Freedom of religion is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or community, in public or private, to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance. It also includes the freedom to change one's religion or beliefs.
Freedom of religion is considered by many people and most of the nations to be a fundamentalhuman right. In a country with a state religion, freedom of religion is generally considered to mean that the government permits religious practices of other sects besides the state religion, and does not persecute believers in other faiths.Freedom of belief is different. It allows the right to believe what a person, group or religion wishes, but it does not necessarily allow the right to practice the religion or belief openly and outwardly in a public manner.
Historically, freedom of religion has been used to refer to the tolerance of different theological systems of belief, while freedom of worship has been defined as freedom of individual action. Each of these have existed to varying degrees. While many countries have accepted some form of religious freedom, this has also often been limited in practice through punitive taxation, repressive social legislation, and political disenfranchisement. Compare examples of individual freedom in Italy or the Muslim tradition of dhimmis, literally "protected individuals" professing an officially tolerated non-Muslim religion.
In Antiquity, a syncretic point of view often allowed communities of traders to operate under their own customs. When street mobs of separate quarters clashed in a Hellenistic or Roman city, the issue was generally perceived to be an infringement of community rights.
Some of the historical exceptions have been in regions where one of the revealed religions has been in a position of power: Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam. Others have been where the established order has felt threatened, as shown in the trial of Socrates in 399 BC or where the ruler has been deified, as in Rome, and refusal to offer token sacrifice was similar to refusing to take an oath of allegiance. This was the core for resentment and the persecution of early Christian communities.
Greek-Jewish clashes at Cyrene in 73 AD and 117 AD and in Alexandria in 115 AD provide examples of cosmopolitan cities as scenes of tumult.
The Romans tolerated most religions, including Judaism and encouraged local subjects to continue worshipping their own gods. They did not however, tolerate Christianity until it was legalised by the Roman emperor Galerius in 311. The Edict of Milan guaranteed freedom of religion in the Roman Empire until the Edict of Thessalonica in 380, which outlawed all religions except Christianity.
Following a period of fighting lasting around a hundred years before 620 AD which mainly involved Arab and Jewish inhabitants of Medina (then known as Yathrib), religious freedom for Muslims, Jews and pagans was declared by Muhammad in the Constitution of Medina. The Islamic Caliphate later guaranteed religious freedom under the conditions that non-Muslim communities accept dhimmi status and their adult males pay the punitive jizya tax instead of the zakat paid by Muslim citizens. Though Dhimmis were not given the same political rights as Muslims, they nevertheless did enjoy equality under the laws of property, contract, and obligation.
Dhimmis were allowed to operate their own courts following their own legal systems in cases that did not involve other religious groups, or capital offences or threats to public order. Non-Muslims were allowed to engage in religious practices that were usually forbidden by Islamic law, such as the consumption of alcohol and pork, as well as religious practices which Muslims found repugnant, such as the Zoroastrian practice of incestuous "self-marriage" where a man could marry his mother, sister or daughter. According to the famous Islamic legal scholar Ibn Qayyim (1292–1350), non-Muslims had the right to engage in such religious practices even if it offended Muslims, under the conditions that such cases not be presented to Islamic Sharia courts and that these religious minorities believed that the practice in question is permissible according to their religion.
Despite Dhimmis enjoying special statuses under the Caliphates, they were not considered equals, and sporadic persecutions of non-Muslim groups did occur in the history of the Caliphates.
Ancient Jews fleeing from persecution in their homeland 2,500 years ago settled in India and never faced anti-Semitism. Freedom of religion edicts have been found written during Ashoka the Great's reign in the 3rd century BC. Freedom to practise, preach and propagate any religion is a constitutional right in Modern India. Most major religious festivals of the main communities are included in the list of national holidays.
The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader in exile, said that religious tolerance of 'Aryabhoomi,' a reference to India found in the Mahabharata, has been in existence in this country from thousands of years. "Not only Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism which are the native religions but also Christianity and Islam have flourished here. Religious tolerance is inherent in Indian tradition," the Dalai Lama said.
