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How 1 in 4 Countries Restrict Religious Conversion

New report by international religious freedom advocates compiles the text of 73 laws in 46 nations.
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How 1 in 4 Countries Restrict Religious Conversion
Image: Pradeep Gaur / AP Images
United Hindu Front activists stage a protest in New Delhi, India.

To share your faith—or change it to another—first check your citizenship.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has released a new report on anti-conversion laws around the world. Providing the legal text for 73 separate laws, the compendium notes that 1 in 4 nations (46 total) restrict the right of its people to either adopt or propagate a religion.

“The right to convert from one religion or belief to another, or to no religion or belief at all, is central to [the] protection for religious freedom,” said Susie Gelman, a USCIRF commissioner. “And in countries with anti-conversion laws, religious minorities tend to be broadly targeted for harassment, assault, arrest, and imprisonment.”

Gelman, a three-term president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, cited the example of pastor Keshav Acharya, sentenced by Nepal to one year in prison for allegedly attempting to convert Hindus to Christianity. But he is not the only example.

Last week in India, 9 Christians were arrested for allegedly evangelizing the poor.

Last summer in Iran, 106 Christians were arrested for their religious beliefs.

Last spring in Libya, an American Christian was arrested for alleged missionary activity.

The USCIRF report grouped the laws into four categories. First, anti-proselytizing laws restrict witnessing of one’s faith in 29 nations, including in Indonesia, Israel, and Russia. In Morocco, for example, it is illegal to cause a Muslim to question his or her religion.

The second category of interfaith marriage is restricted in 25 nations, including in Jordan, the Philippines, and Singapore. In Qatar, for example, if a wife converts to Islam but the husband does not, a judge may annul their marriage.

Identification document laws—the third category—in 7 nations restrict the right of an individual to formally convert to another religion, including in Iraq, Malaysia, and Turkey. Myanmar, for example, requires converts to submit an application and be subject to questioning about the genuineness of the conversion.

And finally, apostasy laws in 7 nations make conversion illegal, including in Brunei, Mauritania, and Saudi Arabia. In Yemen, for example, the punishment is death.

But any such punishments contradict prevailing human rights standards, said USCIRF. In terms of personal faith, Article 18 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees the ability to have, adopt, or change religious belief.

Article 19 of both charters guarantees the right to propagate belief.

Evangelism is a particularly important part of the Christian religion, said McKenna Wendt, advocacy manager for International Christian Concern (ICC), contracted by USCIRF to produce the compendium. But her concern is cross-religious. If any faith-based conversation might land a person in prison, anti-conversion laws significantly dampen the religious practice of all.

Given the demographics in offending nations, however, Wendt said that Christians “bear the brunt” of discriminatory practice. She urged believers to find creative ways to share their faith, to boldly support gospel preaching in restrictive nations, and to pray for those imprisoned for converting to Christianity.

USCIRF maintains a non-comprehensive list of 2,174 individual victims from all religions who are persecuted for their faith in nations it designates as “countries of particular concern” (17) or it places on a “special watch list” (11).

To qualify, nations must engage in or tolerate “severe” violations of religious freedom, offending at least two of three “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” descriptions. Many of the 46 nations with anti-conversion laws do not warrant inclusion, in part because they are not actively prosecuting.

But this does not eliminate the problem.

“The very existence of these laws in the legal code sets a precedent that minority religious communities are inferior to the country’s majority religion,” said Wendt. “And even if nations refrain from acting upon them, it inspires vigilantes to carry out justice on their own accord.”

Gelman agrees.

“The mere existence of an anti-conversion law in some countries emboldens individuals, non-state actors, and mobs to discriminate against and violently attack religious minorities,” she said. “They create a culture of animosity toward religious minorities that can lead to violence, even when governments are not actively enforcing them.”

One illustrative example from Nigeria encompasses both factors. Rhoda Jatau is listed for her imprisonment on blasphemy charges, having criticized the mob murder of a college student who asked her colleague to remove Islamic material from their online study group.

Both alleged offenses sparked rioting against the local Christian community.

The USCIRF victims’ list also includes violations committed by terrorist groups designated as “entities of particular concern” (7). It includes Nigeria’s Boko Haram, regional provinces of the Islamic State, and other groups in Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

To compile the compendium, USCIRF and ICC relied exclusively on primary source documentation from legal databases, whether published by government or civil society organizations. The report stated that many anti-conversion laws are not published officially. Credible secondary source reporting, however, would add a further 13 nations to the list, including Afghanistan, Iceland, and Tanzania.

Bangladesh, for example, is already included for its restriction of interfaith marriage. But last week, a Christian convert from Islam was arrested on trumped up charges related to anti-government activity and blasphemy of Muhammad, filed when he reported a physical assault on his wife and children.

And a separate USCIRF compendium counted 95 nations with blasphemy laws, including Bangladesh. The death penalty is applicable in Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

And technically, India is not among the new report’s listed nations, as it lacks a national anti-conversion law. The report instead notes that 12 of 28 Indian states have such restrictions in their local legal codes. Wendt said that the laws play well with the ruling party’s rhetoric that Christians and Muslims are forcibly converting Hindus.

India’s south and central Asian neighbors represent 9 of the offending 46 nations, while East Asia and the Pacific region add another 10. The Middle East and North Africa have 16. Europe and Eurasia include 7 nations, while sub-Saharan Africa tallies 4.

None are found in the Western hemisphere.

“Our research aimed to identify every law around the world that restricts or regulates conversion,” said Wendt, “and these laws affect people of all faiths.”

January/February
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