Study Topic




Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have a religion or whatever belief of their choice, and freedom either individually or in community with others and in private or public to manifest their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.


This paragraph defines freedom of religion or belief, more specifically than most national constitutional principles, in matters relating to freedom of religion or belief. It is a framework for further elaboration on the specifics of this definition in the remaining two paragraphs and seven articles of the 1981 U.N. Declaration.


Understand the terms, or group of terms, to prepare a Community Report on Human Rights and Freedom of Religion or Belief.

  • Thought, Conscience, Religion, Belief
  • Freedom of Choice, Whatever Belief
  • Individual, Community, Private, Public
  • Worship, Observance, Practice, Teaching

Term: 1.1.1:Thought, Conscience, Religion, Belief

The first sentence of this paragraph has been described by international legal experts as having an internal and external meaning. Though and conscience are internal within an individual, and religion or belief are its external manifestations.

  • Thought: Thought has been described as “an idea or a body of ideas.” Ideas are introduced to individuals through numerous external influences, sacred religious scriptures, philosophy, oral stories, books, television, art, music, and in many other ways by religious and non-religious leaders and instructors, parents, peers, teachers, etc. Thought is assimilated internally within the mind of each individual.

  • Conscience: Conscience is defined in most dictionaries as the faculty of recognizing right from wrong in regard to one’s own conduct. Conscience is learned from outside external influences, including observing the behavior of others. But conscience is assimilated internally by each individual. Freedom of conscience, to believe or not to believe, as one so chooses, is an inclusive right and all embracing principle guiding the U.N. approach to human rights.

  • Religion: There are numerous definitions of religion by religious leaders and scholars that are almost always in dispute. Some religions are described as external, “an organized system of beliefs, dogma or creeds, centering on a supernatural being or beings.” Others, such as those in Eastern religions are more internal and include self-liberation through discovery of the Universal Mind, “right action” in Buddhism and Hinduism. Spirituality is often described as unorganized or non-dogmatic belief in the sacred or divine.
  • Belief: Belief, in the phrase religion or belief, is defined as non-religious, or those beliefs that are the opposite of religious beliefs. Descriptions of non-religious beliefs include materialism, atomism, atheism, non-theism. The U.N. protects the rights of all religious and non-religious beliefs.

Related Examples

Conscience is a term often used in the context of conscientious objector, a person who will not serve in the military because his or her conscience tells them killing is wrong.

  • Turkmenistan: “The country’s legislation allegedly does not recognize conscientious objection based on religious belief, and conscientious objectors are sent to prison. 4
  • Uganda: According to the U.N. Special Rapporteur, the national legislation of Uganda does not guarantee the right of conscientious objection on grounds of religion or belief. 5

  • Israel: In Israel, yeshiva (religious seminary) students are exempted from military service, but there is no exemption based on the international legal principle of conscientious objection.

Learning Experiences

Does your country have a provision on conscientious objectors? Do they allow for non-military government service instead of a military role? Research this and write your answer to the question in 1.1.1 of the topic notes. Find out if there is a religious group in your community with conscientious objection to military service. Call or interview them in person about the experiences their members have had if they decided against military service based on their beliefs.

Term 1.1.2: Freedom to Have a Religion or Whatever Belief of Their Choice

There are two points in this term, individuals have the right to have any religious or non-religious belief and to join or leave a religion or belief as they so choose.

  • Religion, Whatever Belief: This is the original phrase for the term freedom of religion or belief. The U.N. says all individuals are free to hold religious or non-religious beliefs, which includes all forms of theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.

  • Choice: Combine this term with conscience and you have the bedrock principle of human rights and freedom of religion or belief. Freedom of conscience, to believe or not to believe as one so chooses, is an all embracing inclusive right and guiding principle. The United Nations is committed to the inherent dignity, equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, which includes protection for the right to choose a religious or non-religious belief.

Related Examples

  • Mauritania: “The Penal Code reportedly punishes a Muslim’s conversion to another faith with the death penalty.”

Learning Experiences

Choice involves a number or variety from which to choose. There are some cultures of the world where a religion or belief is so much in the majority and fabric of the culture that choice is irrelevant because of a lack of diversity. Choice may be limited by coercion, a term that will be studied in the next paragraph. Check to see if your constitution or legal framework identifies a religion or belief as a state belief, and if the principles of a religion or belief prohibit conversion to another belief.

Term 1.1.3: Individual, Community, Private, Public

Article 1 allows the exercise of a religion or belief as an individual, in community with others, and in public or private. This is fairly straightforward, except for the fact that the exercise of a religion or belief may be limited, whether as an individual or in community with others, in private or in public if it qualifies for such limitation under the third paragraph of Article 1 below. But such limitations are rare, must be by law and pose an immediate threat to society. In many cases, religions or beliefs are not allowed to be expressed for a variety of reasons that are discriminatory.