Freedom of religion in the Indian subcontinent is exemplified by the reign of King Piyadasi (304–232 BC) (Ashoka). One of King Ashoka's main concerns was to reform governmental institutes and exercise moral principles in his attempt to create a just and humane society. Later he promoted the principles of Buddhism, and the creation of a just, understanding and fair society was held as an important principle for many ancient rulers of this time in the East.
The importance of freedom of worship in India was encapsulated in an inscription of Ashoka:
King Piyadasi (Ashok) dear to the Gods, honours all sects, the ascetics (hermits) or those who dwell at home, he honours them with charity and in other ways. But the King, dear to the Gods, attributes less importance to this charity and these honours than to the vow of seeing the reign of virtues, which constitutes the essential part of them. For all these virtues there is a common source, modesty of speech. That is to say, one must not exalt one's creed discrediting all others, nor must one degrade these others without legitimate reasons. One must, on the contrary, render to other creeds the honour befitting them.
On the main Asian continent, the Mongols were tolerant of religions. People could worship as they wished freely and openly.
After the arrival of Europeans, Christians in their zeal to convert local as per belief in conversion as service of God, have also been seen to fall into frivolous methods since their arrival, though by and large there are hardly any reports of law and order disturbance from mobs with Christian beliefs, except perhaps in the north eastern region of India.
Freedom of religion in contemporary India is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 25 of the nation's constitution. Accordingly, every citizen of India has a right to profess, practice and propagate their religions peacefully.Vishwa Hindu Parishad counters this argument by saying that evangelical Christians are forcefully (or through money) converting rural, illiterate populations and they are only trying to stop this.
In September 2010, the Indian state of Kerala's State Election Commissioner announced that "Religious heads cannot issue calls to vote for members of a particular community or to defeat the nonbelievers". The Catholic Church comprising Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara rites used to give clear directions to the faithful on exercising their franchise during elections through pastoral letters issued by bishops or council of bishops. The pastoral letter issued by Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council (KCBC) on the eve of the poll urged the faithful to shun atheists.
Nineteenth century allegorical statue on the Congress Column in Belgium depicting religious freedom
Most Roman Catholic kingdoms kept a tight rein on religious expression throughout the Middle Ages. Jews were alternately tolerated and persecuted, the most notable examples of the latter being the expulsion of all Jews from Spain in 1492. Some of those who remained and converted were tried as heretics in the Inquisition for allegedly practicing Judaism in secret. Despite the persecution of Jews, they were the most tolerated non-Catholic faith in Europe.
However, the latter was in part a reaction to the growing movement that became the Reformation. As early as 1380, John Wycliffe in England denied transubstantiation and began his translation of the Bible into English. He was condemned in a Papal Bull in 1410, and all his books were burned.
In 1414, Jan Hus, a Bohemian preacher of reformation, was given a safe conduct by the Holy Roman Emperor to attend the Council of Constance. Not entirely trusting in his safety, he made his will before he left. His forebodings proved accurate, and he was burned at the stake on 6 July 1415. The Council also decreed that Wycliffe's remains be disinterred and cast out. This decree was not carried out until 1429.
After the fall of the city of Granada, Spain, in 1492, the Muslim population was promised religious freedom by the Treaty of Granada, but that promise was short-lived. In 1501, Granada's Muslims were given an ultimatum to either convert to Christianity or to emigrate. The majority converted, but only superficially, continuing to dress and speak as they had before and to secretly practice Islam. The Moriscos (converts to Christianity) were ultimately expelled from Spain between 1609 (Castile) and 1614 (rest of Spain), by Philip III.
Martin Luther published his famous 95 Theses in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517. His major aim was theological, summed up in the three basic dogmas of Protestantism:
The Bible only is infallible.
Every Christian can interpret it.
Human sins are so wrongful that no deed or merit, only God's grace, can lead to salvation.
However, the movement continued to gain ground in his absence and spread to Switzerland. Huldrych Zwingli preached reform in Zürich from 1520 to 1523. He opposed the sale of indulgences, celibacy, pilgrimages, pictures, statues, relics, altars, and organs. This culminated in outright war between the Swiss cantons that accepted Protestantism and the Catholics. The Catholics were victorious, and Zwingli was killed in battle in 1531. The Catholic cantons were magnanimous in victory.
