New report reveals vast extent of global non-religious persecution

1 March, 2021

A new report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief (APPG for FoRB) has today highlighted the vast global persecution faced by non-religious people, identifying particularly grave problems in many countries around the world. Humanists UK has welcomed the report, and commended it as a resource for decision-makers in their efforts to combat freedom of belief violations.

13 countries have the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy, and in dozens more it is a criminal offence to be openly non-religious. Highlighting these problems, the report says:

  • On Iran: ‘For atheists and secularists, the expression of non-religious views has been severely persecuted in Iran and is rendered practically impossible due to severe social stigma. It is also likely to be met with hatred or violence. In Iran it is illegal to declare oneself to be an atheist or non-religious. In February 2017, Professor Ahmadreza Djalali, who worked for the Free University in Brussels, was arrested and threatened with the death sentence by Iranian security forces, who accused him of “collaborating with scientists from hostile nations” and “enmity against God”. Since his arrest his physical and mental condition has worsened and reports in November 2020 suggest his execution is imminent. Reports indicate that the period of the COVID-19 crisis has witnessed a ratcheting up of the substantive and wide-ranging denial of freedom of religion or belief to members of recognised and non-recognised religious communities as well as secular or atheist Iranians.’
  • On Nigeria: ‘The treatment of the non-religious in Nigeria is also severe. Mubarak Bala, President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, was rescued in 2014 from a psychiatric ward where he was detained on the grounds that he was an atheist. He was detained again in April 2020, alleged to have insulted the Prophet in his Facebook posts. After continued obstruction by the Nigerian authorities, he was allowed to meet his legal representative in October 2020. His case has been repeatedly postponed.’
  • On Pakistan: ‘The non-religious are targeted by state actors and vigilante groups alike. There is a rising intolerance against liberal/progressive and atheist bloggers and authorities have failed to provide a safe environment. The government designates religious affiliation on identity documents such as passports and in national identity card applications. Applicants must state their religion when applying for a passport. “No Religion” is not accepted as an answer. Gulalai Ismail, a leading human rights activist [and humanist], was forced to flee from Pakistan in 2019. She was persecuted in 2019 for speaking out against sexual assaults and disappearances carried out by the Pakistani military. Ever since she relocated to the United States, her family in Pakistan have been subjected to increasing threats, harassment and intimidation from local security forces.’
  • On Saudi Arabia: ‘Non-Muslim religious minorities and atheists are forbidden from practising or expressing their beliefs in public… Liberals, freethinkers and atheists are often victim of arrest, torture and, in some cases, awarded the death penalty. Raif Badawi is the prisoner of conscience who has been in prison since 2012 for having liberal and dissenting views. Ahmad Al Shamri and Ashraf Fayadh are imprisoned for promoting atheist ideas and dissenting culture.’
  • On Bangladesh: ‘The environment is authoritative and regressive inclining towards religious nationalism. The lack of democratic values and a brutal crackdown against secular and atheist bloggers and dissidents has created a culture of impunity that not only limits freedom of religion or belief but also places minorities under a constant threat of violence and discrimination. Oppressive laws, like the Digital Security Act (DSA) that criminalises blasphemy as a non-bailable offence, continue to harass and threaten religious minority groups and the non-religious, paving the way for extremist elements to target and attack them. 64 Incidents of mob lynching have increased. There are reports that suggest that the authorities are either sympathetic to the vigilantes or lack the competence to deal with them. In July 2020, police indicated that seeking to arrest human rights activist and secular blogger Asaduzzaman Noor, also known as Asad Noor, after new criminal charges were brought against him under the Digital Security Act on July 14 for “spreading rumours” and “defaming Islam” via a Facebook video… In recent years, dissidents and activists have face enforced disappearances that has created a threat to atheists, and secular bloggers in particular, but also religious minorities in general.’
  • On Egypt: ‘While the constitution declares that “freedom of belief is absolute”, it only allows this freedom for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There are severe penalties for declaring oneself to be an atheist, including up to five years’ imprisonment, and a new law is being drawn up to criminalise atheism. It is illegal to register an explicitly humanist, atheist, secularist, or other non-religious NGO and those that attempt it face harassment from the authorities. One of the most visible signs of discrimination against atheists, apostates from Islam and members of minority religions is the policy concerning the Egyptian State ID cards, which include a section on religion where only one of the three “divine religions” can be recognised. It is in practice almost impossible to change the designation from ‘Muslim’ on the ID card. Concerning atheists and agnostics, they are “one of Egypt’s least-protected minorities”, according to Human Rights Watch, and there has been a prolonged campaign to turn “youth” away from atheism, with several prominent atheists arrested and convicted. In June 2020, activist and blogger Anas Hassan was convicted and sentenced on appeal to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 EGP (approximately $ 19,144) for managing the Facebook page ‘The Egyptian atheists’ which allegedly criticized the “divinely revealed religions”.’
  • On Iraq: ‘Humanists, atheists and secularists are the focus of particularly pernicious repression. There is a pattern of impunity or collusion in violence by state actors against the non-religious. They are considered to be ‘apostasizers and blasphemers’. The Iraqi Penal Code criminalises blasphemy with up to three years imprisonment. Members of other faiths and those identifying as agnostics, atheists, humanists are not able to record their faith identity on national ID cards.’
  • On Afghanistan: ‘blasphemy and apostasy laws significantly undermine freedom for people of other faiths [other than Islam] and none.’
  • On Malaysia: ‘Apostasy laws forbid conversion from Islam in all but one state.’
  • On Turkey: ‘Turkey’s long-standing freedom of religion or belief problems impact groups and individuals from diverse religious or belief backgrounds as well as atheists and agnostics… measures must be taken to ensure that the education system respects the right of parents to raise their children in line with their religious or philosophical views (this impacts, among others, Alevis, atheist and agnostics, Sunni Muslims critical of school teaching on religion)… the religious identification on national ID cards must be removed.’
  • On Sudan – more positively: ‘On 12 July 2020, Sudan abolished the [death penalty for] apostasy law, public flogging and alcohol ban for non-Muslims. “We [will] drop all the laws violating the human rights in Sudan,” Justice Minister Nasredeen Abdulbari said.’ Although in fact Sudan still criminalises apostasy, just not with death.’

Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented:

‘In many countries, persecution of the non-religious is vicious to the extreme, so much so that it is impossible to be openly non-religious at all. We welcome this report as highlighting these problems and urge UK decision-makers to do whatever they can to combat the issues raised.’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at or phone 020 7324 3072 or 020 3675 0959.

Read the report.

Read the APPG for FoRB’s statement.

Read more about our work on international issues.

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