Russia’s military might — unleashed by Putin on Ukraine — is deplorable. Many factors contribute to this or any war: economic or territorial gain, nationalism, revenge, civil discord, religion, to name a few. One that is usually overlooked is the role of government restrictions on religious freedom, which I’ll come to in a moment.
Numerous writers have discussed the religious motivations Russia has had in supporting Bashir Assad’s forces in the Syrian war. One direct connection was that the Russian Orthodox Church, which has deep historical connections with the Orthodox Christian communities of the Middle East, lobbied Putin to take a strong stand in defense of Syrian Christians. The titles of a few of the articles tell the story:
- — Defender of the Faith? Russia’s ‘Holy War’ in Syria
- — The [Russian Orthodox] Christian zeal behind Russia’s war in Syria
- — Is Russia’s intervention in Syria a ‘holy war’? Russian Orthodox Church: ‘yes’
- — Russian church: The fight in Syria is a ‘holy war’.
Religion is also a motivation in Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine. This time, it’s pitting Russia’s brand of Orthodox Christianity against Ukraine’s, which has separated from the Russian hierarchy. Again, a few recent articles tell the story:
- — EXPLAINER: How is Russia-Ukraine war linked to religion?
- — Religious nationalism and the invasion of Ukraine: Under Putin, the Russian Orthodox Church has resumed its czarist role as an arm of state policy.
- — How Is Russia-Ukraine War Linked to Religion?
- — Russia Attacks Ukraine: Why Some Experts Insist Putin Is Motivated By Religion
What I would point out is that it is not religion in general, but the government restrictions on religion that are the predictor of whether a state will be predisposed to starting a war.
In an award-winning 2007 research article (which I co-authored and which we fleshed out in a 2011 Cambridge University book), we empirically showed that it was not “religion” in general that led to violent religious persecution and conflict, but it was the level of social regulation of religion (SRI) the level of government restrictions on religion (GRI) that led to violent persecution and/or religion-related conflict.
That article and book were part of the background I brought with me to the Pew Research Center to establish their annual global studies on the levels of government restrictions on religion (GRI) and social hostilities involving religion (SHI) – not quite the same as our SRI.
The chart below shows that Russia is in a league of its own among countries in Europe when it comes to government restrictions on religion – it is the only country in the region to score very high. But what does that high score on the chart represent?
Explaining the Pew Research Center Russia Score
The government restrictions index is a score that takes into account 20 different measures. Russia scores poorly on the vast majority of the indicators, as summarized below:
- — There are limited national legal protections for religious freedom and the national government does not generally respect religious freedom in practice
- — The government prohibits worship or religious practices of one or more religious groups as a general policy; Public preaching by religious groups is limited by the government
- — Proselytizing limited by the government; Religious literature or broadcasting limited by the government
- — Foreign missionaries face restrictions
- — The wearing of religious symbols, such as head coverings for women and facial hair for men, is limited by the government
- — There was widespread harassment or intimidation of religious groups by the government
- — The national government displayed hostility involving physical violence toward minority or nonapproved religious groups
- — There were instances when the national government did not intervene in cases of discrimination or abuses against religious groups
- — The national government’s established organization to regulate or manage religious affairs is coercive towards religious groups
- — The national government denounces one or more religious groups by characterizing them as dangerous “cults” or “sects”
- — The government formally bans religious groups for both security and nonsecurity reasons
- — There were instances when the national government attempted to eliminate an entire religious group’s presence in the country
- — The registration process for religions clearly discriminates against some religious groups
- — There were between 1,000 and 10,000 cases of government force toward religious groups that resulted in individuals being killed, physically abused, imprisoned, detained or displaced from their homes, or having their personal or religious properties damaged or destroyed
- — The government shows a high level of favoritism to one religious group above others
Putin’s New Best Friend, China
In the geographically larger, more populous, and highly diverse Asia-Pacific region, one country stands out as having the highest government restrictions on religion, according to the Pew Research Center – the People’s Republic of China (see chart). The list of items for which they gain this very highly restrictive score are similar to the list for Russia, only more so.
One difference that may seem a ray of hope is that China has much fewer social hostilities involving religion. However, the reason for this is ominous: their government restrictions are so pervasive and powerful that social dissent or uprisings are quelled forthwith.
While this does not predict that China will necessarily go to war, the data and the policies reflected by the data are nevertheless alarming not only for the state of freedom of religion or belief, but for what the lack of these portend for China and the world.
2022 Global Business & Interfaith Peace Awards
Normally, the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation’s Global Business & Interfaith Peace Awards would be held in the host city of the Paralympic Games, as we have done in Brazil, South Korea and Japan. However, such events are not welcomed in China.
They will be held in Washington DC this May and in India in 2023. The Religious Freedom & Business Foundation works for peace in various ways, including shining a light on the work that business leaders do to promote interfaith understanding through their companies, philanthropies and advocacy.
At Dare to Overcome, we will honor these leaders (along with CEOs from the 2021 virtual awards) before the gala concert on May 24.If you know a business leader working for interfaith understanding and peace, please consider nominating them for the 2022 award.
With prayers for an end to the war in Ukraine,