The defiance of Papal authority proved contagious, and in 1533, when Henry VIII of England was excommunicated for his divorce and remarriage to Anne Boleyn, he promptly established a state church with bishops appointed by the crown. This was not without internal opposition, and Thomas More, who had been his Lord Chancellor, was executed in 1535 for opposition to Henry.
In 1535, the Swiss canton of Geneva became Protestant. In 1536, the Bernese imposed the reformation on the canton of Vaud by conquest. They sacked the cathedral in Lausanne and destroyed all its art and statuary. John Calvin, who had been active in Geneva was expelled in 1538 in a power struggle, but he was invited back in 1540.
The same kind of seesaw back and forth between Protestantism and Catholicism was evident in England when Mary I of England returned that country briefly to the Catholic fold in 1553 and persecuted Protestants. However, her half-sister, Elizabeth I of England was to restore the Church of England in 1558, this time permanently, and began to persecute Catholics again. The King James Bible commissioned by King James I of England and published in 1611 proved a landmark for Protestant worship, with official Catholic forms of worship being banned.
In France, although peace was made between Protestants and Catholics at the Treaty of Saint Germain in 1570, persecution continued, most notably in the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Day on 24 August 1572, in which thousands of Protestants throughout France were killed. A few years before, at the "Michelade" of Nîmes in 1567, Protestants had massacred the local Catholic clergy.
Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic) enjoyed religious freedom between 1436 and 1520, and became one of the most liberal countries of the Christian world during that period of time. The so-called Basel Compacts of 1436 declared the freedom of religion and peace between Catholics and Utraquists. In 1609 Emperor Rudolf II granted Bohemia greater religious liberty with his Letter of Majesty. The privileged position of the Catholic Church in the Czech kingdom was firmly established after the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. Gradually freedom of religion in Bohemian lands came to an end and Protestants fled or were expelled from the country. A devout Catholic, Emperor Ferdinand II forcibly converted Austrian and Bohemian Protestants.
In the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V agreed to tolerate Lutheranism in 1555 at the Peace of Augsburg. Each state was to take the religion of its prince, but within those states, there was not necessarily religious tolerance. Citizens of other faiths could relocate to a more hospitable environment.
In France, from the 1550s, many attempts to reconcile Catholics and Protestants and to establish tolerance failed because the State was too weak to enforce them. It took the victory of prince Henry IV of France, who had converted into Protestantism, and his accession to the throne, to impose religious tolerance formalized in the Edict of Nantes in 1598. It would remain in force for over 80 years until its revocation in 1685 by Louis XIV of France. Intolerance remained the norm until Louis XVI, who signed the Edict of Versailles (1787), then the constitutional text of 24 December 1789, granting civilian rights to Protestants. The French Revolution then abolished state religion and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) guarantees freedom of religion, as long as religious activities do not infringe on public order in ways detrimental to society.
Early laws and legal guarantees for religious freedom
Principality of Transylvania
In 1558, the Transylvanian Diet's Edict of Torda declared free practice of both Catholicism and Lutheranism. Calvinism, however, was prohibited. Calvinism was included among the accepted religions in 1564. Ten years after the first law, in 1568, the same Diet, under the chairmanship of King of Hungary, and Prince of TransylvaniaJohn Sigismund Zápolya (John II.), following the teaching of Ferenc Dávid, the founder of the Unitarian Church of Transylvania, extended the freedom to all religions, declaring that "It is not allowed to anybody to intimidate anybody with captivity or expelling for his religion". However, it was more than a religious tolerance; it declared the equality of the religions, prohibiting all kinds of acts from authorities or from simple people, which could harm other groups or people because of their religious beliefs. The emergence in social hierarchy wasn't dependent on the religion of the person thus Transylvania had also Catholic and Protestant monarchs, who all respected the Edict of Torda. The lack of state religion was unique for centuries in Europe. Therefore, the Edict of Torda is considered as the first legal guarantee of religious freedom in Christian Europe.
Declaration, by Ferenc Dávid of Religious and Conscience Freedom in the Diet of Torda in 1568, painting by Aladár Körösfői-Kriesch
Act of Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience:
His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he – together with his realm – legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearings is by the word of God.
