"Tense" global conditions -- including the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fallout of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and increases in the cost of living -- lead to religious freedom violations in countries around the world, according to a new report by Aid to the Church in Need, a pontifical foundation of the Catholic Church.

The group's 2023 "Religious Freedom in the World" report said religious freedom was violated in countries where more than 4.9 billion people live.

"We count 61 countries where citizens faced severe violations of religious freedom," the report said.

Marcela Szymanski, head of advocacy for Aid to the Church in Need International, said on a June 22 press call that in her years compiling the annual report, "we look for patterns," about how religious persecution comes about.

"If this follows these steps, then let's try to stop it before we get there," Szymanski said. "In our methodology of the report, we follow a classification that is like signs of perdition."

That process starts with "legal intolerance," Szymanski said, in which authorities pass rules that only apply to that particular group, and then say something along the lines of "stop doing it and then you will not be bothered."

"But that's already a discriminatory measure," Szymanski said. "So it's first intolerance, then discrimination, then persecution and then genocide."

The report states that a global pattern of concern included the retention and consolidation of power in the hands of autocrats and fundamentalist leaders, who used that power to violate human rights, including religious freedom.

Another area of concern is an increase in governments targeting majority populations rather than minority ones, such as Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's anti-Catholic persecution, despite that country being predominantly Catholic.

"Nicaragua is the first time that we put a country in the American continent in the color red," Szymanski said, referring to how the report ranks the countries of the most concern by color, with red being most concerning. Ortega, she said, targeted the Catholic Church which has opposed some regime actions.

Other countries of particular concern named in the report include Afghanistan, China, North Korea, and Iran. Countries "under observation," include Russia, but also Ukraine, where Russia's invasion has adversely impacted conditions.

"The autocrats at different levels of government combine harsh repression with soft persecution," the report said. "Examples include controlling access to jobs, education and health services, installing mass surveillance, imposing financial and electoral obstacles, and failing to impose law and order when faith communities come under attack from local mobs or terrorists."

Vulnerable groups globally include the Jewish community, as increased incidents of antisemitic hate crimes were reported in the West after the COVID-19 lockdowns.