• New trends in seven countries show active persecution of atheists and humanists in 2017
  • 85 countries in total exhibit severe discrimination against non-religious individuals
  • IHEU warns of impunity for murder of atheists, and state-supported persecution of the non-religious

The 2017 Freedom of Thought Report highlights seven countries that have actively persecuted non-religious people this year.

The report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) emphasises the murders of humanists and atheists in Pakistan, Maldives and India in the past 12 months. In Malaysia, a backlash against atheists was escalated to government levels, when officials threatened to “hunt down” apostates. An anti-atheist campaign in Pakistan saw several activists ‘disappeared’ or prosecuted for alleged “blasphemy”, with two men facing a possible death sentence. “Apostasy” cases in Mauritania, Saudi Arabia and Sudan are highlighted as part of the wider threat to those who speak out as “non-religious” or challenge religious power structures, in particular in Islamic countries where “apostasy” is often reviled. The report documents 12 countries where leaving or changing religion by “apostasy” is punishable by death.

Even these incidents are only “the most noticeable moving parts on the extensive machine of anti-non-religious discrimination” globally, according to the report. In total 55 countries are listed as having one or more elements of “severe discrimination”. Such elements include for example imprisonable “blasphemy” laws, fundamentalist proselytisation in state-run schools, the derivation of state law from religious doctrine, and control over family and personal status law by religious courts.

The report warns that the increasing number of anti-atheist murders and other incidents of persecution should not be thought of as disconnected events, but as part of “a pattern of regression on a global scale”. While there is much global attention on rising populism and authoritarianism, the Freedom of Thought Report warns that, “The rhetorical opposition and very real threats to democratic norms extends far beyond ‘fake news’ and Twitter bots… Any remaining notion that secularism and human rights must inevitably establish themselves… must now be cast aside as deeply complacent and apathetic.”

Ahead of the report’s launch at the European Parliament on Tuesday, president of the IHEU Andrew Copson said, “More and more people are coming to us in the humanist movement from Saudi Arabia, or Afghanistan, or Pakistan, and saying: ‘I am humanist’ or ‘I am atheist, and I cannot speak out, I cannot say what I need to, even online’. They are afraid they’re going to be attacked for it, maybe even killed.”

Copson continued, “This report shows that this is not an irrational fear. There have been extrajudicial killings occurring in multiple countries and near impunity for the killers. The international community cannot continue to placate states which criminalise leaving religion as a capital offence. We call on the international community to condemn the persecution of humanists and atheists, and to work with human rights defenders around the world to bring an end to this injustice. We also call on all those who are able to support our ‘humanists at risk’ crowdfunding campaign to help ensure that IHEU can continue to do our valuable advocacy work for the non-religious around the world.”


Notes for editors:

  1. IHEU is the global representative body of the humanist movement, uniting a diversity of non-religious organisations and individuals. The IHEU works to build and represent the global Humanist movement that defends human rights and promotes Humanist values worldwide. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organisation incorporated in New York, USA. And registered in England, number FC020642.
  2. The seven countries said to be “actively persecuting” the non-religious in 2017 are India, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan.
  3. The Freedom of Thought Report is published online at freethoughtreport.com with the full country index at freethoughtreport.com/countries/. Data including the full list of which boundary conditions are applied to each country is available via freethoughtreport.com/data. On 5 December a new e-edition for 2017 will be published on the site, as well as the new introductory and editorial material online. New interactive maps will be published at freethoughtreport.com/map
  4. A launch event will be held at the European Parliament on Tuesday 5 December hosted by the Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief, with co-chair of the Intergroup, Dennis de Jong MEP, presiding. Details: iheu.org/event/fot-2017-launch/
  5. Press enquiries for more information, clarifications or comment to [email protected].