This briefing looks at the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who have been expelled in the last several months from Pakistan and Iran, returning to Afghanistan which is experiencing a severe humanitarian crisis. It explores the situation in Pakistan and Iran, the reasons behind the move, and the UK Government response.
Documents to download
General debate on freedom of religion or belief (264 KB , PDF)
On 19 September 2023, Fiona Bruce MP will lead a debate in Westminster Hall on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).
The subject was chosen for debate (PDF) by the Backbench Business Committee.
This Commons Library Debate Pack provides background and further resources for the debate.
International and UK commitments on FoRB
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 practice their own belief or faith, or not to profess one.
The declaration is complemented by the 1981 Declaration on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief. While the two declarations are non-binding on states, they set out expectations that those with religious faith, and those without, have the right to choose and practice their beliefs.
The protection for FoRB in the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is binding on states who have signed it. To date, there are 173 parties to the Covenant. Those not yet ratifying include China and Cuba.
The UK Government says protecting FoRB is a priority in its global human rights work. It has applied some sanctions in response to violations of FoRB.
The UK is a member of the International religious freedom or belief alliance, launched by the United States in 2020. In July 2022, the UK hosted an international conference attended by government, faith and civil society leaders that saw 35 countries signing one or more statements on FoRB.
What is the global state of FoRB?
In 2023, the UN Special Rapporteur on FoRB, Nazila Ghanea, reported that challenges to FoRB were “alarming,” undermining efforts on conflict-prevention, other human rights including freedom of speech, and the ability of minorities to participate in public life.
In their most recent annual survey of global FoRB, published in 2020, the Rapporteur concluded legal restrictions on FoRB 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, US-based 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 ten countries apostasy (renouncing a faith or belief) is potentially punishable by death (PDF), as is the case in seven for blasphemy. These countries include Afghanistan, Iran, and Mauritania. However, the enforcement of these laws varies.
Example countries of concern
In her submission to the Backbench Business Committee, Fiona Bruce MP, who acts as the UK Government’s Special Envoy on FoRB, raised 13 countries of particular concern: Algeria, Afghanistan, China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, Nigeria, Nicaragua, Russia, Sudan, Tunisia, Ukraine, and Uganda.
Section three onwards of this debate briefing provides further resources on FoRB in these countries and across the globe. The below provides further information on four: Afghanistan, Eritrea, Nicaragua, and Ukraine (including Russian-occupied areas).
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USICRF) assesses that religious freedom in Afghanistan since the Taliban captured Kabul in August 2021 has “drastically deteriorated.”
The Taliban is a Sunni Muslim group, and persecution against Shia Muslims (who constitute around 7% to 10% of the population) has been reported. Other religious minorities in the country include Sikhs, Christians, and Hindus, though their numbers are small and have declined further since 2021.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, has reported that Hazaras, who are predominately Shia, and other Shia Muslims have been:
one of the most severely persecuted groups. Members have been arbitrarily arrested, tortured, summarily executed, displaced from traditional lands, subjected to discriminatory taxation and otherwise marginalized.
Among the reported incidents are allegations of extra-judicial killings and targeting of Hazaras by the Taliban, bans on allowing Shia groups to celebrate religious festivals and forced evictions from their homes.
In addition, both Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-KP) and the Taliban are suspected to have carried out violent attacks against Shia groups. According to Human Rights Watch, there were at least 16 attacks claimed by, or linked to, IS-KP against Hazaras from August 2021 to September 2022. At least 700 people were killed or injured.
According to community groups, the number of Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan fell from around 400 in 2021 to nine in 2023. Verbal abuse has been reported and the decline reflects fears for their safety.
International Christian Concern has described Christians in Afghanistan as “ostracised” and forced to operate underground to avoid Taliban intervention. Like those of other faiths, many Christians have been forced to leave Afghanistan since 2021.
Eritrea recognises four faith and belief groups: The Eritrean Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea. The population is around 60% Christian (predominantly Eritrean Orthodox) and 40% Muslim, though up to 5% are of other faiths.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) state that in 2022 adherents to faiths outside these groups “continue to be supressed” by authorities. While some detainees had been released in 2020 and 2021, Human Rights Watch report the trend has since “reversed.” In 2022, authorities arrested Christian worshipers and Catholic Priests, and in 2023 at least 32 Jehovah Witnesses are imprisoned.
Detentions are reportedly on the grounds of refusing to participate in compulsory military service, refusal to renounce a religious faith, and on grounds of national security.
Both the UK and United States have urged Eritrea to implement the recommendations of the 2019 UN Periodic Review of human rights and release those arbitrarily detained for religious reasons.
Nicaragua is a largely Catholic Christian country, whose constitution provides protections for FoRB.
However, since 2018 there have been reports of rising Government discrimination against the Catholic Church. This followed a political crisis that began in 2018 with the violent response to anti-government protests and many Catholic clergy voicing support for the protesters.
Government actions have included closing Catholic charities, the arrests of some clergy, and cancellation of some religious activities, according to a 2022 report by Christian Solidarity Worldwide. Local groups estimate 190 attacks and desecrations against the Catholic Church from 2018 to 2022. These actions form part of wider challenges to Nicaraguan democracy and civil society.
The UK Special Envoy on FoRB has raised concerns for FoRB in Nicaragua with members of the International FoRB alliance. In 2023, the UK raised its concerns for the restrictions against civil society at the UN.
Russia and Ukraine
Russia and Ukraine are both predominately Orthodox Christian states, though concerns for discrimination against Orthodox adherents in both states have been raised during the current conflict.
In Ukraine, the main two branches are the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and the historically Moscow Patriarchate-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC). In 2022, the UOC declared its independence in response to the Russian invasion and the strong backing for Russia’s action by Russian Patriarch Kirill.
Ukraine’s Government has introduced sanctions against some UOC clergy and conducted security searches of some church properties. The United Kingdom has said Ukraine has the right to protect its national security in the face of Russian attacks. The UN Human Rights Office has stressed Ukraine must ensure these actions are in line with international law on FoRB.
The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has also recorded a “surge in hate speech and several incidents of violence” against members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church during the conflict.
In Russian-occupied part of Ukraine, the USCIRF has reported “repressive” laws that have violated FoRB and targeted religious minorities. In Crimea, the number of registered religious organisations has fallen from around 1,500 under Ukrainian law to 400 under Russian occupation. Jehovah’s Witnesses have also been deemed by Russian authorities as an “extremist” group since 2017 and several members have been detained. In the Russian-occupied Donbas region, bans on some OCU and Protestant religious services and Catholic clergy returning to the region have been reported.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, UNESCO says 116 religious sites have been damaged across Ukraine. This includes the Transfiguration Cathedral in Odessa (July 2023) and Mariupol Mosque (March 2022).
The UN Security Council considered the topic of FoRB in Ukraine in July 2023. While the Russian representative accused Ukraine of pursuing a “state policy of destroying canonical orthodoxy in Ukraine” (through actions relating to the UOC), other countries including the United States, Japan, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom said Russia was “misusing” the Council and should end the conflict if it wanted to protect religious freedom.
In June 2022, the UK sanctioned Patriarch Kirill because of his support for the invasion.
Documents to download
General debate on freedom of religion or belief (264 KB , PDF)
The Safety of Rwanda Bill was introduced in the Commons on 7 December 2023. Second reading is on 12 December. The bill seeks to enable the removal of asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Commons and Lords Library papers, Committee reports, parliamentary material and Government press releases on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and related issues from 2020.