What is freedom of religion or belief?

Freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, often referred to as "religious freedom" or most commonly "freedom of religion or belief" (FoRB) is a fundamental and universal human right.

FoRB is encapsulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and in a range of international human rights treaties. FoRB is a fundamental human right in that it is an essential component of the human rights framework, and universal in that it protects all individuals in their beliefs, including those who hold theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as those who choose not to have any religion or belief.

Components of freedom of religion or belief

According to international human rights standards everyone has the right to FoRB without discrimination on any grounds. Broadly speaking this right can be understood in terms of its internal element or "forum internum" and its external element or "forum externum."

Forum Interum

A person’s right to form, to hold and to change serious inner convictions and beliefs is sometimes referred to as the "forum internum." This component of FoRB has absolute protection. This means that there are no circumstances under which this freedom can be justifiably violated or broken, including for reasons of national security or in an emergency.

The "forum internum" component includes the right to form and hold opinions based on conscience, including those beliefs that may be deemed objectionable, or even offensive to others. It protects the right to have or hold a religion or belief, as well as the right not to have a religion or belief. Though it is considered controversial in many parts of the world, this also allows for the right to reject or to change a religion or belief, and the right not to be coerced or forced into believing something. No one should be compelled or forced to reveal their religion or belief publicly against their will either.

Forum Externum

A person’s right to manifest or outwardly display a religion or belief, either alone or as part of a community, is sometimes referred to as the "forum externum." This component of FoRB protects the right to manifest a religion or belief through teaching, worship, practice, and other forms of observance. This includes the right to share one's religion or belief with others, and to encourage others to adopt similar beliefs. It includes the right to publish and distribute literature and other forms of information about a religion or belief. It also includes the right to own and use buildings for worship, and to express a religion or belief through clothing, rituals, and symbols. The "forum externum" component of FoRB can be limited by the government or state, but only in exceptional situations with a high threshold of evidence required by those enforcing any limitations. The UN Human Rights Committee declares that international law permits "restrictions on the freedom to manifest religion or belief only if limitations are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others."