Related Examples

  • Saudi Arabia: “Non-Muslim persons have the right to practice their religious ceremony within their residence.” [This report is from an incident that implies non-Muslim persons living in Saudi Arabia can manifest their beliefs only in private and not in public.]

  • China: In allegations of the arrest of a student, Wang Qing, who had attended an illegal seminary, the government responded by saying that while freedom of religion is guaranteed, legislation forbids religion being used to disturb the social order.

Learning Experiences

Check your local governments rules and regulations relating to when and where a religion or belief can be manifested. Make calls to three religious leaders and ask them if their religion or belief allow for the practice as individuals, in community with others, in private and in public.

Term 1.1.4: Worship, Observance, Practice, Teaching

  • Worship: To worship in matters relating to a religion or belief usually means to have reverence, awe, respect and adoration for a deity or god in community with others. Observance is the act of complying with a law, custom or ritual occasion. Religions or beliefs have the right establish and maintain places of worship and to observe their customs and rituals in such places as temples, synagogues, mosques and churches, or for instance in processions organized for marriages or funerals. Freedom to worship, maintain and assemble includes on lands and open space that are “sacred” to certain religions or beliefs.

In a few countries the law recognizes the right to worship in public only for the followers of the Established Church or the State religion. Sometimes the right to public worship is curtailed or occasionally even negated by unreasonable regulations. Licenses for the opening of places of worship may be arbitrarily withheld, or permits for assembling of a group of worshippers arbitrarily refused or difficult to comply with. 6 A most difficult situation occurs when two or more religions or beliefs, or secular groups, lay claim to the same place of worship or the same land.

  • Observance: Some countries have rules against observing a religion or belief such as a prohibition against wearing religious apparel in public schools. This may be a limitation motivated by the State’s concern to curtail social tensions, or an act of discrimination if such tension does not exist. The use of bells, musical instruments or amplifiers at times may result in a breach of the peace and must be taken into account. As a general rule, the members of a religion or belief should not be prevented from acquiring or producing articles necessary for the performance of rituals, such as prayer books, candles, ritual wine and the like. Observing days of rest and holidays for minority religions, in a country with established religious days for a majority religion, often clashes with economic and work rules. However, in accordance with international standards on freedom of religion or belief, such economic hardships or labor rules must not interfere with this right. 7

  • Practice: Practice in matters relating to freedom of religion or belief can be defined simply as, “to carry out or apply”. The U.N. has not defined the difference between observance and practice. These three rights, to establish charitable and humanitarian institutions, solicit funds and maintain communications in accordance with a particular religion or belief can obviously be called a practice. There are national, regional and local governmental laws and administrative rules regulating all three in most countries. Most religions or beliefs establish charitable and humanitarian institutions as a practice that is commanded by their belief to provide a deep sense of hope, love, consolation and general welfare for its followers and humanity in general. Funding for these charitable purposes and for the general administrative requirements of a religion or belief are honorable and must be respected, as does the need and the right to communicate both in private and public with individuals and other members of communities on international, national and local levels.

Some religions or beliefs use humanitarian institutions, funding and communications practices to try to convert others to their beliefs. This too, is an expression of faith and love called for by their belief and as a general rule is allowed by law in most countries. In some areas of the world however, cultural factors and economics create tension against outside missionary activities. There are two factors here, the substance of the message and the method by which it is spread. To prevent dissemination of a faith in a manner offensive to others, special laws, such as laws against blasphemy are enacted. Sometimes laws are used by a State with a predominant religion or belief to restrict the emergence of new competitive faiths. This is an act of discrimination against a new belief. Wisdom is needed to determine how best to protect both older cultural values and emerging newer beliefs that may make use of modern communication.

There are specific manifestations that are not identified in Article 6 such as burial, dietary or marriage practices. They might just as easily be called observances as practices. They are identified here as “practices” because while they are sacred religious rites, they are not as closely related as observance is to the worship of a god or deity. All religions have ceremonies and rites regarding burial. For Hindus, who believe in cremation, there can be no prayers for the departing soul until a death has been formally declared. For Jews, the practice of sitting shiva is supposed to follow burial. For Muslims, washing a body and shrouding it in white should proceed before funeral prayers or janaza. Burial, dietary and marriage and divorce practices are manifestations of freedom of religion or belief that must as a general rule be protected as rights under international standards. But each country has a variety of different approaches.

  • Teaching: The role of teaching religion or belief in public, private and religious schools and the rights of parents and children in what is taught has been addressed in Article 5. The three specific manifestations on teaching in Article 6 might be considered as rights needed to prepare to teach. This includes (1) the freedom to write, prepare and distribute religious texts or publications, (2) the freedom to establish seminaries, schools or other places suitable for teaching religion or belief, and (3) the freedom to choose, train and prepare religious leaders and teachers called for by the requirements and standards of any religion or belief.

