The term religion has been used in association with the traditional majority, minority and new religious beliefs in uplifting divinity. Freedom of religion may be defined as the freedom of an individual or freedom of a group of people to choose a religion or a belief in teaching, worship or practice. The freedom of religion includes an individual’s freedom to be in a religion of his or her own choice, to change religion at will or to choose not to be in any religion at all.
Freedom of religion is acknowledged in many nations all over the world as a fundamental human right, which is protected, by several international declarations and treaties. It includes the freedom of thought on any issue, freedom of conscience and freedom to hold religious belief and religion, which can be practiced as an individual or in a group either in public or in private.
Freedom of religion is a very important and a fundamental right of human beings. Even though it has been accepted by several nations all over the world, its practice has not been experienced to the maximum due to religious persecution, taxation, political factors, authoritative social legislation and some beliefs by different churches like the Christian churches that are known to believe that an individual can only get saved if he or she is converted to Christianity (Walkate, 1983, p. 146).
Religion and religious belief are very complex and difficult terms to understand in the sense that they are known to be sources of tension and conflict among different people, communities and even nations and at the same time they are considered as source of hope and comfort as they embrace great potential for peace and settlement. The complexity of the term religion and religious belief are visible in the narration of the building up of the freedom of religion or belief following the background of the international human rights (Swidler & Mojzes, 1990, p. 248).
In the past however, the term religious freedom was used to mean the tolerance that every person was expected to give to different theological systems or beliefs. Freedom of worship on the other hand was used to refer to the action of individuals. Every individual however needs this freedom since it forms very important aspects of our lives and the life of every individual is affected by their religious beliefs.
However religious organizations that support themselves through the use of the power of the government and try to force their views and opinions on members of other religions should be discouraged as they undermine the civil rights of other persons and especially those who belong in other religious faiths other than theirs. Nevertheless the state should ensure that every individual or group of people enjoys their freedom of religion but should not use its powers to sustain a particular religion as this will tamper with the clergy’s service to the members of that religion and as a result will lead to corruption within that particular religion. It is therefore appropriate that the state stays away from the churches and the church activities to encourage a free and integral society.
There are some countries with state religions. However, other countries do not have state religions. In such countries i.e. with state religion, if the freedom of religion is to be felt then the government must allow other religious sects a part from the state religion to practice their religious rights without any interference.
In some religions for example the Muslims and in some countries like China and North Korea there exists a lot of religious harassment especially of the minority religions. Freedom of religion is a legal concept and is therefore not similar with religious toleration or separation of the churches and the state even though they may be related. In a situation where the individual members are the people involved with the concept of freedom of religion, religious toleration is used to refer to an approach of recognition towards the religions of other people.
The toleration requires an individual to understand and accept that every person has the right to hold and practice a belief of his or her own choice rather than having to view other religions as equally true. A person who fails to obey the right of others to hold and practice a religion of their choice is committing an offence against the validity of other people’s beliefs and the belief not to belong to any religion at all.
For several years, there has been a struggle to achieve religious liberty. The outcome of this struggle has been a number of tragic conflicts among nations, communities as well as individuals. In the twentieth century common values related to the freedom of religion were coded, this however did not stop the struggle. In response to this, the United Nations recognized the significance of the freedom of religion and belief in the statement that was given world wide in 1948 concerning the rights of Human beings and was recorded as article 18, which stated that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. The right was granted to enable every citizen to hold a religion or any belief that he or she chooses to hold.
This marked the beginning of attempts by different states to develop a constitution, which would enforce human rights related to freedom of choice, which has nevertheless not been successful. Another act ‘international covenant on civil and political rights was passed by the united nations in the year 1966 to help develop the already given statement on the manifestation of the freedom of religion (Witte & Johan,1996, pp. 172-173).
Freedom of religion demands that an individual be free to follow his thoughts and conscience in issues related to religious faith. An individual enjoying freedom of religion should be able to worship in person or with others in private or in public without the fear of being harassed by anybody be it the government or any other member of the community.
Governments that protect freedom of religion should not determine the extent and the content of religious publications, sermons and education. Such governments should also not interfere with the parents who are trying to give direction to religious education of their children. The government should also ensure protection of ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities from violence based on the incitements relating to religious matters.
The government should ensure that employers give their employees opportunity to recognize their days of worship and the holy days that are associated with their beliefs. Interfaith movement should be encouraged and supported by the government to enable members of different faith to come up with common solutions to problems and challenges facing the whole community so that they can collectively solve them. In addition the rights of religious organizations to develop support programs either in schools or in hospitals to help the poor, the aged, widows and orphans should not be interfered with. There should however be freedom of religious leaders, government, journalists and non-governmental organizations to examine reports of religious persecution.
Freedom of religion has its own benefits and should therefore be respected by every individual. For example by granting the freedom of religion to every citizen the aristocracy of the clergy has been pushed down and the freedom of thought of the citizens reinstated. In addition through freedom of religion, it has been declared that no person shall be forced to attend or support the activities of any religion without his or her own will.
An individual should also not be imposed, mistreated or controlled in his body or his property and shall not be exposed to any form of suffering because of his or her religious stand, opinion or belief. Instead, every individual shall be free to confess and maintain his or her religious opinions and beliefs as far as religion is concerned. This should never be allowed to interfere with civil rights and capacities of different individuals.