Four religions (Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Unitarianism) were named as accepted religions (religo recepta), having their representatives in the Transylvanian Diet, while the other religions, like the Orthodoxs, Sabbatarians and Anabaptists were tolerated churches (religio tolerata), which meant that they had no power in the law making and no veto rights in the Diet, but they were not persecuted in any way. Thanks to the Edict of Torda, from the last decades of the 16th Century Transylvania was the only place in Europe, where so many religions could live together in harmony and without persecution.
This religious freedom ended however for some of the religions of Transylvania in 1638. After this year the Sabbatarians begun to be persecuted, and forced to convert to one of the accepted religions of Transylvania.
Habsburg rule in Transylvania
Also the Unitarians (despite of being one of the "accepted religions") started to be put under an ever-growing pressure, which culminated after the Habsburg conquest of Transylvania (1691), Also after the Habsburg occupation, the new Austrian masters forced in the middle of the 18th century the Hutterite Anabaptists (who found a safe heaven in 1621 in Transylvania, after the persecution to which they were subjected in the Austrian provinces and Moravia) to convert to Catholicism or to migrate in another country, which finally the Anabaptists did, leaving Transylvania and Hungary for Wallachia, than from there to Russia, and finally in the United States.
In the Union of Utrecht (20 January 1579), personal freedom of religion was declared in the struggle between the Northern Netherlands and Spain. The Union of Utrecht was an important step in the establishment of the Dutch Republic (from 1581 to 1795). Under Calvinist leadership, the Netherlands became the most tolerant country in Europe. It granted asylum to persecuted religious minorities, such as the Huguenots, the Dissenters, and the Jews who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal. The establishment of a Jewish community in the Netherlands and New Amsterdam (present-day New York) during the Dutch Republic is an example of religious freedom. When New Amsterdam surrendered to the English in 1664, freedom of religion was guaranteed in the Articles of Capitulation. It benefitted also the Jews who had landed on Manhattan Island in 1654, fleeing Portuguese persecution in Brazil. During the 18th century, other Jewish communities were established at Newport, Rhode Island, Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah, and Richmond.
Intolerance of dissident forms of Protestantism also continued, as evidenced by the exodus of the Pilgrims, who sought refuge, first in the Netherlands, and ultimately in America, founding Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in 1620. William Penn, the founder of Philadelphia, was involved in a case which had a profound effect upon future American laws and those of England. In a classic case of jury nullification, the jury refused to convict William Penn of preaching a Quaker sermon, which was illegal. Even though the jury was imprisoned for their acquittal, they stood by their decision and helped establish the freedom of religion.
The General Charter of Jewish Liberties known as the Statute of Kalisz was issued by the Duke of Greater PolandBoleslaus the Pious on 8 September 1264 in Kalisz. The statute served as the basis for the legal position of Jews in Poland and led to the creation of the Yiddish-speaking autonomous Jewish nation until 1795. The statute granted exclusive jurisdiction of Jewish courts over Jewish matters and established a separate tribunal for matters involving Christians and Jews. Additionally, it guaranteed personal liberties and safety for Jews including freedom of religion, travel, and trade. The statute was ratified by subsequent Polish Kings: Casimir III of Poland in 1334, Casimir IV of Poland in 1453 and Sigismund I of Poland in 1539. Poland freed Jews from direct royal authority, opening up enormous administrative and economic opportunities to them.
The right to worship freely was a basic right given to all inhabitants of the future Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth throughout the 15th and early 16th century, however, complete freedom of religion was officially recognized in 1573 during the Warsaw Confederation. Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth kept religious freedom laws during an era when religious persecution was an everyday occurrence in the rest of Europe.
