Report: Islamic States Lead in the Persecution of the Non-Religious

Kevin McCandless | December 18, 2017 | 3:46am EST
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Saudi Arabia is one of 30 countries identified in a new report as a major violator of the rights of the non-religious. Like other countries on the list, the kingdom is a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council. Here Saudi ambassador Abdulaziz Alwasil meets with U.N. Geneva director-general Michael Møller. (UN Photo/Pierre Albouy)

London ( – A new report warns that secularism is under threat across the globe, with persecution of the non-religious on the increase – and Islamic countries dominate the list of the most egregious offenders.

The Freedom of Thought Report 2017, published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) this month, found that 85 countries severely violate the human rights of the non-religious in at least one area or worse.

Breaches range from countries where laws against blasphemy persist to the 30 countries where the right not to believe is violated at the highest level, for example laws are largely or entirely derived from religion or from religious authorities.

Of the 30 countries, 26 are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the bloc of 56 mostly Muslim-majority nations. The remaining four are China, North Korea, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

In Pakistan, a humanist activist was murdered this year by his fellow college students, atheists were barred from taking public office, and there were continuing reports of forced religious conversions.

The report gave the United States a relatively good rating due to constitutional protections enjoyed by its citizens and well-established beliefs in personal freedom. The IHEU did warn, however, that secularist and humanist face ongoing battles with religious groups over issues of separation of church and state.

Overall, the report said that the vast majority of the world’s countries fail to respect the rights of humanists, atheists, and the non-religious.

The IHEU said the issue was significant, because the way a nation deals with freedom of thought almost always reflects the way it treats human rights overall.

The report’s editor, Bob Churchill, said North Korea offered a good example of this.

The regime clamps down on freedom of thought, but beyond that “the entire environment is dedicated to brainwashing,” he said.

According to the IHEU, the impetus for an annual report began in 2012 when the State Department’s Office for Religious Freedom asked the American Humanist Association to write a report on global human rights violations against the non-religious.

The IHEU then took the report written by the AHA and other American affiliates, and expanded it out into an international edition, which now examines the record of every country,

Churchill agreed that humanist activists could be described as “a canary in the coalmine” when it comes to broader human rights violations.

“But they’re also leading voices for reform and criticism of religious practices that are harmful to society,” he said.

Ahead of the report’s launch, IHEU president Andrew Copson said humanists and atheists in countries like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan are increasingly telling his group that they have been silenced, including online.

”They are afraid they’re going to be attacked for it, maybe even killed,” he said.

In recent years, Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, like counterparts in other countries as well as international institutions, has publicly made ”freedom of religion or belief” a policy priority.

In October, a report from a cross-party group of British lawmakers said that while this freedom was no longer a neglected one in policy discussions, it remained ”orphaned” when it comes to implementing policy.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in a speech this month that international development aid programs were the key to expanding freedom of religion or belief in the Middle East.

“If there is to be that third alternative, neither anti-democratic tyranny, nor Islamism, but pluralist and tolerant, then we need to intensify our current work,” he said.

Government ministers have pointed in the recent past to one program in the Middle East and northern Africa that helps secondary school teachers promote religious tolerance in their classes.

The 30 countries found to have the worst records are: Afghanistan, China, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, Comoros, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

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