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Conscience Magazine

Freedom of Religion: A Shield to Protect or a Sword to Harm?

By Ahmed Shaheed May 6, 2021

WE ARE LIVING IN CHALLENGING times for human rights. Recently, the United Nations secretary qeneral characterized the COVID-19 pandemic as a “public health emergency … an economic crisis. A social crisis. And a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis.” The right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief has not escaped this crisis. Conspiracy theories and hateful rhetoric attributing responsibility for the virus to religious and ethnic minorities have fueled violent attacks and exacerbated the marginalization of communities already at risk. The grave situation of the many religious or belief minorities in refugee camps— where contamination risk is high and medical facilities limited—has intensified. Entrenched inequalities have given rise to disproportionately devastating effects on Indigenous peoples, particularly Indigenous women and girls. Under the guise of public health measures, some opportunistic states have relied on the pandemic to curb cultural and religious traditions belonging to religious minorities. As the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, I am mandated by the U.N. Human Rights Council to identify existing and emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the r ight to freedom of thought , conscience, religion or belief (FoRB) and to propose remedial measures in line with international human rights law. Protected by both Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, the right to FoRB is central to the human pursuit for truth, meaning, peace and security. Its international legal protection aims to secure the background conditions for each person to exercise the freedom to form and pursue their own religious or belief commitments As such, the right requires states to ensure individuals do not experience discrimination in enjoying other human rights on the basis of, or in the name of, religion or belief. Governments are permitted to place restrictions on the manifestation of the right only when necessary to meet the requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society. An individual’s right to hold or to change their beliefs is absolute.

Although the pandemic undercut enjoyment of this right globally, it has also demonstrated vivid examples of its value. Amid the tragedy and fear wrought by COVID-19, the innovative work of faith leaders to fulfill their followers’ spiritual needs, while ensuring safety, has inspired many. Multiple religious and belief institutions responded to the pandemic by increasing solidarity and cooperation with those most severely challenged by the virus. And where states have politicized the pandemic to target minorities, disaffected communities and advocates are holding states accountable by publicly highlighting these injustices and demanding equal treatment.

Of course, intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief predates the global health crisis. Globally, the ability of believers and nonbelievers to manifest their faith and convictions faces chronic threats from both state and nonstate actors. In addition to restricting individuals’ ability to practice their faith alone or in community, governments frequently adopt religiously discriminatory laws that undercut civil, political, economic, social and cultural freedoms. The impetus to “securitize” religion or belief—treating certain religious or belief communities as imminently dangerous— prompts governments to adopt disproportionate policies in the name of national security that limit freedoms of religion or belief. Nonstate actors in a number of regions, especially armed groups and terrorists, perpetrate violence and atrocities against minorities and their places of worship. Often driven by religious and sectarian divisions, mob violence is increasingly deployed to enforce religious or social norms.

Digital technology has also impacted freedom of religion or belief—both positively and negatively—in immeasurable ways. On one hand, digitization facilitates the creation of grassroots networks among faith communities, borderless and cross-communal exchange of information and vast opportunities for education. On the other, digitization enables interference in the lives of religious or belief communities. When perceived as a threat, communities are often electronically surveilled, and their communication intercepted. Both technology companies and states hold power to censor and filter ideas with implications for self-development, the search for truth and for freedom of thought. Conversely, where states and technology companies fail to regulate the digital sphere, hate and violent extremism can proliferate, with deathly consequences for religious or belief minorities. A more basic obstacle to implementation of the r ight to freedom of religion I often encounter is the widespread misunderstanding of what this right entails. Misconceptions abound: that religious freedom is absolute; that freedom of religion can serve as a majoritarian privilege rather than a universal human right; that freedom of religion or belief is distinct from, rather than dependent upon, equality and nondiscrimination.

Just over a year ago, my report to the U.N. Human Rights Council examined the global phenomenon of gender-based violence and discrimination in the name of religion or belief. To prepare the report, I met with rights-holders from 42 countries and heard evidence of heinous violence and discrimination perpetrated against women and LGBTQ persons and infringements on their ability to exercise their right to freedom of religion. In every region of the world, I identified laws enacted that ultimately deny women, girls and LGBTQ persons equal rights on the basis of their sex, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity. Personal status laws that disadvantage women in marriage, the criminalization of homosexuality, the denial of sexual and reproductive health rights—in these and innumerable other instances, disaffected criminatory edicts ostensibly grounded in religion deny the equality of women and LGBTQ persons.

My travels also made clear that gender- based discrimination in the name of religion or belief is not unique to one part of the world. Despite widely held perceptions to the contrary, it is not something that happens “over there” in non-Western countries; nor is it only an issue in place with a state or preferred religion. Rights advocates have noted that religious mores are also often translated into national law in facially neutral ways—that is, laws that purport to be neutral but disproportionately discriminate against people’s religious identity.Similarly, in the Americas, Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, interest groups increasingly invoke claims of religious freedom to oppose sexual and reproductive health rights, to advocate against the repeal of laws that penalize homosexuality and to deny self-determination rights for gender diverse persons. With devastating consequences for both gender equality and freedom of religion or belief, some states have been receptive to such lobbying. Among the many reasons this trend is deeply troubling, is that allowing freedom of religion or belief to become an instrument of discrimination will result in the rapid erosion of, rather than protection of, the enjoyment of the right.

Freedom of religion or belief can serve as a shield to protect individuals and institutions from attack—not a sword to harm others. The right to hold and express one’s beliefs should not be conflated with a nonexistent right to discriminate against people on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation or religious identity. Moreover, the ability of women and LGBTQ individuals to belong to a faith of their choice, or, more often, the faith into which they were born and comprises their social and cultural connect ions, without facing discrimination is vital to realizing their religious freedom.

The misuse of human rights norms is not a one-way issue. I have consistently seen how efforts to “sanitize” the public sphere of all manifestations of some, or all, religious beliefs—often in the name of equality—impairs human rights, particularly of women and girls who are members of minority religious communities. Bans on wearing religious garments in public, for example, can impede women’s right to freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, the right to liberty of movement, the right to privacy, the right to education and the rights to nondiscrimination and equal treatment.


While the primary responsibility for preventing and addressing violence, intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief rests with states, history consistently demonstrates that individuals, communities and leaders must work collaboratively and constructively to break cycles of hate and division. In the words of the preamble of the U.N. Charter, the world’s population should “practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors.” Globally, faith communities provide one of our greatest tools to implement the norms of equality and inclusion at all levels of society. The proliferation of faith-based movements for gender equality has been vital both in advancing the human rights of women and LGBTQ persons and countering narratives that present religion and equality as mutually exclusive. In turn, the ability of all individuals to enjoy freedom of religion or belief is enhanced.

Given these challenges, the task of promoting and protecting freedom of religion or belief may appear overwhelming. On a daily basis, however, I have the fortune of being inspired by high levels of civil society activism— including extensive activism among faith-based actors—that presents steadfast opposition to intolerance and discrimination based on, or in the name of, religion or belief. Through advocacy efforts, outreach, vigilant monitoring and documentation of human rights abuses, we can hold violators to account and upend the structures and institutions undermining our freedoms.

Ahmed Shaheed
Ahmed Shaheed

AHMED SHAHEED is the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and deputy director of the Essex Human Rights Centre.