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One in three countries suffer grave violations of religious freedom


Alessandra Siragusa | Shutterstock

Maria Lozano - ACN - published on 04/20/21

In its 15th 'Report on Religious Freedom in the World,' Aid to the Church in Need warns of severe threats to this fundamental right worldwide.

The Religious Freedom in the World Report (RFR) 2021, produced by international Catholic charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), notes that religious freedom is violated severely in one out of every three countries. According to this report — officially presented in Rome and in other major cities around the world today (April 20) — this fundamental right was not respected in 62 (31.6%) of the world’s 196 countries between 2018 and 2020.

As stated in the report, in 26 of these countries people suffer persecution, and in 95% of them the situation has become even worse during the period under review. Nine countries appear in this category for the first time: seven in Africa (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, and Mozambique) and two in Asia (Malaysia and Sri Lanka). 

Radicalization affects not just the African continent: the RFR reveals a rise of transnational Islamist networks stretching from Mali to Mozambique in Sub-Saharan Africa, to the Comoros in the Indian Ocean, and to the Philippines in the South China Sea, with the aim of creating a so-called “transcontinental caliphate.” 

The report highlights another new trend: the abuse of digital technology, cyber networks, and mass surveillance based on artificial intelligence (AI) and facial recognition technology to increase control and discrimination in some of the nations with the worst track record of religious freedom. This is most evident in China, where the Chinese Communist Party has been oppressing religious groups with the help of 626 million AI-enhanced surveillance cameras and smartphone scanners. Jihadist groups are also using digital technology for the radicalization and recruiting of followers. 

In other findings, the research showed that in 42 countries (21%), renouncing or changing one’s religion can lead to severe legal and/or social consequences, ranging from ostracism within the family to even the death penalty. 

The RFR highlights and denounces the increase of sexual violence used as a weapon against religious minorities – crimes against women and girls who are abducted, raped and forced to convert.   

Today some 67% of the world’s population, or around 5.2 billion people, live in countries where there are grave violations of religious freedom, including the most populous nations – China, India and Pakistan. In many of them religious minorities are the most targeted. According to the report, religious persecution by authoritarian governments has also intensified. The promotion of ethnic and religious supremacy in some Hindu and Buddhist majority countries in Asia has led to further oppression of minorities, often reducing their members to de facto second-class citizens. India is the most extreme example, but similar policies apply in Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, among others.

In the West, the report concludes, there has been a rise in “polite persecution,” a term coined by Pope Francis to describe how new cultural norms and values come into profound conflict with the individual’s rights to freedom of conscience, and consign religion “to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques.”

The research also addresses the profound impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the right to religious freedom. Faced with the magnitude of the emergency, governments have deemed it necessary to impose extraordinary measures, in some cases applying disproportionate limitations on religious worship, as compared to other, secular activities. In some countries, such as Pakistan or India, humanitarian aid has been withheld from religious minorities. Especially in social media, the pandemic was also used as a pretext to stigmatize certain religious groups for allegedly spreading/causing the pandemic.

Reflecting on the gravity of the RFR’s findings, ACN International Executive President Dr Thomas Heine-Geldern stated: “Regrettably, despite the – albeit important – UN initiatives and the staffing of religious freedom ambassadorships, to date the international community’s response to violence based on religion, and religious persecution in general, can be categorized as too little, too late.” 

First published in 1999, the biennial report analyzes the extent to which the fundamental human right to religious freedom, protected under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is respected for all religions in the 196 countries of the world. 



This article was first published by Aid to the Church in Need and is republished here with kind permission. To learn more about ACN’s mission to help the suffering Church, visit the U.S.) and (outside of the U.S.).

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