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Freedom of religion and belief

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Promoting freedom of religion and belief around the world is an important part of the Federal Government’s human rights policy.

Although the human right to freedom of religion and belief is comprehensively codified in international law, it continues to be attacked and restricted in many areas. Promoting freedom of religion and belief around the world is thus an important part of the Federal Government’s human rights policy.

Freedom of religion encompasses many Rights

Sri Harmandir Sahib, a Sikh shrine, in Amritsar, India,
Sri Harmandir Sahib, a Sikh shrine, in Amritsar, India,© dpa/picture alliance

Freedom of religion and belief includes the right of an individual to have or to adopt a religion or belief of their choice, and the right, either individually or in community with others, to practise them without interference. It also includes the freedom to change one’s religion, as well as the freedom not to adhere to any religion or world view.

Freedom of religion and belief is a right enshrined in a large number of United Nations (UN) resolutions and international agreements, including the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN’s 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

Many restrictions around the world

Despite the numerous international legal instruments developed to protect this human right, freedom of religion and belief is subject to restrictions in many parts of the world. In some countries, only members of a particular religion may hold high political office. In many parts of the world, people may be denied equal rights or discriminated against because of their religion or world view.

Attacks on members of religious minorities, religious persecution and the exploitation of what is purportedly “religiously motivated” violence to serve political ends are also a common occurrence.

Restrictions on freedom of opinion, which is a human right, may also be used to curtail freedom of religion and belief. For example, blasphemy is a criminal offence in many countries. Blasphemy laws make “apostasy” a punishable offence, as well as expressing one’s opinion on religious matters freely, and sentences may even include the death penalty.

The Federal Government’s Second Report on the Global Status of Freedom of Religion

The Federal Cabinet adopted the Federal Government’s Second Report on the Global Status of Freedom of Religion on 28 October 2020. The report was presented jointly by the Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In contrast to the previous report, it also includes a detailed country-by-country section on the realisation of the human right to freedom of religion or belief in 30 different countries around the world. The chapters on different countries provide information on the demographic and legal situation as well as on state and societal restrictions on freedom of religion or belief. Interreligious cooperation structures are touched on as well as their potential to strengthen freedom of religion or belief in the respective country.

In the thematic part, the report focuses on three fields in which there are particular challenges to ensuring freedom of religion or belief: blasphemy and anti-apostasy laws, digital communication, and state education provision.

The Federal Government’s Second Report on the Global Status of Freedom of Religion

Germany and the EU: Work to promote freedom of religion or belief

In its bilateral political dialogue with third countries, the Federal Government, together with its EU partners, seeks to protect and foster freedom of religion and belief. Germany provides systematic support to projects designed to enhance universal respect for freedom of religion and belief, in particular to intercultural dialogue programmes aimed at promoting better understanding between people of different faiths.

At EU level, protecting freedom of religion and belief is an issue that features regularly in EU Council Conclusions, declarations and démarches. In June 2013, the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union adopted EU guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief, which provide EU delegations and member states’ missions abroad with practical guidance for their work in this area.

Activities at UN Level

Buddhist monks at Mount Wutai in China
Buddhist monks at Mount Wutai in China© dpa/picture alliance

Since 2004, the EU has regularly raised the topic of freedom of religion and belief in the UN, where for a long time, however, highly contradictory positions prevailed on the universality of the human right to freedom of religion and belief. For example, in its 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) made the validity and enjoyment of human rights subject to the tenets of Sharia and, among other things, denied individuals the right to convert to another religion. A revised version of the Cairo Declaration was adopted at the end of 2020, which, for example, no longer stipulates restrictions to freedom of expression under Sharia law in Article 20. There have also been repeated attempts to make freedom of religion a collective rather than an individual right. If this right is vested in the religious community rather than the individual, the former has the right to determine the scope of and any limits to such freedom for the latter. In March 2011, there was a shift in the entrenched negotiating positions after the OIC agreed to drop its demand that “defamation of religions” be legally defined as a violation of human rights, instead tabling a resolution text calling for efforts to combat negative stereotyping and religious hatred.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief investigates violations of this important human right and draws up recommendations on how they can be prevented and how freedom of religion and belief can be guaranteed all over the world. German human rights expert Professor Heiner Bielefeldt of the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg held this position from 2010 to 2016. The Federal Government is also working closely with current UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed.

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