Related Examples

  • Turkey: In March 2000 two Christians (originally Muslims who converted to Christianity), members of the Izmir Fellowship of Jesus Christ, are said to have been arrested as they sold and distributed Bibles and other Christian literature in Kempalpasa, new Ismir.

  • Azerbaijan: Six Jehovah’s Witnesses, employees of a Baku gas refinery were fired when they began to provide free materials to their colleagues, organized study groups during work hours to spread [teach] the ideas, objectives and purposes of their belief. They were later re-instated but it raises the question of the right to teach a religion or belief in places “suitable” for these purposes.

  • Indonesia: On 17 January 2000, a number of Christian churches and other properties were reportedly destroyed on the island of Lombok, and the Christian population had to flee to Bali.

  • India: The Ayodhya Babar mosque was destroyed by Hindu fundamentalists who claimed it was built on the sacred site of a shrine to Ram, one of the most widely worshipped Hindu deities. 8

  • United States: According to a report by the U.N. Special Rapporteur, Native American ceremonies and rites are often based on special geographic features such as burial sites, areas where sacred plants or other natural materials are available, and structures, carvings or paintings of religious significance. 9 In the United States, many of these practices have been prohibited as the lands have been confiscated by the Federal and State governments for recreational, historic or economic uses.

  • United States: While not an example of deliberate discrimination, delay in the recovery of bodies from the New York World Trade Center bombing, prevented Hindus, Muslims and Jews killed from exercising religious practices of burial. 10

  • Great Britain: authorities have secured adjustments in several areas of practice such as exempting turban-wearing Sikhs from legislation requiring protective headgear, accommodations in matters relating to burial customs, extension of the legal and religious rights to marriages to Hindu, Sikh and Muslim institutions and the rights of Jews and Muslims to practice animal slaughter according to Jewish and Muslim religious law. Still, blasphemy and blasphemous libel remain criminal offences in Great Britain. Laws still relate to Christian blasphemy, but not to other religions which in 1985, with the publication of Satanic Verses, infuriated British Muslims who felt the book slandered Islam. When it comes to the right to public and private communications, freedom of expression issues overlap in a complex way with freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief in tense debates over those who want all blasphemy laws repealed and those who want it extended to all religions or beliefs. 11

Learning Experiences

This paragraph identifies the right to worship, practice, observe and teach. Article 6 elaborates on these as nine specific rights. If you are studying this as a group, a facilitator may want to ask the group to list on a sheet of paper, ways in which they think the rights to worship, observe, practice and teach are manifested. Answer the questions for 1.1.4 in the topic notes for this paragraph.



Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have a religion or whatever belief of their choice, and freedom either individually or in community with others and in private or public to manifest their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

Type the articles of your constitution on matters involving freedom of religion or belief, in the Community Information Database. Answer the questions in the topic notes below. Edit the notes and enter in the Community Information Database.

Term 1.1.1: Thought, Conscience, Religion, Belief

Describe what each of these terms mean in the 1981 U.N. Declaration, followed by what they mean in the constitution of your country, and how they apply to your community.

Term 1.1.2: Freedom to Choose, Whatever Belief

Describe what freedom to choose whatever belief means in the 1981 U.N. Declaration.
Does your description apply to your community? Explain.

Term 1.1.3: Individual, Community, Public, Private

Are there any instances in your community where freedom to practice your religion or belief as an individual, in community, in public or private been denied? Explain.

Term 1.1.4: Worship, Observance, Practice, Teaching

Define in your own words what each of these terms mean. This is a good set of terms to exchange information with by the Internet with monitors in other cultures and countries. Edit your answer and transfer to the Community Information Database.

4. E/CN.4/2000/65, Special Rapporteur’s Report, 15 February, 2000 ; 5. Ibid footnote 4 back

6. Arcot Krishnaswami, Study of Discrimination in the Matter of Religious Rights and Practices, U.N. Doc E/CN.4/Sub.2/200/rev/1 (1960) p.27 back

7. Paragraph 4, General Comment 22 on Article 18 of the ICCPR (U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/18). Refer to the General Comment in Part IV: Reference Documents for the official and entire statement. back

8. S.P. Udayakumar, Historicizing Myth and Mythologizing History: The Ayodhya Case in India (1999) back

9. Abdelfattah Amor, Visit to the United States of America (E/CN.4/1999/58/add.1, p. 15 back

10. New York Times, Facing Rituals of Grief Bereft of a Body, 27 September, 2001 back

11. K. Boyle and J. Sheen, Freedom of Religion and Belief: A World Report, Routledge, London and New York (1997) p. 319 back