A team of international surveyors grab their clipboards and decide to travel around the world to study the state of religious freedom.

They arrive in Saudi Arabia and are told that they must comply with the strictest interpretation of Islamic law, so they continue to Bangladesh where they are threatened with physical violence when some of them declare a personal belief in Jesus Christ. When they get to sub-Saharan Africa, they find it less religiously restrictive than Europe….

While it sounds like the set-up to a bad joke, it’s not; it’s a snapshot of some of the findings from the most recent survey of the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The study, Global Restrictions on Religion, covers 198 countries and self-governing territories, representing 99.5 percent of the world’s 6.8 billion people, and finds that 70 percent of individuals are living in countries with “high” restrictions on religion.

The report, relying on answers to 20 questions from Pew’s Government Restrictions Index (GRI) and 16 external sources, including reports published by the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and nongovernmental organizations, ranked countries according to two factors: government restrictions on religion and de facto restrictions resulting from violence or intimidation perpetrated by non-state actors.

The results were astounding.

In 178 countries (representing 90 percent of the world’s population), religious groups must register with the government, and in 117 of those countries (59 percent) those registration requirements “resulted in major problems, for, or outright discrimination against, certain faiths.”

Saudi Arabia was ranked the most restrictive towards minority faiths followed by Iran. And while high-ranking Afghanistan’s constitution appears to protect its citizens’ rights of conscience, the document stipulates that “no law can be contrary to the sacred law of Islam,” effectively discriminating against any divergent faith.

How embarrassing! It’s 2009 and the majority of the world’s countries still use religion to oppress their own people. The American system, with all of its faults and loopholes, truly shines in comparison.

Even France, one of our Western allies, imposes strict governmental policies that prohibit religious expression. In 2004 the French government passed a law banning Muslim headscarves at public schools, along with Jewish skullcaps, large Christian crosses and any other “ostentatious religious symbols.”

In response to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s more recent declaration that the Muslim burqua will no longer be “welcome on the territory of the French Republic,” President Barack Obama took the opportunity to reaffirm America’s commitment to religious freedom.

“I will tell you that in the United States our basic attitude is that we’re not going to tell people what to wear,” he said, cautioning Western countries to avoid “dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear.”

America may not be perfect. Our system may, despite all attempts to the contrary, occasionally favor one religious group above another, curb free exercise or allow federal tax dollars to support religious endeavors. But, largely, we’ve got it right.

We are really lucky to live in a country governed by such strong principles of freedom, justice and equality. Our framers did us a lasting favor by erecting a wall of separation between church and state, effectively distinguishing us from countries that use violence or political coercion to manipulate matters of personal faith.

The Pew Forum found that religion, when mandated by the state, can be a force of great evil and violence. In light of this realization we must work even harder to continue to fortify the wall of separation, a wall that protects our faiths, our families and our freedoms.