The killing of a guru in a Sikh temple in Vienna leads to riots across the Punjab region of northern India. An anti-Islamic video produced in California results in global protests. Immigrants from Muslim countries are attacked by vigilantes in Greece, where arsonists burn down a makeshift mosque in Athens.
When it comes to religious tensions, what happens in one part of the world does not necessarily stay in that part of the world.
Influences from abroad in recent years were reported to have contributed to religious hostilities or government restrictions in more than six in 10 countries across the globe, a Pew Research Center found in a new study.
No region of the world was exempt. Foreign influences contributed to hostilities or restrictions in all 20 countries studied in the Middle East and North Africa, and about three-quarters of the 95 nations studied in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe, the study found.
So what is the major influence related to religious tensions crossing borders?
Hint: It’s about much more than a small church in Florida burning a Quran or a Danish magazine publishing cartoons of a revered prophet.
Issues related to immigration, whether from individuals seeking economic opportunities in more affluent nations or those fleeing civil conflict, reportedly contributed to religious hostilities or restrictions in the largest number of countries, the study found. International immigrants, migrant workers and refugees either played a role in social hostilities involving religion or were targeted by government restrictions on religion in 63 countries, or 32 percent of the nations studied.
The next three most prevalent cross-border influences on increased social hostilities or reduced religious freedoms were related to the spread of religious extremism, actions or pressure from foreign governments and terrorism.
External events such as the publication of the Danish cartoons were tied to social hostilities or government restrictions in 40 nations, or 20 percent of the countries studied.
The study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life examined incidents between July 1, 2009 and the end of 2011 that were reported to have contributed to cross-border social hostilities and government restrictions on religion. The researchers used several sources, including the U.S. State Department, the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group.
The study has limitations such as not being able to demonstrate each incident in one country was a direct cause of hostilities in another nation. However, the research provides one measure to identify how religious tensions can cross borders in a world where ideas and people move around quite frequently, according to the study’s author, Pew senior researcher Brian Grim.
The public’s attention is often focused on incidents such as controversial cartoons or sensational public acts of burning holy books. “I think it will be surprising to many people that immigrants face problems related to religion in so many countries,” Grim said.
Yet a growing body of research reveals that these type of issues are at the heart of religious persecution and restrictions on religious freedom.
When faced with religious tensions, many nations, often influenced by strong cultural and religious pressures from majority groups, respond by imposing restrictions on minority religious groups, Pennsylvania State University sociologist Roger Finke said in his presidential address at the recent meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in Denver.
“Religious restrictions are justified as a necessity for curbing violence and maintaining public order, but research finds just the opposite: Social conflict is often a consequence of increased religious restrictions,” said Finke, who is also director of the Association of Religion Data Archives.
In the case of the Pew findings on immigration, Grim noted, “This study is not trying to blame the victim. … It’s more the reaction to the immigrants that is the issue.”
Welcoming the stranger
Far from making nations safer, research shows religious persecution and conflict is likely to increase as religious freedoms are taken away and social hostilities push religious minorities outside the mainstream of society.
In their book, “The Price of Freedom Denied,” Grim and Finke found some six in seven nations with populations of at least 2 million had documented cases of people being physically abused or displaced from their homes because of religious persecution.
The more severe the levels of religious restriction, the greater the risk of violent persecution, the authors found. For example, 44 percent of governments interfering with the right to worship had more than 200 cases of violent religious persecution; only 9 percent of countries with freedom of worship had similar rates of abuse.
What does contribute to a civil society, research indicates, are legal protections for religious freedoms that are backed up by independent judiciaries and state governments committed to upholding the laws.
But public attitudes and related cultural and social factors also are critical to reducing hostilities and protecting religious freedom.
In a study of religiously motivated violence, Finke and Penn State researcher Jaime Harris found that social restrictions on religion, even more than government restrictions, held the most direct and powerful relationship with conflict and violence.
In practical terms, while individuals may have the right to make an anti-Islamic video or demonize immigrants from a minority religion at a public rally, one effective response is for people in that nation to raise their voices in response, combating prejudice and defending the rights of religious freedom shared by all groups, Finke noted in an interview.
These profiles in courage include those in the U.S. civil rights movement who put themselves at risk in the face of immense public hostility and, more recently, the witness of some Egyptian Muslims protecting Coptic Orthodox churches amid post-revolutionary violence directed at the religious minority.
In a world where religious tensions in one country can so quickly assume global significance, each person in each nation still has the ability to make a difference.
ln his presidential address giving an overview of decades of research on religious restrictions, Finke concluded that “when freedoms are uniformly secured, the freedoms for even the smallest minority become the freedoms for all.
“Simply put, I have more motivation to support your religious freedoms when your freedoms are my freedoms.”
Cast in more theological terms, the key to a more just and peaceful society where the newest members are treated with equal respect and dignity may come down to this one principle:
How we are able to love our neighbor as ourselves.
David Briggs, who lives in Connecticut, is a veteran religion writer and executive director of the International Association of Religion Journalists. He wrote this column for the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA), a resource for religion scholars.