A new study finds the world is becoming increasingly religious. Yet, violations of religious freedom are widespread, and, in some parts of the world, intensifying. A Hudson Institute study finds there is a strong link between religious freedom and economic wellbeing. VOA's Ivana Kuhar reports from a recent conference in Washington:

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of people worldwide who say they believe in God has increased by five percent in the past five years.  Award-winning theologian Michael Novak explains. "Religious liberty is thought of as the first of all liberties - the deepest, the most basic because it's rooted in the very recess of consciousness, or -- if I may say -- in interiority. It is beyond touch of a government or a society."

Yet, a comprehensive new study in 102 nations by the Hudson Institute [an independent Washington based research center] shows religious liberties are declining worldwide.  

Paul Marshall is the leading author of the 550-page "Religious Freedom in the World" report. "If we want to classify the 'worst states' or the most egregious persecutors," he says, "they tend to be either communist (North Korea, China), nationalist (Burma, Eritrea), or radical Islamist, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia."

Marshall adds the greater Middle East is the most religiously repressive part of the world. The region is increasingly threatened by a trend of growing fundamentalism. "Radical Islam is the fastest-growing threat to religious freedom in the world."

Of the countries surveyed, those with the best religious freedom records are Estonia, Hungary, Ireland and the United States.

While Western Europe is still one of the freest regions in the world, the study finds the situation to be worsening.  Most European countries score worse on religious freedom than they do on civil liberties in general.

Brian Grim of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life says, "Freedoms are a bundled commodity -- where one freedom exists, others exist."

Theodore Malloch of the Spiritual Enterprise Institute points out good religious policies, good economic policy, and good economic outcomes go together:

"Now, we have proof that closed religious systems foul economic development and actually stunt economic growth, the countries with the least religious liberty suffer the worst economic freedoms and are also lagging in economical rights."

Religious freedom correlates highly with other human rights.  Countries with good religious records have little social conflict, remain democratic and are unlikely to become failed states.

Results of the Hudson Institute study "Religious Freedom in the World" are to be published later this year.