"A scathing indictment of overreach of criminal law": Ahmed Shaheed on new Eleos Justice report

"A scathing indictment of overreach of criminal law": Ahmed Shaheed on new Eleos Justice report

Ahmed Shaheed | 7 October 2021

Today marks the launch of Eleos Justice's new report: 'Killing in the Name of God: State-Sanctioned Violations of Religious Freedom'. Ahmed Shaheed, the incumbent UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, reflects on the importance of this research.

This timely and significant report—Killing in the Name of God: State-Sanctioned Violations of Religious Freedom—comes as we continue to live through the human tragedy and widespread uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has disproportionately affected certain marginalised groups, and I have been deeply concerned by the rising number of reported acts of discrimination, hostility, and violence against religious, and belief minorities.

In my capacity as the United Nations mandate holder for freedom of religion and belief, I routinely call upon States and non-State actors to uphold this fundamental human right and highlight its violations in many countries worldwide. In July 2021, I drew the international community’s attention to the dire situation of Ahmadiyya Muslims. Targeted on the basis of their religious identity, they have endured hatred, violence and stigmatisation, including through unfounded conspiracy theories that they have caused and spread COVID-19. In the name of ‘protecting’ national security, Shi’a Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Baha’is in Iran have been arbitrarily detained, incarcerated and even executed.

Furthermore, the return of Taliban rule in August 2021 strongly suggests that Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic and religious or belief minorities are at heightened risk of violence and repression, given the Taliban’s history of violently targeting these vulnerable communities. Concerningly, the Taliban and others also have invoked religious precepts to perpetrate violence and discrimination against women, girls and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons.

Against this backdrop, Killing in the Name of God: State-Sanctioned Violations of Religious Freedom comes at an urgent juncture. There has been a surge of religious intolerance worldwide, including revival of anti-blasphemy and anti-apostasy laws. These laws cannot be justified under the international human rights law framework precisely because this framework protects individuals, rather than religions or beliefs. Nonetheless, these laws restrict the freedom to express views which may be deemed offensive to certain religious or belief communities, generally invoking national security, public order, or morality.

The report examines twelve countries that have retained the death penalty as a lawful possibility for offences against religion, such as blasphemy, apostasy, and proselytising. The authors persuasively argue that the existence of such provisions that privilege certain religions over others, or expect strict adherence to a religion recognised as a State religion, have a devastating impact. Even in jurisdictions where the death penalty is not imposed for offences against religion, its mere lawful possibility—codified or not—stifles the freedoms of religion or belief and expression. In some countries, this possibility also fosters an environment in which people feel entitled to engage in mob violence against those accused of offending religious morals. The report is a scathing indictment of overreach of criminal law, where State power is wielded to kill individuals for offending religious doctrines.

The UN ‘Faith for Rights’ framework aims to foster the development of peaceful societies that uphold human dignity and equality for all and where diversity is not just tolerated, but fully respected and celebrated. Community leaders, politicians, and civil society groups are instrumental actors in speaking out against intolerance, discrimination, and hate speech. Notably, religious or belief leaders can play a crucial role in translating ‘faith’ into the language of ‘rights’ and vice versa, thereby engaging their considerable influence over the hearts and minds of millions of people to defend diversity, peace, and freedom. Ultimately, States must protect freedom of religion or belief for everyone, everywhere and at all times—and one clear step towards realisation of that goal is to abolish the death penalty for offences against religion.


Ahmed Shaheed was appointed as Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief by the UN Human Rights Council in 2016. Mr Shaheed is Deputy Director of the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, UK.