Religious Freedoms in the Global Context

Despite being labeled as the orphan of human rights in the 1990s, religious freedom was one of the first rights to be recognized under international law. Even today a review of formal international and national documents on religion suggests that governments and the international community recognize the position of religious freedoms in the constellation of human rights. Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights offers the following assurances:

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 in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) also has served as a model for many constitutions. Indeed, the opening sentence of the European Convention on Human Rights’ Article 9 is copied from the Declaration. This modeling goes far beyond Europe. Some countries, such as Cameroon and Ethiopia, incorporate Article 18 of the UDHR into their constitutions word for word.

Indeed, it is the lack of assurances of religious freedom that is rare. As of 2008, 92 percent of the countries (126) with populations greater than two million have constitutions that provide for religious freedom. Only 11 countries fail to include such assurances. Despite the many formal statements promising freedoms, the chasm between the promise of and practical respect for religious freedom is wide. Indeed, a closer inspection reveals that many constitutions provide assurances of religious freedom in one statement, but allow openings for denying the freedoms in other sections of the same constitution. The new constitution of Afghanistan offers one of many examples. Article 2 promises that non-Islamic religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law and Article 3 explains that no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam. As currently interpreted in Afghanistan, this virtually eliminates the public profession of a faith other than Islam and denies the freedom of converting to a religion other than Islam.

For the state and the cultural majority, minority religions are often perceived to threaten the public order. One of many examples is when the 1995 National Assembly of France appointed the Gest Commission to report on the dangers of cults for both the individual and society. The Commission conceded that it could not define or measure a cult, yet it identified 173 dangerous sects and cults in France alone. The dangers associated with the cults were also vague, including psychological dependence, deception and ill-treatment, though few specific examples were given.

A long list of advocacy groups report on freedoms denied, but the most convincing evidence has been produced by sources that have no ties to the groups being restricted. In 2009, Asma Jahangir, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion, concluded that discrimination based on religion or belief preventing individuals from fully enjoying all their human rights still occurs worldwide on a daily basis.

The multiple measures of religious freedom assembled since 2000 all document that religious liberties are frequently violated. Laws denying religious freedoms are routine even when we limit our attention to the countries promising religious freedom in their constitutions. Of the 126 countries with constitutional clauses assuring religious freedom, 55 percent (69 countries) have laws that interfere with the free exercise of religion. Most of these countries (53 of 69) have laws on the books that regulate some religions and not others, and despite their constitutional guarantees of freedom of worship, six of these countries have legal systems that prohibit the free exercise of religion. Of the 11 countries not promising religious freedom, all have legal systems that obstruct religious free exercise for at least some religious groups.

Studies show more than two in five governments interfere with an individual’s right to worship and 18 percent severely interfered. When assembling a summary index on religious freedoms in 2009, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that about one-third of all countries have high or very high restrictions on religion. The Forum’s report goes on to explain, however, that because several of the most populous nations have high restrictions nearly 70 percent of the world’s 6.8 billion people live in countries with high restrictions on religion (The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life 2009).

Finally, there are very clear patterns to the global variation in religious freedoms, but there is no global region or world religion that is exempt from denying religious freedoms. Clearly some regions are much higher than others, with majorities of countries in East Asia and the Pacific, the Near East and North Africa, and South and Central Asia limiting freedom of worship. But none of the global regions are exempt from restricting religious worship.

The denial of religious freedoms across the globe raises two important questions. First, why do so many restrictions occur in so many nations? And, second, how are these restrictions on religion related to social conflict?

Sources of Religious Freedoms and Restrictions

Understanding why religious freedoms are denied and how such restrictions might be related to social conflict requires that we first explore the motivations, institutions and movements involved in denying religious freedoms. In particular, we want to understand how both the motivations and mechanisms for restricting religious freedoms can differ from other human rights.

Unlike most other status categories mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, religion is organized into distinctive institutions and holds a myriad of relationships with the state and larger culture. Along with providing religious beliefs, symbols and practices for the local community, religious institutions can also serve as a source of unity at the regional and national levels. Indeed, one of the fears for governing bodies is that religious institutions can provide organizational form to underlying political and cultural pressures. Understanding the varied relationships between religion and state is an important starting point for understanding both religious freedoms and the potential for conflict.

One of the most common patterns of religion-state interaction is that the state forms an alliance with the dominant religion or group of religions. For the state, the alliance offers political stability, visible support for the dominant religion and culture, and often provides a mechanism for controlling the activities of the most powerful religious institutions. For religious institutions these alliances offer opportunities to procure resources from the state and to restrict the activities of competitors. The most obvious competitors are other religions, but cultural and even state institutions (e.g., secular courts, schools, etc.) can be viewed as competing with the dominant religion. The institutional alliances can imbue religious authority to most institutions in the country, such as in Saudi Arabia, or they can be based on past traditions and offer little formal authority, as in many Latin American countries. These alliances typically do increase resources for select religions and reduce the potential for grievances to develop, but for minority religions the alliances result in unequal treatment at best and often lead to suppression and persecution.

