14 Jan 2014

Of little faith: world’s most dangerous places for atheists

As an Afghan citizen who is an atheist secures UK asylum for religious reasons, Channel 4 News looks at some of the countries where it is illegal to have no faith.

A demographic study in 2012 by the Pew Forum found that that roughly one-in-six people around the globe (1.1bn, or 16 per cent) have no religious affiliation.

This makes the unaffiliated the third-largest religious group worldwide, behind Christians and Muslims, and about equal in size to the world’s Catholic population.

However, in some Muslim countries not having a religion is often spurned upon and in some cases carry the death sentence.

A report, published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) in 2013, found that the non-religious are still discriminated against, or outright persecuted, in some countries of the world.


In Afghanistan the constitution and other laws often contradict themselves on freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of expression.

But overall, these rights are severely restricted and frequently violated by the government, as well as by regional and local chiefs, and non-state actors.

For example, despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, apostasy is still punishable by death.


The Iranian constitution divides citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran into four religious categories: Muslims, Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians.

Non-believers are effectively left out and are not afforded any rights or protections.

They must declare their faith in one of the four officially recognised religions in order to be able to claim a number of legal rights, such as the possibility of applying for the general examination to enter any university in Iran.


Every Malaysian citizen over the age of 12 must carry an identification card, a “MyKad”, which must state the bearer’s religion.

According to Sharia law within most Malaysian states, apostasy or conversion is a punishable offence, either with a fine, a jail sentence or the death penalty.


The constitution designates Islam as the official state religion, and the government and many citizens at all levels interpret this provision as imposing a requirement that all citizens must be Muslims.

Every citizen of the Maldives is required to be a Muslim, and the penalty for leaving Islam is death.


The 1991 constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and recognizes Islam as the sole religion of its citizens and the state.

It means all non-Muslims are prevented from being citizens of the country, and Mauritanians who leave Islam for another religion or no religion lose their citizenship


The constitution and other laws and policies protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom of opinion and expression.

However, these rights are frequently violated by federal, state and local governments, as well as by non-state militias and terrorist groups, such as the violent Islamist group Boko Haram.


The widespread prosecution of cases of alleged blasphemy, which is punishable by death, remains a severe violation of freedom of thought in Pakistan.

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion.


Capital punishment is still on the books for apostasy and blasphemy, and is punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Islam is the state religion and Sharia is the main source of legislation. The law does not recognise religions or belief systems outside the three Abrahamic faiths of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

Saudi Arabia

There is no freedom of religion or belief, or freedom of expression, in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Punishment for any perceived criticism of the ruling family or ruling form of Islam is swift and severe.

There is no separation between state and religion, and the deep connection between the royal family and the religious establishment results in significant pressure on all citizens to adhere to the official government interpretation of Islam.


Somalia has lacked an effective central government for decades. The resulting anarchy has enabled extremist Islamist groups to impose harsh forms of Sharia (Islamic law) that included death for apostasy, blasphemy and other expressions of freedom of belief and expression.


The interim national constitution and other laws and policies establish Islam as the source of all legislation, and restrict freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly and association.

In practice, the government not only enforces these restrictions, but also uses extra-legal violence to violate the rights of it citizens.

United Arab Emirates

The UAE constitution and other laws and policies do not protect freedom or thought, conscience and religion, nor do they protect freedom of opinion and expression.

The constitution declares that Islam is the official religion of all seven constituent emirates of the federal union and defines all citizens as Muslims.

The law also denies Muslims the freedom to change religion or leave Islam.


Yemen imposes substantial restrictions on freedom of religion or belief and on the freedoms of expression, assembly and association.

The constitution does not specifically protect religious freedom, and other laws and policies restrict it.

The constitution declares that Islam is the state religion and that Islamic law is the source of all legislation.


In other countries – such as India, where a recent case involved a leading critic of religion – humanists say police are often reluctant or unwilling to investigate murders of atheists carried out by religious fundamentalists, the report found.

Criticism of religious faith or even academic study of the origins of religions is frequently treated as a crime and can be equated to the capital offence of blasphemy, it added.

Four western countries are rated “severe” because they can jail people for breaking laws prohibiting “blasphemy” and other free speech on religion.

Those countries are Iceland (a sentence of jail for up to three months), Denmark (up to four months), New Zealand (up to a year), Poland (up to two years), Germany (up to three years) and Greece (up to three years).

Jail time could be handed to someone who simply “blasphemes God” in the case of Greece, or “insults the content of other’s religious faith” in the case of Germany.