By Cassandra Nicole Thomazios 

Freedom of Religion is a principle enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a fundamental human right that protects people with the right to profess and practice their faith, religion or belief. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “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 to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance in public or private.”

The principle of freedom of religion is envisioned to be a universal fundamental human right, yet many countries today have discriminatory laws that prevent the principle of religious freedom as a whole. There are various controversial laws around the world restricting religious freedom, such as laws on blasphemy, hate speech, sedition and laws that restrict freedom of speech. Furthermore, it is worrying that genocide still exists today in some parts of the world. Some countries are regarded as secular nations whilst others are regarded as ecclesiastical or islamic nations. This article will explore both notions and how it affects religious freedom and tolerance.

The United States Department of State organised the 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom from 16th to 19th July 2019 (“Ministerial”). It was the largest human rights gathering with activists, religious leaders, politicians, ministers, lawyers and human rights advocates from all over the world in attendance. The aim of the Ministerial was to create awareness; advance religious freedom; explore building blocks and approaches; address religious persecution around the world; and promote tolerance between different religions. This article will also set out the arguments discussed and testimonials given during the Ministerial.

Advancing religious freedom has proved to be an uphill challenge in today’s world due to an increase in terrorism, Islamaphobia and the lack of separation between religion and State. This article will also explore suggested steps that are necessary to combat religious persecution and advance religious freedom as a whole.

The Need for Separation Between Religion and State

The term “secular state” means a country that is not connected or otherwise linked to religious or spiritual matters. Secularism is the notion of a State being separate from religion and not exclusively allied with or against a particular religion. Within a secular state, governments do not interfere with religious activities as long as such activities are in accordance with the law. According to WorldAtlas[1], there are currently a total of 96 secular states in the world with Africa and Europe having the largest numbers. Examples of secular nations include the United States of America, Mexico, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, China, South Africa, Japan, Singapore and Honduras.

The opposite of a secular state would be a state whose laws are governed through religious influence, such as islamic or ecclesiastical nations. These states encompass judicial and administrative systems whereby state and religion are not separate since a particular religion is endorsed by a state. For example, in most islamic nations, Syariah laws exist. Ecclesiastical nations are territories which follow the Christian or Catholic churches which were once subject to the Pope of Rome.

The separation of religion and state is predominantly lacking in most South-East Asian and Middle Eastern countries, which is the main cause of religious friction within these regions. Homogeneity is a term used on governments who impose rules, regulations or laws which force individuals to do something that they are not comfortable doing as part of their religion. This concept is common in most non-secular states where the laws are either in conflict with global human rights principles, or are in conflict with their own federal constitutions, or where dual-legal systems are prevalent due to religion-based laws. Malaysia, amongst other countries in the South-East Asian region, is an example where legal restrictions on freedom of religion exist. Where non-secular nations impose laws based on religion, the protection and equality of individuals regardless of their religion is no longer available as of right.

It is known that laws on blasphemy, hate speech and sedition allow states to prosecute and persecute individuals. Blasphemy is the act of insulting or lack of reverence to a particular religion, God, deity or sacred objects. In some states, blasphemy is considered to be a religious crime. Hate speech is speech that attacks a person or a group based on race, religion ethnic origin, sexual orientation or gender. Similar to blasphemy, hate speech is also a crime in some states which use hate speech as a means to protect multicultural societies or criminalize radicals who do not conform to uniform views. These examples of restrictive laws are prevalent in non-secular states as there is no separation of religion and State because the State associates itself with one particular religion, race or culture. In turn, restrictive laws are implemented to ensure that the predominant religion, race or culture is preserved or conformed to.

Freedom of speech is also a principle enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which allows everyone to speak their opinions freely. Freedom of religion cannot exist without freedom of speech. They go hand in hand. Most non-secular states have restrictive laws against both freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Worst of all, where these rights are hindered, the notion of “enforced disappearance” would not fall too far behind. Where governments interfere in religious affairs and restrict conversions of individuals in a State, any separation between religion and State no longer exists because the State is then actively involved in religious issues that come into play. This lack of separation certainly plays a role in influencing how a country is governed.

The Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom

The first day of the Ministerial saw panellist discussions between delegates from Norway, Poland, Germany, South Africa and the United Nations Special Rapporteur for freedom of religion. It was highlighted that knowledge is power and knowledge in human rights on a global scale is a necessity to advance human rights and advocate it. Legislation and tolerance in each state are equally as important. Mr Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of religion, emphasized the need for governmental authorities to implement policies and the need for states to come together to monitor violations of the right to freedom of religion, as the lack of cooperation is a problem currently faced in advancing this right.