Even when countries support a secular state that separates the activities of religious and state institutions, the religious freedoms granted are highly variable and all religions are vulnerable to the actions of the state. Some secular states, especially communist nations, support a secular ideology that views religious organizations as potential threats and requiring heavy regulation. Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1979) or the former Soviet Union offers one extreme, where the state attempts to eliminate religion. Countries such as France and Turkey have a secular state and do not hold a secular ideology, such as the atheism of communist countries, but they are assertive in forcing a public secularism.

Moving beyond the formal religious institutions, religions also hold a shared cultural relationship with specific regions or the entire nation. Dominant religions can appeal to the history and culture of their country as motives for denying religious freedoms and even justifying violence. Many national and cultural identities are so closely interwoven with or against selected religions that ensuring religious freedoms for all, is perceived as challenging the cultural identity as a whole.

Social pressures are especially powerful at the local level where administrative units, such as religious bureaus, are vulnerable to such influences. Given substantial discretion on how to interpret laws for registering, defining or tolerating religions, their discretion often serves to favor the majority. In Russia, for example, groups registered as nontraditional religious groups, such as Pentecostals, Catholics, Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, have bitterly complained that the police fail to protect them from acts of vandalism and are slow to respond when intruders interrupt their worship services or even attack them. Hence, even without formal restrictions on religion, the cultural pressures and informal controls can restrict freedoms and promote conflict between groups.

Protecting liberties requires more than constitutional assurances. Unless state institutions provide the authority and support needed to protect liberties, the promises of freedom are never produced.

In the end, religious freedoms rely on the same institutions as other human rights for support and protection, but religions often hold distinctive and complex relationships with the state and the larger culture. These complex relationships are sometimes interwoven with violence toward religion, violence by religion, and violence that seemingly has few religious ties. These are the relationships we explore in the final section of this global overview.

Religious Freedoms Relationship with Social Conflict

Denying religious freedoms is associated with higher levels of social conflict. A sharp jump occurs when moving from states with no restrictions to states that have any restrictions on religious freedoms, regardless of the measure used. The relationship is especially striking for violence related to religion. None of the countries with a low score on government restrictions were reported to have widespread violence related to religion. In contrast, 45 percent of the countries with high government restrictions had such violence.

Even when the constitutional clauses are clear and religious freedoms are explicitly promised, there are no assurances that freedoms will be protected. The state must be held accountable for enforcing these promises and it must be capable and willing to do so. Free and fair elections combined with open political participation are often identified as a key protectorate of civil rights. Although the will of the religious and cultural majority can be imposed through popular legislation, the elections help to protect the freedoms of the majority. For religious groups and individuals the judiciary is especially crucial for protecting freedoms because the harshest restrictions on religion are typically imposed on religious minorities. Finally, the protection of any freedom relies on the government’s ability to monitor, enforce and protect. And to the extent that governments are effective in securing religious freedoms, social conflict tends to decline.

As social restrictions rise and social movements seek hegemony for a single religion, however, the rates of religion-related violence rise sharply. Nearly one half of the countries with social movements seeking power for a single religion report violence or widespread religion-related violence. By comparison only 19 percent of the countries without these movements report violence and a mere 8 percent report religion-related violence.

Finally, the state and social restrictions on religious freedom often lead to social, political and economic conditions that accentuate tensions and discrimination across religious groups. Hence, even when religion is not the primary motive for social conflict, the denial of religious freedoms can contribute to the conditions leading to conflict.

Denying religious freedoms often results in increased segregation of religious groups and an increase in discrimination against religious groups, especially minority religious groups (Finke and Harris 2012). Religion-related violence was evident in 80 percent of the countries with the highest level of religious segregation, but occurred in only 6 percent of the countries with little or no religious segregation.


Religious freedoms serve to defuse potential violence and the lack of freedom is associated with increased violence. When governments deny religious freedoms the most obvious consequences are the increased grievances of the religious groups being restricted. Yet, as shown in the global overview, the consequences of these formal state actions ripple far beyond the immediate denial of a specific freedom. The lack of freedoms for one group often emboldens the actions of other groups, especially the majority groups. Social movements and less formal social and cultural pressures frequently enact restrictions that go far beyond the actions of the state. The lack of religious freedoms can also result in social, economic and residential conditions that contribute to higher levels of violence. The social restrictions and pressures denying religious freedoms are closely tied to many of most prominent violent religious conflicts in the world today.