What is freedom of religion or belief?

The right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, often referred to as ‘religious freedom’ or most commonly as ‘freedom of religion or belief’ (FoRB), is a fundamental and universal human right articulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and other international human rights treaties.

FoRB is a fundamental right, as it is an essential component of the human rights framework. It is universal in that it protects all individuals, including those who hold theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as those who choose not to have any religion or belief. It protects the individual, not the belief.

This right can be understood in terms of its internal or private aspect, or ‘forum internum’, and its external aspect, or ‘forum externum’.

Forum Internum

A person’s right to form, to espouse and to change deeply held inner convictions and beliefs – the ‘forum internum’- enjoys absolute protection. This means that there are no circumstances under which this freedom can be justifiably violated or limited, including for reasons of national security or in an emergency.

It includes the right to form and hold opinions based on conscience, including beliefs that may be deemed objectionable, or even offensive to and by others. It protects the right to espouse a religion or belief of one’s choice, the right not to espouse a religion or belief, and the right to reject or change a religion or belief, free from coercion.

Forum Externum

A person’s right to manifest or outwardly display their religion or belief, either alone or as part of a community – the ‘forum externum’ – can be limited by the state, but only in exceptional situations, and with a high threshold of evidence required from those seeking to enforce limitations.

This component of FoRB protects the right to manifest a religion or belief through teaching, worship, practice, and other forms of observance, including the right to share one’s religion or belief with others, to encourage others – without coercion –to adopt similar religious beliefs, and to publish and distribute literature and other forms of information about a religion or belief. It also includes the right to own and use buildings for worship, and to express a religion or belief through clothing, rituals, and symbols.

The UN Human Rights Committee[1] concluded that international law permits “restrictions on the freedom to manifest religion or belief only if limitations are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others”[2].

International Law

Article 18 of the UDHR states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Article 18 was further defined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966, which together with the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) make up the International Bill of Rights. General Comment 22 of the Human Rights Committee, provides important detail regarding the implementation of Article 18 in the ICCPR.

FoRB is protected in a range of other international human rights treaties, including:

The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief is the UN expert on FoRB, whose reports and recommendations help to define and shape debate on FoRB-related issues.

Why is FoRB important?

FoRB is a universal right, benefiting everyone. It safeguards respect for diversity, and its free exercise has been shown to contribute towards good governance, development, rule of law, peace and stability.

Almost every country in the world has pledged to uphold FoRB and 84%[3] of the world’s population identify with a religious group. However, 2016 saw a surge in government restrictions on religion, with populist parties and organisations in Europe increasingly fuelling harassment of and restrictions on religious minorities. 83 countries (42%) had high or very high levels of restrictions on religion – whether resulting from government actions or from hostile acts by private individuals, organisations and social groups – up from 80 (40%) in 2015 and 58 (29%) in 2007[4].

Consequently, not only should FoRB be promoted, respected and protected domestically; an effective foreign policy must also take account of FoRB.

Moreover, the existence of an established, official or majority religion in any given nation does not permit or justify restrictions being placed on the rights of non-adherents. “In particular, certain measures discriminating against [non-adherents], such as measures restricting eligibility for government service to members of the predominant religion or giving economic privileges to them or imposing special restrictions on the practice of other faiths, are not in accordance with the prohibition of discrimination based on religion or belief and the guarantee of equal protection under article 26 [of the ICCPR][5].”

Several of today’s conflicts are rooted in, or are exacerbated by, religious differences or the misappropriation of religion, and it is important to acknowledge that in a volatile world where humanity faces new and often extreme challenges, FoRB can play an important role in securing peace and stability.

Many of the least peaceful countries also have very low levels of religious diversity, tolerance or respect. During a speech delivered in Clarence House in 2013, H.R.H Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, Chief Advisor for Religious and Cultural Affairs and Personal Envoy of H.M. King Abdullah II of Jordan, provided a concrete example of this: “It is no accident that Somalia which is the most homogenous state in the world, religiously, racially and tribally was the weakest state in the world over the last century, and that the USA, which is the most heterogeneous and diverse state in the world was the strongest throughout the Twentieth Century.”

Research by the Institute for Economics and Peace, found that countries with greater religious freedom are generally more prosperous than countries with less religious freedom.

The realisation of FoRB is also correlated with economic growth [6], as religious hostilities and restrictions create a climate that can drive away local and foreign investment and undermine business operations.

[1] The Human Rights Committee is the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the ICCPR and publishes General Comments articulating its interpretation of the content of human rights provisions, thematic issues or its methods of work.

[2] General Comment 22 of the Human Rights Committee.

[3] Pew Research Foundation, The Global Religious Landscape, Dec 2012.

[4] Pew Research Foundation, Global Uptick in Government Restrictions on Religion in 2016, June 2018.

[5] CCPR General Comment No. 22: Article 18 (Freedom of Thought, Conscience or Religion)

[6] Grim, Clark and Snyder, Is Religious Freedom Good for Business, 2014