Could the next available option be to name shame countries who criminalise hate speech, implement blasphemy laws or inherently prevent the right to freedom of religion? Mr Aud Merit Wiig, the Norwegian Special Envoy on freedom of religion, stated that Norway’s mandate is to ensure informed debates are carried out to tackle the issue of conflict in foreign countries for citizens who are unable to safely voice out their concerns and atrocities that may not be publicised. The need to assist those who are unable to voice out concerns creates awareness which encourages greater understanding and tolerance. There is an urgency in today’s world for states to remove discriminatory and discretionary powers. Jan Figel, the EU Special Envoy for promotion of freedom of religion or belief,  highlighted at the Ministerial that we all have a responsibility to remove the repetition of a genocide century. Jan Figel also highlighted that while ignorance is common, ignorance suppresses advancement.

The Hungarian Government is the only government in the world to have a governmental official with the title “Home Secretary for Persecuted Christians”. Tristan Azbej, the current Hungarian State Secretary for Persecuted Christians, explained that they provide direct assistance to Christians around the world and other communities including the Yazidis and Rohingya. The need to provide direct aid to religious minority groups affected by persecution around the world is pertinent to foster unity, create awareness and put pressure on governments. Such monitoring, assistance and tolerance allows those persecuted to not only feel safe, but helps advance freedom of religion and tolerance globally through alliances made.

Nadia Murad gave a shocking and heartbreaking testimonial at the Ministerial. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had invaded Nadia’s home village of Shingal in September 2014 as part of an ISIS ethnic cleansing where mass killings on Yazidi people took place. Nadia was sold to ISIS where she suffered sexual and religious persecution. She lost nine family members and several Yazidi women, including herself, were taken as sex slaves. This atrocity resulted in the enslavement of 6,000 Yazidis and the misplacement of more than 600,000 Yazidis. The Yazidi community are considered to be a religious minority in the middle-east and have found it difficult to freely practice their faith. Several Yazidi women still remain in captive today under terrorist hold. Nadia managed to escape her captors and created an awareness campaign called “Nadia’s Initiative” which lead her to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018. Nadia donated all the prize money to help rebuild her village in Shingal.

A second testimonial was also given by another survivor of religious persecution originally from China, whose father has been imprisoned since 2013 for publicly advocating for dialogue on the Uyghurs. She has not seen or heard from her father in years. Uyghurs are a minority ethnic group predominantly in China and Muslim Uyghurs have been targeted and persecuted for their beliefs. It is alleged that the Chinese government has blocked social media and news to suppress the fact that several Uyghurs are being imprisoned at local concentration camps. It was further highlighted that firstly, grounds of “extremism” and “Islamaphobia” were being used as excuses to justify the imprisonment of several Uyghurs in China; and secondly, the notion of freedom of speech was simply not tolerated. It was further alleged that awareness on the state of the Uyghurs in China has been deliberately shut down and until today, several Uyghurs have lost their families or simply do not know what has happened to their loved ones who are still imprisoned in concentration camps. In response to this testimonial, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives stated that such persecution from governments on violations of such a magnitude scale is a growing concern. However, economic sanctions on these governments do not seem to show significant impact.

The second day of the Ministerial started with a keynote address by the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who emphasized that “everyone should have the right to their freedom of religion and iron curtains for religious restrictions must be brought down.” Testimonials included those from Dr. Farid Ahmad, a survivor of the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand, who stated that “it is everybody’s responsibility to spread peace and humanity, there is no magic medicine or laws to remove hatred”. Ms Yamini Ravindran spoke on behalf of the victims and families of the Sri Lanka bombings on 21 April 2019, which left more than two hundred dead, hundreds injured and caused devastation and fear.

Another testimonial by a religious persecution survivor was from Shaan Taseer. Shaan Taseer is the son of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, who was executed by his own bodyguard and shot with twenty-seven rounds from a machine gun on 4 January 2011. A “fatwa” was issued against Governor Taseer for supporting Asia Bibi, a Christian woman. Governor Taseer was assassinated for being an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and consequently called for the pardon of Asia Bibi. Asia Bibi is a minority Christian who lived in the village of Ittan Wali and was repeatedly pressured into converting to Islam. Asia Bibi was charged with blasphemy in Pakistan in 2009 and sentenced to death by hanging (her conviction was overturned by Pakistan’s Supreme Court on 31 October 2018 after spending 9 years in jail). Shaan Taseer ended his presentation by saying that “support for foot soldiers of change must be given, if we abandon them, we abandon the fight. Any laws that promote injustice, is not legitimate law and blasphemy laws are unjust. May these Blasphemy laws find its rightful place in the dustbin of history.”

