Religious freedom is in global crisis. More people are persecuted for their faith now than at any other time in history. In 2013, according to the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of the world’s population lived in nations where religion was severely restricted. The worst restrictions occur in regions outside the West, particularly in the Middle East, Africa, Russia, and South and East Asia.

Violent religious persecution is not the norm in Western nations. But restrictions on religion—through government action and social hostility toward people because of their religious beliefs and practices—are becoming more intense and widespread in the West, including in the United States.

These trends help explain why the West is increasingly ineffective in countering violent persecution elsewhere. Once committed to religious freedom as the “first freedom” and the cornerstone of any just and prosperous society, Western governments and societies are no longer convinced of its indispensable social value.

The global decline in religious freedom represents a grave threat to international justice and peace. Both history and contemporary research have demonstrated close connections between restrictions on religious freedom and cycles of violence, poverty, instability, extremism, other human rights violations, and full-scale civil war.

Yet despite mounting evidence demonstrating both the social benefits of religious freedom and the disastrous consequences of religious persecution, opinion leaders in the academy, the media, and the corporate and policy worlds pay scant attention.


In 2002 in Gujarat, India, in response to an incident in which Muslim extremists apparently acted deliberately to burn a trainload of 59 Hindu pilgrims to death, groups of Hindu extremists attacked Muslims, torturing, raping, and killing at will. Pregnant Muslim women had their babies ripped from their wombs and slaughtered before their eyes. Terrified women called the local police and begged for help. They were told, “We have no orders to save you,” a response suggesting the complicity of government officials. In three days of carnage, an estimated 800 Muslims and more than 200 Hindus were killed.

On Holy Thursday of 2015 at Kenya’s Garrisa College, four al-Shabaab terrorists systematically identified and murdered non-Muslim students. When they came upon a Christian prayer group, they threw grenades into the chapel. Then they moved to a women’s dormitory. Muslims were freed, but Christians were either shot or their throats were slit. By nightfall, 148 students and staff had been slaughtered.

In the summer of 2014, ISIS terrorists took Christina, a three-month-old baby, from the arms of her mother, Aida. An Iraqi Christian, the distraught mother of three has not seen her baby since.

Barronelle Stutzman, mother of eight, grandmother of 23, and owner of a florist shop in Washington state, is being driven out of business by the state government and political activists because her Christian conscience will not permit her to provide arrangements for same-sex marriage ceremonies. Hers is a small business. But its coerced elimination will cost America more than the loss of jobs.

A sixth-grade Muslim girl was attacked in December 2015 by three boys in a New York public school. The boys ripped off her hijab and taunted her as “ISIS.” Religious intolerance in America, even by children, is un-American.

The Little Sisters of the Poor, who provide care for the elderly and dying poor, are being forced by the U.S. government to provide coverage for contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilizations in their healthcare plans, thereby violating their religious consciences and their oath to God. Should the government prevail, something important will be lost—to the Sisters and the poor, to American civil society, and to American democracy.