Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion says converts may face death penalty in some States


On 25 October 2012, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Mr Heiner Bielefeldt, presented his report,[1] to the  Third Committee of the General Assembly.[2]  


On 25 October 2012, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Mr Heiner Bielefeldt, presented his report,[1] to the  Third Committee of the General Assembly.[2]  

In his statement, the Special Rapporteur said his thematic report focused on the right to conversion in order to clarify the rights of converts and those trying to convert others non-coercively. In his study of the issue, which was based on research gathered from country visits, the Special Rapporteur found a pattern of abuses of the right to conversion perpetrated in the name of religion or ideology, including under the pretext of promoting national identity or preserving political security. He also reported that converts, in some States, may face criminal prosecution, including the death penalty for such offenses as ‘apostasy,’ ‘heresy,’ ‘blasphemy,’ or ‘insult’ in respect of a religion or the country’s dominant traditional and values.

In attempting to clarify the rights of converts and those trying to convert others non-coercively, the Special Rapporteur distinguished four sub-categories of the right to conversion:

  • the right to conversion, in the sense of changing one’s own religion or belief;
  • the right not to be forced to convert;
  • the right to try and convert others via means of non-coercive persuasion, and,
  • the rights of the child and of his or her parents.

These dimensions illustrate that the freedom of religion or belief is not confined to the individual internally, or the forum internum. It also relates to one’s freedom to manifest one’s beliefs in acts, in the forum externum, through prayer, worship and teaching. Unlike the forum internum, aspects of the rights that exist forum externumare not absolute. The Special Rapporteur did make clear, however, that the burden of proof falls upon those intending to restrict this freedom, not those defending it. Subsequently, any restriction must be clearly and narrowly defined, and in a non-discriminatory manner, in accordance with Article 18 (3) of the ICCPR.

The Special Rapporteur urged all States to respect, promote and protect the right of freedom or belief in the context of the right to convert. He underlined that, “the right of conversion and the right not to be forced to convert or reconvert belong to the internal dimension of a person’s religious or belief-related conviction, which is unconditionally protected under international human rights law.”

The Special Rapporteur expressed concern that he had encountered numerous violations of the right to conversion by State and non-state actors. In particular, he was concerned that converts are not only victimized by social pressures, public contempt and systematic discrimination, but often also face administrative obstacles when trying to live in conformity with their convictions.

Commenting on the gender dimension of the right to conversion, the Special Rapportuer noted the pressures and threats experienced by women in the context of marriage, or from a husband or prospective husband expecting her conversion. He also described repressive activities faced by children of converts in schools and said that such measures were used to coerce parents to reconvert to a 'socially appropriate' or accepted religion.

Lastly, the Special Rapporteur indicated that many States impose restrictions on outreach practices, which unduly limit the right to persuade people to convert via non-coercive means. These discriminatory limitations can strengthen the official or dominant religion of the country while further marginalising minorities.   

Twelve countries participated in the interactive dialogue, which proved to be largely supportive and non-controversial.

Canada, the European Union (EU) and the United States (US) expressed appreciation for the Special Rapporteur's attention to the rights of converts, and asked the Special Rapporteur to elaborate on best practices to ensure the protection of a person's right to conversion.  The EU, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom (UK) and Germany welcomed the discussion of the gender dimension of the right to conversion, and of the relationship between the rights of the parents and the rights of the child. Canada and the Netherlands echoed the Special Rapporteur's view that international human rights law apply a broad scope in consideration of the freedom of religion or belief, including theistic, non-theistic and atheistic convictions. 

The UK  questioned the report’s finding that the existence of an official religion would inevitably adversely affect religious minorities. The UK suggested that the Special Rapportuer stress non-discrimination before the law as the overarching principle and not whether the country has an official religion.

Russia and China contended that the State has a right and a responsibility to intervene if a group's outreach activities are not in line with international law. In response to remarks by Canada, China defended its treatment of Falun Gong, calling the group a cult and not a religion.

Several comments alluded to the ongoing tensions and discussions around 'defamation of religion'. Canada, the Netherlands, the US and Austria all emphasized the need for interfaith dialogue because of the connection between the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion.  Iran, more directly, asked whether the issue of insult to the sanctity of religion would be taken up in the Special Rapporteur's next report. The Special Rapportuer emphasised the importance of communication between religions, and responded to Iran's question by discussing the threshold for “hate speech” set out in Article 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).


[1] See the interim report (A/67/303) of the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of religion or belief at:http://www.un.org/en/ga/third/67/documentslist.shtml

[2] See a webcast of this interactive dialogue that took place during the 25th meeting of the Third Committee at http://bit.ly/YthnYh



  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council
  • Third Committee of the UN General Assembly