African governments are restricting religious freedom for security reasons more than anywhere else

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Countries in sub-Saharan Africa experienced the largest increase in social hostilities towards religious people globally in 2015, a new Pew Research Center study shows. This aggression stemmed largely from government harassment of religious groups in the name of security, and increased antagonism towards minority religions or practices.

Sub-Saharan Africa witnessed a 13% uptick in attacks against Muslims in 2015 compared to the previous year. The study uses two 10-point indices to rate 198 countries and self-governing territories on the prevalence of laws, policies, and actions that restrict religious beliefs and practices through things like government restrictions and social hostilities. The results showed that the median level of violence in sub-Saharan Africa rose to 2.2 points in 2015 from 1.5 in 2014. On the measure of social hostilities defined by Pew as “actions aimed at members of religious groups by private individuals and social groups,” including “hostile rhetoric, vandalism, and physical assaults,” Niger had the largest increase to two points, followed by Chad, South Sudan, and Burkina Faso.

Examples of these incidences included targeted bombings and shootings carried out by extremist groups like Boko Haram. Governments, wary of these groups’ actions, have responded by imposing severe restrictions on religious practices or prohibited the donning of certain attire, like the full-face veil.

The Pew report details examples of some of these aggressive actions. The Chadian government banned burqas in June 2015 for fear that attackers would use the loose garment, which covers the whole body, to hide explosives (a month later, a man dressed in a burqa killed 15 people in a market in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena). That October, the government arrested 62 women for wearing burqas.  The governments of the Republic of Congo and Niger have also banned the full veil, citing security concerns. Headscarves are also a contentious issue in Kenya and Ghana, where students have been asked in some cases to remove their hijab before sitting for exams.

In August 2015,  Muslim women in Cameroon reported being harassed at a highway roadblock by a police officer for wearing religious headscarves, even though a nun with a longer covering was allowed to pass. Following raids on a number of Quranic schools in Cameroon’s far north suspected of recruiting for Boko Haram, the government also arrested 84 children who remained in juvenile custody for months without being charged.

In Rwanda, members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were arrested, beaten, and dismissed from government agencies and school between May and June 2014 for refusing to touch the national flag while taking oaths of office, and for not participating in community night patrols or school religious services. The group believes that saluting or bowing down to flag ascribes salvation to the state and not God.

Environmental changes, like desertification and persistent drought, is also driving religious strife. Clashes between Muslim Fulani herdsmen and predominantly Christian farmers over pasture and grazing land in Nigeria, for instance, poses a security threat bigger than Boko Haram, SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based intelligence consulting firm estimates.

These fissures threaten to undermine the tolerance and solidarity shown by Muslim and Christian communities who have coexisted side by side across the continent for years. Whether it’s the Islamic State bombing churches in Egypt, governments cracking down on religious practices, or al-Shabaab attacking churches and universities in Kenya, these unrelenting attacks are testing leaders’ ability to sustain longstanding religious harmony. The situation is also compounded by a demographic shift that will see more Christians and Muslims living in sub-Saharan Africa in the years ahead. By 2060, more than four in ten Christians will call the region home, up from 26% in 2015, while Muslims living in the region will increase to 27% from 16%—making it the most populous region for Muslims globally after the Asia-Pacific region.