Several speakers, survivors, advocates, ministers and religious heads who spoke as panellists at the Ministerial had one goal – to create awareness and offer insight into different ways that states should advance religious freedom. The Ministerial ended with closing remarks from former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, who said:

“Religious intolerance commonly starts from education systems. Global commitment on education to promote cultural and religious tolerance is needed. This should be every modern education system and commitment to this could eradicate hate speech and violence. Extremists thinking should be eradicated as an ideology and must be beaten by better ideas and doctrines. Religious belief however misplaced together with social and economic factors, give rise to extremists. Countries that are religiously free would be happier and economically better. Governments shouldn’t be allowed to campaign on their own views on religion for political gain to direct the country’s religion.”

Advancing Freedom of Religion

In order to advance freedom of religion, awareness is key. Awareness is only possible with outspoken advocates who believe that religious freedom is as of right. The trend of states implementing laws that restrict this right must be reversed. This reversal is possible through increased public awareness, increased pressure on governments to advocate for reforms and lastly, through social media advancement. The fight for fundamental human rights needs to be pursued aggressively and constantly. Ignorance is common when it comes to human rights violations and ignorance suppresses advancement.

In order to advance religious freedom, practical building blocks and strong foundations are necessary. A key element to this stems from education which is the fundamental building block. There is now a need for education systems to promote diversity of cultures and religions in order to advance tolerance and coexistence. The standard of training to build a better future is through education. It is imperative to spread knowledge and educate society to advance human rights. It is said that the education system in a country can curb violent extremism.

Legislation and policymakers are also key aspects required to advance religious freedom. Legislation that restricts religious freedom is bad law. Hate speech, blasphemy and sedition laws cause greater public outcry that instills violence and hate compared to legislation that offers peace to embrace different religions, faiths, cultures and beliefs. Legal advocates and NGOs are needed to draft policies to push for legal reforms.

Other aspects required to advance this right is the need to understand that some situations are complex which involve both governmental issues and cultural issues. Methods of media coverage and strengthening global political ties may be a good place to start moving forward. The need for free media and news reporting is also required to create awareness. Content and narrative is a powerful way to convey information. One way to do this is through factual data with human components. This must be done through unbiased and uncensored news to depict survivor’s stories, reading articles and attending campaigns or conferences. It is not only the public and advocates who need to be aware, it is the duty of all leaders, politicians, ministers, heads of state and government officials to be aware of these stories in order to push for change.

Technology and media are the future. The media and online platform is certainly a powerful tool that can help disseminate information quickly. Extremist organisations take advantage of tech companies who do not filter their content. We need to take better advantage of these tech companies and online platforms to use these tools to advance religious freedom to combat hate instead. If hate speech can spread online then so must peace speech in the digital world.

Advancing religious freedom also means embracing and understanding other religions and cultures so as to respect them. More often than not, we see political leaders, government authorities and advocates using emotional language to instigate hate after religious attacks around the world. Emotional language leads to emotional responses. We need to tone down our language to be more considerate and tolerant of other religions and cultures to promote peace. The underlying goal is to firstly draw attention to those persecuted and to have their stories highlighted to create awareness. The second stage should be to advocate and promote roundtable discussions to encourage dialogue and increase knowledge on human rights violations. Knowledge is key. Knowledge is power. The cause for freedom of religion needs to be advanced as it is a global crisis that needs to be solved.


As a follow up to the Ministerial, efforts are being made to advance freedom of religion through the digital sphere. Embarking on this would entail the advancement of freedom of religion, tolerance and coexistence through disseminating peace speech and dialogue using digital communication and social media. In order for us to secure a peaceful and unified future for the generations to come, we need to progressively advance freedom of religion by creating awareness. The fight to combat restrictive laws around the world must also be continued aggressively. We need to do this now. Education, roundtable discussions and using the digital sphere for this are not only important but necessary.

By Cassandra Nicole Thomazios


Note: This article does not constitute legal advice to any specific case. The facts and circumstances of each and every case will differ and therefore will require specific legal advice. Feel free to contact us for complimentary legal consultation.