According to findings of the Pew’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, Malaysia shares this dubious distinction with Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, China, Maldives, Burma, Eritrea and Indonesia.
Based on a three-year study of 198 countries from 2006, the Pew Research Centre also determined that Malaysia is fifth in recording substantial increases in such restrictions.
The centre, based in Washington DC, noted that worldwide restrictions on religious beliefs and practices had risen between mid-2006 and mid-2009 in 23 countries, including Malaysia and Egypt.
Researchers, led by senior fellow Brian Grim, combed over 18 publicly available sources of information including reports by the US State Department, the UN, the Council of the European Union, and several rights groups to score each country on how tolerant it is of different religions.
In Malaysia, several incidents could have contributed to its unwanted ranking.
These include theseizure of Christian-related books and CDs as represented by the Jill Ireland court case; and the banon the use of ‘Allah’ in Christian publications including Herald.
Action by the Islamic authorities on the Wahabbi and Shia sects and, to some extent, the arrest of former Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin may also have been factors.
There have also been several complaints about the demolition of Hindu temples, leading to the formation of Hindu Rights Action Force and its unprecedented demonstration in 2007.
AFP, quoting the same study, reported that religion-linked violence and abuse rose around the world between 2006 and 2009, with Christians and Muslims the most common targets.
“Incidents of either government or social harassment were reported against Christians in 130 countries (66 percent) and against Muslims in 117 countries (59 percent),” said the study.
In 2009, governments in 101 nations, more than half the globe, used at least some measure of force against religious groups. A year earlier only 91 nations had done so, the report said.
As at 2009, more than 2.2 billion people, or nearly a third of the world’s population of 6.9 billion, lived in countries where religious restrictions had risen substantially since 2006, the study said.
In regional terms, the Middle East and North Africa had the highest proportion of countries in which government-imposed restrictions hampered people’s freedom to practice their faith.
Egypt, under now-deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, stood out, earning itself a ranking in the top five percent of all countries in 2009 for government-imposed restrictions such as a long-standing ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, and for social hostilities based on religion, including attacks against Christians.
The country with the highest rate of religion-linked social hostilities was Iraq, followed by India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Israel and Egypt.
Although no European countries made it into the top 10 of either list, five of the 10 countries in the world that saw a substantial increase in religion-related social hostilities were in Europe – Britain, Bulgaria, Denmark, Russia and Sweden.
And government restrictions on religion increased substantially in two European countries, France and Serbia.
In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy(right) said in a major speech on national identity in 2009 that the Muslim head-to-toe covering, the burka, had no place in French society, and lawmakers began discussing whether women should be allowed to wear it.
The Serbian government, meanwhile, refused to legally register evangelical Protestant groups and other minority religions, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which deprived them of the right to air programmes on public media.
Religion-related terrorist violence was included under social hostilities, and terrorist groups with ties to religion were found to be active in more than a third of the 198 countries.
In Russia, the number of casualties – people who were either killed, wounded, kidnapped, displaced or had their property destroyed – from religion-linked terror attacks more than doubled in the two years ending in 2009, compared to the two-year period ending in 2008.
Other examples of social hostilities given in the report were the August 2008 terrorist attack in Xinjiang province, attributed by the authorities in Beijing to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement; and riots in overwhelmingly Buddhist Tibet in 2008, which pitted ethnic Tibetans against Han Chinese.