Nationalistic tendencies contributed to a noticeable increase in government restriction on religious freedom in 2016, according to a Pew Research Center report released on June 21.

Of the 198 nations assessed, 28 percent (55 nations) were deemed to have “high” or “very high” government restrictions on religious faith and practice – a 3 percent increase from 2015 and nearly matching the highest total during the past decade of 29 percent in 2012.

From 2008 to 2012, government restrictions of religion had increased yearly before declining from 2012 to 2014. From 2014 to 2016, restrictions have increased again each year.

“Government actors – whether political parties or individual public officials – at times used nationalist, and often anti-immigrant or anti-minority, rhetoric to target religious groups in their countries in 2016,” the report said. “About one in ten (11 percent) countries had government actors that used this type of rhetoric. This marks an uptick from 2015, when 6 percent of cases involved political parties or officials that espoused nationalist views.”

Muslims were most often the target of nationalist-inspired negative rhetoric or policies restricting their religious practice.

Of 22 nations in which a nationalist party or politician specifically targeted a religious group in word or policy, Muslims were targeted in 18.

“Typically, these nationalist groups or individuals were seeking to curtail immigration of religious and ethnic minorities, or were calling for efforts to suppress or even eliminate a particular religious group, in the name of defending a dominant ethnic or religious group they described as threatened or under attack,” Pew explained

The U.S. was one of the nations cited in the Pew report in which Muslims were the target of nationalist groups or leaders.

A U.S. travel ban on several Muslim-majority nations proposed by Donald Trump during his presidential campaign was specifically referenced.

Following his election, Trump implemented the ban via executive order in January 2017 with modified versions issued in March and September.

Both executive orders were challenged in U.S. courts on the basis that their intent was not to protect national security but to discriminate against Muslims, citing Trump’s history of making negative statements about Islam and its adherents.

A friend-of-the-court brief included a list of negative statements made by the president about Muslims in support of its assertion that the ban should be deemed unconstitutional based on “the long-settled prohibition on governmental acts based on animus toward a particular religious group.”

In a 5-4 decision on June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the ban was constitutional.

The majority ruled that the president has “broad discretion” in these matters and that “The Proclamation [travel ban] falls well within this comprehensive delegation.”

Some Baptist leaders disagreed.

“We are deeply disappointed by the Supreme Court’s refusal to repudiate policy rooted in animus against Muslims. In giving such broad deference to President Trump, the Court neglects its duty to uphold our First Amendment principles of religious liberty,” Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said in a June 26 statement.

Mitch Randall, executive director of, echoed Tyler’s assessment in his June 26 statement.

“When this type of religious language is used to characterize a policy, then religious discrimination has been established as a basis for that policy,” he said. “With this precedent now established, the question looms: Will future presidents be able to consider Jewish or Christian bans?”

Randall added, “To the millions of faithful and peace-loving Muslims around the world, I apologize that my country has singled out and discriminated against your faith. Today’s decision does not represent the core and principles of this great Union or her people.”

“While the president has a duty to keep us safe, by discounting the broader political context which produced the travel ban, the Supreme Court has done damage to our First Freedom,” said Stephen K. Reeves, associate coordinator of partnerships and advocacy for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and an / Baptist Center for Ethics board member, in a June 26 statement. “Government must not treat people differently because of their faith. We need not trade liberty for security.”

The full Pew report is available here. An interactive chart of changes from 2007 to 2016 is available here.

Editor’s note: An news brief on Pew’s 2015 report, released in April 2017, is available here.

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