Most of the early colonies were generally not tolerant of dissident forms of worship, with Maryland being one of the exceptions. For example, Roger Williams found it necessary to found a new colony in Rhode Island to escape persecution in the theocratically dominated colony of Massachusetts. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were the most active of the New England persecutors of Quakers, and the persecuting spirit was shared by Plymouth Colony and the colonies along the Connecticut river. In 1660, one of the most notable victims of the religious intolerance was English Quaker Mary Dyer, who was hanged in Boston, Massachusetts for repeatedly defying a Puritan law banning Quakers from the colony. As one of the four executed Quakers known as the Boston martyrs, the hanging of Dyer on the Boston gallows marked the beginning of the end of the Puritan theocracy and New England independence from English rule, and in 1661 King Charles II explicitly forbade Massachusetts from executing anyone for professing Quakerism. Anti-Catholic sentiment appeared in New England with the first Pilgrim and Puritan settlers. In 1647, Massachusetts passed a law prohibiting any Jesuit Roman Catholic priests from entering territory under Puritan jurisdiction. Any suspected person who could not clear himself was to be banished from the colony; a second offense carried a death penalty. The Pilgrims of New England held radical Protestant disapproval of Christmas. Christmas observance was outlawed in Boston in 1659. The ban by the Puritans was revoked in 1681 by an English appointed governor, however it was not until the mid-19th century that celebrating Christmas became common in the Boston region.
Freedom of religion was first applied as a principle of government in the founding of the colony of Maryland, founded by the Catholic Lord Baltimore, in 1634. Fifteen years later (1649), the Maryland Toleration Act, drafted by Lord Baltimore, provided: "No person or persons...shall from henceforth be any waies troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof." The Act allowed freedom of worship for all Trinitarian Christians in Maryland, but sentenced to death anyone who denied the divinity of Jesus. The Maryland Toleration Act was repealed during the Cromwellian Era with the assistance of Protestant assemblymen and a new law barring Catholics from openly practicing their religion was passed. In 1657, the Catholic Lord Baltimore regained control after making a deal with the colony's Protestants, and in 1658 the Act was again passed by the colonial assembly. This time, it would last more than thirty years, until 1692 when, after Maryland's Protestant Revolution of 1689, freedom of religion was again rescinded. In addition, in 1704, an Act was passed "to prevent the growth of Popery in this Province", preventing Catholics from holding political office. Full religious toleration would not be restored in Maryland until the American Revolution, when Maryland's Charles Carroll of Carrollton signed the American Declaration of Independence.
Rhode Island (1636), Connecticut (1636), New Jersey, and Pennsylvania (1682) – founded by Protestants Roger Williams, Thomas Hooker, and William Penn, respectively – combined the democratic form of government which had been developed by the Puritans and the Separatist Congregationalists in Massachusetts with religious freedom. These colonies became sanctuaries for persecuted religious minorities. Catholics and later on Jews also had full citizenship and free exercise of their religions. Williams, Hooker, Penn, and their friends were firmly convinced that freedom of conscience was the will of God. Williams gave the most profound argument: As faith is the free work of the Holy Spirit, it cannot be forced on a person. Therefore, strict separation of church and state has to be kept. Pennsylvania was the only colony that retained unlimited religious freedom until the foundation of the United States in 1776. It was the inseparable connection between democracy, religious freedom, and the other forms of freedom which became the political and legal basis of the new nation. In particular, Baptists and Presbyterians demanded the disestablishment of state churches – Anglican and Congregationalist – and the protection of religious freedom.
[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
Those sentiments also found expression in the First Amendment of the national constitution, part of the United States' Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
The United States formally considers religious freedom in its foreign relations. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 established the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom which investigates the records of over 200 other nations with respect to religious freedom, and makes recommendations to submit nations with egregious records to ongoing scrutiny and possible economic sanctions. Many human rights organizations have urged the United States to be still more vigorous in imposing sanctions on countries that do not permit or tolerate religious freedom.
Freedom of religion in Canada is a constitutionally protected right, allowing believers the freedom to assemble and worship without limitation or interference. Canadian law goes further, requiring that private citizens and companies provide reasonable accommodation to those, for example, with strong religious beliefs. The Canadian Human Rights Act allows an exception to reasonable accommodation with respect to religious dress, such as a Sikhturban, when there is a bona fide occupational requirement, such as a workplace requiring a hard hat. In 2017 the Santo Daime Church Céu do Montréal received religious exemption to use Ayahuasca as a sacrament in their rituals.
However, the most substantial binding legal instruments that guarantee the right to freedom of religion that was passed by the international community is the Convention on the Rights of the Child which states in its Article 14: "States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. – States Parties shall respect the rights and duties of the parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child. – Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others."