Is Being Persecuted?

Image courtesy of ssoosay via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic. 

Religion has long been a source of conflict, having been either the motivation or excuse for centuries of war, oppression, and violence. Why is hostility at a six year high?

Though the world may be moving toward tolerance on some levels, new research from Pew suggests that this sympathy does not necessarily extend to religion – in fact, religious hostilities and violence are at a six year high, both on social and government levels.

Hostility (which takes the form of physical and verbal abuse, discrimination, desecration, detainment, arrests, and terrorist acts) was found highest in the Middle East and North African regions, according to Pew, likely as a result of the Arab Spring.

The Americas are the only region without a notable increase.

Religion-related terrorism

Pew’s research found that religion-related terrorist violence doubled since the beginning of their study in 2007. The study found that in 2012 religious terrorism occurred in one in five countries worldwide, up from 9% six years prior.


Even so, a University of Maryland study dating further back to 1971 showed that with the exception of 9/11, terrorist attacks and attempts have become less frequent in the United States. Other studies by the FBI show that, contrary to popular belief, 90% of attacks in the U.S. (since 1980) were carried out by non-Muslims.

The U.S. is also drastically less the subject of attacks than other nations. Despite being the target of only 7.8% of attacks, however, there were more injuries and fatalities per attack between ‘69 and ‘09 in the U.S. than any other nation, according to the Heritage Foundation.

It should also be noted, as Robert Pape, Michael Sheehan, Mark Juergensmeyer and others have, that religious terrorism is often an excuse to justify or veil political agendas.

Other social hostilities

Zooming out, globally there has been a sizable increase in the last six years in countries’ levels of religious social hostility. Overall, Pew found that 74% of the global population lived in an area with high or very high social hostility (up from 45% in 2007). This includes:

  • Abuse of religious minorities: up from 18% to 47% of countries (over double)
  • Violence and threat of violence to enforce norms: up from 18% to 39% (nearly double)
  • Harassment of women over religious dress: up from 7% to 32% (over triple)
  • Mob-related violence: up from 12% to 25% (double)
  • Sectarian violence: up from 8% to 18% (over double)

Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Somalia had the highest scores on Pew’s Social Hostility Index.

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Government restrictions

Pew research found that there was minimal change in government restrictions on religion as a whole in their six year study. But countries with some government interference did increase from 57% to 74%, and governments using force against religions from 31% to 48% – nearly half of all nations.

Overall, 14 countries had a substantial increase in government restrictions, with only five substantially declining. Population-wise, 64% of global population lived in nations with high government restrictions on religion in 2012.

Topping the Government Restriction Index was Egypt, followed by China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

Which religions face most harassment?

In terms of religion, Christians remain the most harassed, with Pew identifying harassment (behavior such as physical and verbal abuse, discrimination, desecration, detainment and arrests) in 110 countries, up from 107 in 2007.

The World Watch List identifies the 50 worst Christian persecutors in an interactive map, with North Korea topping the list.

Muslims remain close behind Christians, facing an even larger increase from 96 nations in 2007 to 109 in 2012. Jews followed Muslims, with religions labelled “other” behind them, and Buddhists at the tail end.


What are your thoughts on the increase of religious hatred, violence, and hostility in the past 6 years? Tweet us @curiousmatic.

Jennifer Markert