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Freedom of religion and thought

04.03.2020 - Article

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.

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 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.

Freedom of religion encompasses many rights

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 their religion or belief 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.

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 unfortunately a common occurrence. Such violence may be prompted not only by religious motives but also by socio-economic disparities. It is therefore important to analyse exactly what is behind attacks on a given religious minority before deciding on measures to give them better protection.

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 it a punishable offence to express one’s opinion on religious matters freely or to give up one’s religion, and sentences may even include the death penalty.

Germany and the EU: Work on behalf of 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.

In June 2016, the Federal Government published a report on the status of freedom of religion and belief worldwide (report in German), which systematically illustrates the situation using examples of typical violations of the human right to freedom of religion and belief by state and non‑state actors. It focuses on the problem of the perpetration of violence in a religious context and also covers the Federal Government’s foreign-policy endeavours to prevent violations of this human right. The Federal Government is currently drawing up an updated report.

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, there were highly contradictory positions 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. 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.

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