Government restrictions on religion and social hostilities towards believers are both on the rise in Europe, according to a a major new study.

Driving the news

Pew Research Center said government limits on religious activities have doubled since 2007.

  • A growing number of governments are placing limits on Muslim women’s dress
  • More than half of all European countries have an official registration process for religions that adversely affects the ability of certain groups to carry out their activities
  • The number of governments banning worship or other religious practices is on the rise

Pew said both government and social harassment of believers is also increasing on the continent.

  • In 2015, religious groups in 38 out of 45 countries in Europe experienced at least some government or social hostility
  • In 2017, 15 countries reported incidents of individuals or groups using violence or the threat of violence to try and convince others of their beliefs
  • In that same year, 25 countries reported attacks on individuals for religious expressions considered offensive or threatening

The Pew study also reported that in 2017 organized groups in 33 European nations were attempting to use force or coercion to impose their religious views on public life.

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One level deeper

Explaining the Pew findings to Euronews, French sociologist Jean-Paul Willaime said the rising government restrictions are not evidence of rising intolerance.

“There is a paradox: while European societies are very secular and have a growing number of people declaring themselves to be without religion, more and more legislation is being passed to regulate religious practices”, said Willaime.

“We have gone from religion by inheritance to religion by choice, with religious people now forming more practising and engaged minorities”.

The more religious minorities double down on their norms and practices, continued the sociologist, the more governments double down on the neutrality of the State.

“Hence the renewed search for a balance between religious freedom and other freedoms”, explained Willaime.

Why it matters

Francois Foret, professor of political science at Cevipol, told Euronews that rising government restrictions are designed to “deal with religion as a risk, with the double purpose to monitor and repress ‘bad religion’ — counter-radicalization, de-radicalization — and to encourage ‘good religion’ — to produce counter-narratives, to mobilize religious civil society”.

Foret explained the rise in religion-related violence in Europe in terms of religion’s new role as an expression of “identity and memory”.

As a symbol, religion draws boundaries “between ‘Us’ (the Christians, the seculars, those who respect human rights, etc) and ‘Them’ (the Muslims, Jews, Atheists, the fundamentalists, etc)”, said Foret.

As globalisation and increasing religious pluralism mean Europe and Europeans continue to search for and assert their identity, more government restrictions “may not be the best answer to cope”, warned Foret.

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