FoRB on the agenda as Commonwealth leaders arrive in London

With the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) coming to London next week, Parliamentarians have been urging that Freedom of Religion or Belief is on the agenda and included in the final communique. Read more

Leaders from 53 countries in the Commonwealth of Nations will meet in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Lancaster House, the Commonwealth’s international headquarters: CHOGM is one of the world’s largest international summits.

In a parallel event, the Archbishop of Canterbury will host a High-Level Roundtable on Freedom of Religion or Belief at Lambeth Palace, his official London residence.

The Commonwealth Charter includes this statement:

Tolerance, respect and understanding
We emphasise the need to promote tolerance, respect, understanding, moderation and religious freedom which are essential to the development of free and democratic societies, and recall that respect for the dignity of all human beings is critical to promoting peace and prosperity.

Yet 70% of the Commonwealth population live with high or very high government restrictions on the right to freedom of religion and belief.

Of the full list of 53 member countries, many appear in lists of countries of concern with respect to FoRB.

Bangladesh is a Human Rights Priority Country for the UK Government. In 2016, the frequency of violent and deadly attacks against religious minorities, secular bloggers, intellectuals, and foreigners by domestic and transnational extremist groups increased. Although the government, led by the ruling Awami League, has taken steps to investigate, arrest, and prosecute perpetrators and increase protection for likely targets, the threats and violence have heightened the sense of fear among Bangladeshi citizens of all religious groups. In addition, illegal land appropriations—commonly referred to as land-grabbing—and ownership disputes remain widespread, particularly against Hindus and Christians. (USCIRF)

Brunei is 26th on Open Doors list of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. Their summary states “Converting away from Islam is illegal, and if believers from Muslim backgrounds are identified by the security services, they will be threatened to make them recant their new faith. Some Christians and members of other minority groups are denied official citizenship, making them stateless residents and causing them many difficulties. Authorities monitor churches, and their activities are restricted; for example, public celebrations of Christmas have been banned since 2014.”

India is 11th on the Open Doors list, with the activities of Hindu extremists causing increasing concern. It is a Tier 2 country for USCIRF, which states “In 2016, religious tolerance and religious freedom conditions continued to deteriorate in India. Hindu nationalist groups— such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Sangh Parivar, and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP)—and their sympathizers perpetrated numerous incidents of intimidation, harassment, and violence against religious minority communities and Hindu Dalits. These violations were most frequent and severe in 10 of India’s 29 states. National and state laws that restrict religious conversion, cow slaughter, and the foreign funding of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and a constitutional provision deeming Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains to be Hindus helped create the conditions enabling these violations. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke publicly about the importance of communal tolerance and religious freedom, members of the ruling party have ties to Hindu nationalist groups implicated in religious freedom violations, used religiously divisive language to inflame tensions, and called for additional laws that would restrict religious freedom. These issues, combined with longstanding problems of police and judicial bias and inadequacies, have created a pervasive climate of impunity in which religious minorities feel increasingly insecure and have no recourse when religiously motivated crimes occur.”

Pakistan is 5th on the Open Doors list, and a country of concern to both the US and the UK. Last year’s Foreign Office Human Rights report stated “The country’s minority communities, including religious minorities – in particular Ahmadiyya,
Christian and Shia communities – suffered widespread persecution. We repeatedly expressed concerns about violations of freedom of religion or belief and misuse of the blasphemy laws.”

Other Commonwealth member countries with particular concerns about FoRB are Nigeria, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.


The CHOGM 2018 Communique has no specific reference to Freedom of Religion or Belief.

It includes this paragraph:

Fundamental Political Values
2. Heads affirmed their unwavering commitment to the Commonwealth’s Fundamental Political Values, reflected in the Commonwealth Charter. They recalled the Commonwealth’s proud history of acting to strengthen good governance and the rule of law, to protect and promote democratic principles and human rights, to promote peace and security and to strengthen democratic institutions. They emphasised that the full social, economic and political participation of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status, is essential for democracy and sustainable development to thrive. Heads also acknowledged the role of civil society organisations, including women’s rights’ organisations, in this context.