The Significance of Freedom of Belief 

Countries that lack religious freedoms or freedom of belief in general often experience tensions that result in harsh security measures against anyone who deviates from the societal norms established by the official institutions. This includes those who adopt a different religion from the majority or choose not to adhere to any religion at all. Furthermore, sectarian conflicts may arise from feelings of exclusion and marginalization within a segment of the population that, although it adheres to the official religion of the country, follows a different sect. This situation can be seen as an indication of the absence or lack of religious tolerance.

Freedom of belief, commonly referred to as freedom of conscience, constitutes an elemental human right that serves as the bedrock of a just and all-encompassing society. This fundamental principle upholds the entitlement of every individual to harbour and articulate their religious, non-religious, or philosophical convictions devoid of apprehension regarding persecution, discrimination, or coercion. This objective can be attained through the protection of individual rights and the preservation of their human dignity. The presence of such freedom plays a crucial role in fostering an environment that facilitates the harmonious coexistence of diverse beliefs.

Article 18 of the  UDHR states:

“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.”

Additionally, Article 18 of the ICCPR restates the entitlement to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.

Freedom of belief is a fundamental human right that holds immense significance in promoting individual autonomy, fostering social harmony, enriching cultural diversity, encouraging intellectual growth, and upholding human rights principles. This cherished freedom allows individuals to explore and express their religious, non-religious, or philosophical convictions without fear of discrimination or persecution. 

In spite of the paramount significance of religious freedom and belief in advancing human rights and cultivating principles of peaceful coexistence and secure communal environments, certain regions across the globe confront obstacles that imperil this fundamental right. These challenges manifest in the following key aspects:

Insufficient religious tolerance within numerous societies, evidenced by acts of prejudice and discrimination targeting minority religions or individuals holding non-religious beliefs, culminating in acts of violence and marginalisation.

The implementation and enforcement of blasphemy and apostasy laws by select countries, resulting in punitive measures against individuals who renounce their faith or adopt an alternative religious belief divergent from the officially endorsed or majority religion, a practice contingent upon demographic proportions.

The imposition of a singular religion by governmental bodies, and in certain instances, a specific religious sect or ideological doctrine, is evident in educational institutions, religious spheres, and even within the public domain. This prevailing circumstance frequently engenders the suppression of religious diversity, engendering an atmosphere conducive to the proliferation of extremist ideologies and animosity.

Unfortunately, Oman is considered one of the countries where individuals do not enjoy the freedom of belief or religious freedom. Many individuals who have openly expressed their non-religious beliefs or engaged in intellectual activities related to atheism have faced arrest, imprisonment, or, in the least severe cases, investigation. In Article 2 of the Basic Law, Oman presents itself as a religious state where Islam is the basis of legislation, which aligns with the third point previously discussed, revolving around states or governments imposing specific religions or even sects. This challenge has led to the existence of blasphemy and apostasy laws, as stipulated in Article 269 of the Omani Penal Code, which prescribes imprisonment for a period of not less than 3 years and not exceeding 10 years for anyone involved in activities that law enforcement authorities interpret as being against religion or undermining religious values. 

Additionally, from a sectarian perspective, Omani security authorities have previously summoned several writers for publishing articles that discussed aspects of sectarian history. Recently, specifically last June, the security authorities arrested several citizens from the Taqah state in the Dhofar Governorate for performing the Eid al-Adha prayer in a manner that deviated from the country’s official calendar. The number of arrests and summonses subsequently increased to include even those who sympathized with the detainees or opposed the arrests. Furthermore, Chapter One of Part Eight of the Penal Law contains provisions that make any activity related to freedom of thought and religion impossible due to the severity of the penalties imposed on anyone the authorities believe to be acting against public order.

The nature of these legislations has unfortunately contributed to an increasing tone of intolerance towards individuals with differing perspectives, not only those related to the Islamic religion but also any criticism of the country’s official sect, Ibadi. Among the victims of these laws was the late activist and previous diplomat Hassan Al-Basham, who was sentenced to three years in prison and passed away in April 2018, while serving his sentence. Another prominent case is the Ghayth’s Spaces case, where four individuals, Ali Al-Ghafri, Mariam Al-Nuaimi, Abdullah Hassan, and Ghayth Al-Maqbali, were involved. Some of the accused were acquitted of charges, while Mariam was released in April of last year After receiving a royal pardon. However, Ali Al-Ghafri, who surrendered himself to the authorities in November 2022, is currently serving a five-year sentence after being convicted of blasphemy and insulting the divine entity.

Religious activity and freedom of belief in Oman are considered risks that may lead to severe prison sentences. Especially with the increasing hostility expressed by some prominent religious figures, such as the Grand Mufti of the Sultanate, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Khalili, and others. The OCHRD observes that the existence of legal legislation condemning any activity related to religious freedom and belief is one of the primary reasons for the lack of tolerance in Oman today. It urgently calls on the authorities to eliminate these laws and introduce new ones that provide a safe environment for intellectual pursuits, in line with international human rights laws.

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