Religion is definitely a very private aspect and this gives it evidence why it should be left for an individual to chose his or her own. Religion and religious practices purely occur between an individual’s conscience and his or her Maker. Every individual is therefore accountable to his or her Maker on matters concerning religion and religious beliefs but not to the priests, the government, the society or any other individual living under the sun. This gives every person a reason not to try to meddle in other person’s religious affairs.
For there to be freedom of religion, we need to develop religious liberty. By developing religious liberty, we find the necessity to choose for ourselves. Because we want to choose for ourselves, we must allow others also to choose for them thus creating religious liberty, which gives every person the freedom of religion (Frost, 1990, p.70).
The inspiration by the theologian John Courtney Murray made the Roman Catholic Church to declare freedom of religion in the second Vatican Council Declaration. A part from the Roman Catholic Church, other Christians like some Orthodox Christians also encourages freedom of religion for every person. In addition, protestant Christian churches such as the Christ churches, baptism churches and the SDA churches give a lot of commitment in supporting the freedom of religion.
However, other churches argue that Christian churches do not give freedom of religion especially to the local traditions as they persist on dissemination of the Christian faith to the local cultures. They further argue that Christian churches offend the concept of freedom of religion of the people who follow other faiths with their belief that non-Christians can only be saved if they are transformed to Christianity. Christianity is thus considered a hindrance to religious freedom.
People who have experienced religious persecution as a result of their religious stand including the Jews and Christians have in most cases seek refuge in India to be able to enjoy their religious freedom since in India the freedom of religion and individuals right to worship freely without any fear of persecution was appreciated and encouraged.
The two graphs below shows the number of people who migrated as a result religious persecution. The graph shows migration per decade. The duration covered is from the year 1821 t0 1981.
In the United States, most of the colonies were formed as a result of religious persecution. These colonies however did not tolerate the religions of others. This as a result made some people to further move away from the already founded colonies to create new colonies to avoid religious persecution that was practiced in those colonies. This however did not go on for a long time as they came to an end in the 18th century when countries like Europe and America became informed of the issues concerning individual freedom of worship and religion.
The issue of freedom of religion was formally considered by the United States in foreign relations. The United States through the act known as the international religious freedom act formed a commission that looked into the freedom of religion both nationally and internationally. Through this act several nations were investigated on matters relating to freedom of religion. Many organizations that seemed to be concerned with issues related to human rights later persuaded the United States to be harsher in imposing sanctions to countries that failed to tolerate religious freedom.
The efforts of the united states in achieving the goal of religious freedom in every country was however criticized by some individuals and organizations who claimed that the policy adopted by the United States on religious freedom was discriminating in that it was mainly focused on ensuring the religious freedom of Christians to enable the Christian missionaries to evangelize in other parts of the world (Gaustad, 2004, p.24).
An individual’s right or the right of a particular group of people to change their religion is one of the most crucial issues that should be considered giving freedom for religion. The missionary activities of other religions have raised a lot of questions among some Islamic states like the China. Those states and Chinese have carried out some debates which mainly focused on discussing the ways of restricting the activities of the missionaries. Other than China and the Islamic states, some European countries such as Greece have also been against the favor of the Christian missionaries.
Freedom of religion has also received a blow from the non Abrahamic religions. Such religions include African and the Indian religions. This has mainly been witnessed from an African scholar Makau Mutua who has greatly criticized the religious evangelism with the claims that such evangelisms led to cultural extinction. It has been assumed that human rights and mostly the rights pertaining to freedom of religion involved some playing field whereby the African religions involve themselves in competition in the market place (Mutua, 2004, p.125).
There was further an argument that the human rights pertaining to religion are meant to protect the rights of other religions which gives them an opportunity to tear down other religions. Arguing from this basis some scholars from India said that it is not culturally neutral to grant the right to spread religion. In addition some Indian states have also debated on issues relating to forceful conversions. Some debate was also conducted in Sri Lanka to discuss about the bill that seeks to prevent the missionary activities from exploiting some native religious traditions.
In 1492 the Jews who lived in Spain experienced a religious persecution and some were even expelled from Spain. The Roman Catholic Church during this time was very concerned about how other religious faiths expressed their religious beliefs. They at times discriminated against the Jews religion but at times accepted their religious beliefs. This led to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and even those who remained behind had to transform. Even though the Jews were persecuted and expelled from Spain, they were the most tolerated non-catholic belief in Europe.
The freedom of religion has a very big influence in every individuals life since religious beliefs or non beliefs is of great significance in every individuals life. It is therefore very important that every individual be given his or her right of religion irrespective of what it is whether he or she is a member of a religious belief or not. This is important, as it will help reduce the conflicts and the struggles that have been experienced because of religious persecution.
Frost, J. W. (1990). The right of everyone to change: Religious liberation in Pennsylvania. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Gaustad, E. S. (2004). Faith of the originator: Religion and the New Nation, 1776-1826. Waco: Baylor University Press. 2nd Ed.
Mutua, M. (2004). Facilitating Freedom of Religion or ideology. A Desk book: Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Swidler L. & Mojzes, P. (1990). Attitudes of religions and beliefs towards the foreigner. Edwin Mellen Press.
Walkate, J.A. (1983). The right of every person to be converted: some observations. Netherlands International L. Rev 146.
Witte, J. Jr. & Johan D.V. (1996). Religious Human Rights in Global Perspective. Martinus Nijhoff.