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The 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and the freedom to choose, change and practise their own belief or faith, or not to profess one.

However, across the world faith, non-faith, and unaffiliated groups experience discrimination on the grounds of their religious adherence and observance. In 2023, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, reported that there were “alarming” challenges, undermining efforts on conflict prevention, other human rights including freedom of speech, and the ability of minority groups to participate in public life.  

This research briefing sets out international commitments on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) data on religious adherence, reports of discrimination, UK international work on the issue, and further resources.

International commitments on freedom of religion or belief 

The UN’s 1948 Declaration is complemented by the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. While the two declarations are non-binding, they set out expectations that those with religious faith, and those without (such as atheists), have the right to choose and practise their beliefs.

The protection for freedom of religion or belief in the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is binding on states that have signed it. To date, there are 173 parties to the covenant, including the UK. Those who have not yet ratified it include China and Cuba.

Religion and belief in the global population

The US-based Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan organisation that conducts polls, research and analysis, estimates that across the world there are around 2.3 billion Christians of all denominations (31% of the global population), 1.8 billion Muslims (24%), 1.2 billion in unaffiliated groups, such as atheists and agnostics (16%), 1.1 billion Hindus (15%), and 500 million Buddhists (7%). Those of other faiths such as Sikhs, Baha’is and Jews constitute smaller numbers.

These estimates are based on those who self-identify with a faith or belief/non-belief group and include non-observant groups. It does not include those who may record their ethnicity as corresponding to a religion.

Most Muslims, Christians and Hindus live in countries in which they are a majority. However, substantial minorities do not: 208 million self-identified Christians live as minorities, including in China and India, and 400 million self-identified Muslims live as minorities, with the largest concentrations in India and Ethiopia. Israel is the only state with a Jewish majority. There are five states with an unaffiliated majority, including North Korea and Estonia.

Global trends in freedom of religion of belief

Several government and civil society organisations have published assessments of government and societal restriction of FoRB.

In its most recent annual survey of global freedom of religion or belief, published in 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur found that legal restrictions had increased from 2007 to 2017. These included restrictions on freedom to worship publicly, the operation of humanitarian agencies and associations, the appointment of faith leaders, and access to education.

In 2020, the Pew Research Center found that government or societal harassment was reported in 155 countries against Christians, in 145 against Muslims and in 94 against Jews (out of the 198 countries surveyed).

Globally, in at least 10 countries, apostasy (renouncing a faith or belief) is potentially punishable by death (PDF), as is the case in seven countries for blasphemy. These include Afghanistan, Iran, and Mauritania. However, enforcement of these laws varies.

How does the UK support freedom of religion or belief?

The UK Government says promoting and protecting freedom of religion or belief is a priority in its international human rights work.

To promote this, in 2018 the Government appointed its first dedicated special envoy, currently Fiona Bruce MP. The Government also funds several aid programmes, including the John Bunyan Fund and the FoRB leadership network, and can apply sanctions against those who abuse freedoms.

The UK is a member of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, launched by the US in 2020. In 2022, the UK hosted a conference where 35 countries signed one or more statements on freedom of religion or belief.

The Government’s approach was criticised in the Bishop of Truro’s 2019 report on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s support for persecuted Christians. The report made several recommendations, including the better mainstreaming of work on FoRB across the department. The Government accepted the recommendations in full. A July 2022 review of progress found “positive overall progress” had been made in implementing the report.

Section 5 of this briefing provides further publications on discrimination in specific countries and against specific groups.

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