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What is Freedom of Religion or Belief?

“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

The text cites article 18 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) from 1966, which is the strongest international and legally binding document on freedom of religion or belief. There are currently 173 parties to the convention. Article 18 of the ICCPR mirrors article 18 in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) from 1948. The UDHR is a non-legally binding declaration signed by all UN member states. Freedom of religion or belief is an universal and fundamental human right. The human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. Freedom of religion or belief is also enshrined in several other international conventions such as art. 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, art. 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, as well as a part of customary international law.

Article 18 ensures the following rights:

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This section is known as ‘the internal freedom of religion or belief’ and it is absolute. Thus, no derogation or restriction on the internal dimension is permitted under any circumstances. Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion include theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.

  • Everyone has the right to manifest his or her religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching. This section is known as ‘the external freedom of religion or belief’. External acts of freedom of religion or belief can signify a broad range of acts, including the right for an individual to act collectively with other individuals within a religious group. The external aspect of freedom of religion or belief is not absolute as is the case with the internal aspect. Instead, it is a qualified right meaning that a state may impose restrictions under certain strict conditions.

  • No one shall be subject to coercion, which would impair his or her freedom of religion or belief. An individual must not be subject to coercion, which would limit their freedom to have, renounce, change or adopt a religion or belief of own choice.

  • No one shall be subject to discrimination regardless of his or her religion or belief. This includes all forms of discrimination at school, employment, social benefits, and so on.

  • Parents and guardians have the liberty to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

  • If a state chooses to limit the external freedom of religion or belief (manifestation of religion), this has to fulfill certain strict conditions. Limitations should be prescribed by law and be necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. Limitations must thus not be applied in a way that vitiate the rights guaranteed in art. 18, must only be applied for those purposes for which they were prescribed, must be directly related and proportionate to the specific need for which they were designed, and must not be imposed for discriminatory purposes or applied in a discriminatory manner. Where restrictions are justified on the basis of a need to protect public morals, such restrictions must be based on principles not deriving exclusively from a single tradition, as the concept of morals derives from many social, philosophical, and religious traditions. Furthermore, any such limitations must be understood in the light of universality of human rights and the principle of non-discrimination. 

The overall situation of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) and religious or belief minorities globally is discouraging. Around the globe, religious minorities, atheists, and converts suffer from violations of FoRB. Sadly, many of these actions take place in the name of religion. International reports indicate that violations on the grounds of religion or belief is on the rise globally. Violations include discrimination, harassment, persecution of Christians, antisemitism, and anti-muslim discrimination, but also discrimination towards humanists and atheists. In its latest report, the US-based PEW Research Center found that the number of states with ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of restrictions increased from 20 % in 2007 to 26 % in 2017. Similarly, 28 % of the world’s states score ‘high’ or ‘very high’ on social hostilities relating to religion or belief. The numbers show where restrictions on freedom of religion or belief are high, social hostilities tend to be very high also, and where restrictions are low social hostilities are low as well.

According to PEW Research, Christians are reportedly those who suffer harassment in most countries globally. Harassment includes a wide range of activities, from verbal abuse to physical violence and killings, and can be perpetrated by both governments and private groups or individuals. From 2014 to 2017, the number of countries that reported incidents of harassment of Christians went up from 108 to 143. Likewise, Muslims have seen a sharp increase in the number of countries where they are subject to harassment. According to PEW research, in 2017, harassment of Muslims took place in 140 countries. These facts should be seen against the background that Christianity and Islam globally constitute the largest and second-largest religious groups respectively. Jews were discriminated against in 87 countries, which is the third largest number after Christians and Muslims, in spite of Jews only constituting a relatively small group globally. Also, according to PEW Research religiously unaffiliated people face harassment in a growing number of countries. Religiously unaffiliated individuals make up 16% of the global population and includes atheists, agnostics, and people who do not identify with any religion. The harassment of this group of people has become much more widespread with the rise from only 3 states in 2012 where religiously unaffiliated were harassed to 23 states in 2017.

Against this background, there is an increasing awareness of the need to be more proactive in promoting Freedom of Religion or Belief globally, and to protect the rights of all minorities to freely have, practice, or change their religion or belief. From being a relatively neglected human right, Freedom of Religion or Belief has in recent years received increased attention by national governments and civil society.

On this basis, the Danish Government has decided to give high priority to the promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief and protection of religious minorities globally by establishing the Office of the Special Representative for Freedom of Religion or Belief in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark in January 2018. The Office is headed by a Special Representative for Freedom of Religion or Belief with ambassadorial charge. 

The Danish initiative for the promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief does not imply that this human right is more important than other human rights. However, there is currently a special need to emphasize and prioritize the promotion and protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief as a fundamental human right on a par with other fundamental human rights to correct the imbalance described above.