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Freedom of Religion: Essential Principles

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance."
UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18, 1948

For most of world history, emperors and kings based their legitimacy on claims of divinity or divine approval. Differences in religious beliefs between rulers and within states were the cause of wars, revolts, and persecution. While few world leaders explicitly claim divine legitimacy today, religion remains a central factor in many of the world's conflicts, including the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Russia's war in Chechnya, and the Islamist terrorism of al-Qaeda. Countless innocent lives have been lost because of a fundamental lack of respect for freedom of religion and an intolerance of people with different beliefs.

...religion remains a central factor in many of the world's conflicts...

The long history of brutal religious wars in Western Europe helped give rise to the modern notion of religion as a matter of individual conscience, rather than an official policy of the state. This concept of freedom of belief became one of the core ideas of American and European democracy, or what is sometimes called the "first freedom" because of its place in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights. Without the ability to think, believe, and worship freely, and without the principle of toleration of others' beliefs, there can be no democracy. Citizens are unable to exercise their free choice in either religion or politics, leading to the frustrations that help fuel violent conflict.

The transformation of religion from a justification for war or for a state's existence into an object of political liberty and individual conscience is one of the most important stories of modern history—and a story that is still unfolding. It has been at the heart of the development of liberal democracy, and where it remains incomplete, political life is often defined by dictatorship or terrorism.