Islamist “hyper-extremism” is not only destroying the multi-faith ecology of the Middle East but also threatening parts of Africa and the West, according to a new report. The latest edition of Religious Freedom in the World, a global survey published by the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), identifies ISIS as the main source of a campaign described as genocidal by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry. Victims include Shia Muslims as well as Christians and Yazidis.

The report focuses on the Syrian civil war and the regional conflict to which it has given rise. Formerly diverse communities in the Middle East are described as becoming “increasingly mono-religious”. The spread of extremist Islam is also said to represent a threat to diversity among Muslims, “with widespread reports of moderates – including from within the same branch of Islam – being forced out in their thousands for refusing to accept ISIS and other hardline groups”. The report ascribes the menace in part to growing Sunni–Shia rivalry in several hotbeds of conflict beyond Syria and Iraq.

More broadly, ACN confirms established data showing that the greatest curbs on religious freedoms in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia take place in Muslim-majority countries. This pattern parallels problems with democracy, civil liberties and economic freedom. In recent years one survey after another, from organisations including the Pew Forum and the Freedom House think tank, have shown that at least a dozen of the 20 most “unfree” societies on earth are majority Muslim.

Yet many curbs on religious practice in other regions have nothing to do with Islamist intolerance. Religious Freedom in the World looks at 196 countries, noting substantial discrimination against Christians in communist societies including China and North Korea; or India, where Hindu nationalists view Christianity as a foreign import; or Burma, where Buddhist chauvinism against both Muslims and Christians has long been a concern.

The survey also notes a sharp rise in extremism among Muslims living a long way from the Middle East – especially in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kenya, Libya, Niger, Pakistan, Sudan, Tanzania and Yemen. Of the 11 Muslim-majority countries with persistently poor records on religious freedom, seven – Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, the Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Syria – are identified as tolerating anti-Christian discrimination at a state level, side by side with oppression at the grassroots.

“Hyper-extremism”, defined by ACN as entailing a willingness to engage in torture, mass murder and rape, is shown to be exacerbating the refugee crisis around the Mediterranean.

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