The Right to Be Proselytized Under International Law

Ryan Cheney is a 2024 JD/MPA graduate of Brigham Young University and an incoming attorney at Boyack Christiansen Legal Solutions. This post is based on an article published in the BYU Law Review.

Legal arguments and academic discussions about proselytism tend to focus on the right of the proselytizer to proselytize and on the right of the “proselytizee” to be free from such “interference.” Sometimes proselytism is criticized on the grounds that it interferes with a person’s religious rights or with the integrity of the person’s religious community.[1] However, if proselytism is restricted and people are thereby prevented from being “being proselytized,” a noteworthy result is that fewer people hear proselytizers’ messages and adopt new religions or beliefs. Of course, some people will prefer not to interact with proselytizers. However, many individuals listen to and accept proselytizers’ messages.[2] By depriving them of the opportunity to choose whether to listen to and accept proselytizers’ messages, might proselytism restrictions infringe on individuals’ rights?

I argue that such restrictions in fact do violate individuals’ rights under international law because international law protects a right to be proselytized.

A Gap in the Literature

As mentioned, current scholarly literature largely focuses on the rights of proselytizers—on whether people have the right to proselytize[3]—and neglects the possibility that people may have the right to be proselytized under international law. Some scholars have also suggested that proselytism violates purported “negative freedoms” of proselytizees—the right to be free from interference with their affairs,[4] religious practice,[5] or religious feelings.[6] Others have discussed certain affirmative rights of proselytizees; for example, Garnett argued that proselytism invites individuals to exercise their freedom to choose whether to accept a religious message; by sharing that message, proselytizers “propose” rather than “impose.”[7] At least one scholar has specifically, if briefly, analyzed whether people may have the right to hear such a message from a proselytizer in the first place. Danchin explains that, without the freedom to proselytize, the international legal right to adopt a new religion or belief would be basically meaningless.[8] He also notes that this idea is reinforced by the fact that international law guarantees people the right to “receive . . . information.”[9] However, Danchin curtails his analysis, stating that these rights do not necessarily imply a right to receive any information whatsoever, even information that the government deems necessary to restrict to serve some “compelling interest.”[10]

Foundational Rights Under International Law

A more thorough analysis shows that, while international law does not explicitly provide for a right to be proselytized, it protects this right by granting several rights that establish and constitute the right to be proselytized.

First, international law guarantees the right to be proselytized by guaranteeing “freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”[11] This freedom includes the right to publicly and “in community with others” “manifest [one’s] religion or belief in . . . observance, practice and teaching.”[12] The right to manifest one’s religion, in turn, includes the right to try in a non-coercive manner to persuade others to adopt one’s own religion or beliefs—the right to proselytize.[13] Because people must have the right to proselytize in order for there to be a right to be proselytized, international law’s protection of the former also protects the latter.

The freedom of thought, conscience, and religion also includes the right to “adopt a religion or belief of [one’s] choice.”[14] Persuading people to adopt a new religion or belief is a primary goal of proselytism.[15] In addition, as pointed out by Danchin and the European Court of Human Rights, the right to adopt a new religion or belief would be “a dead letter” without the right to proselytize.[16] In other words, the opportunity to be proselytized is essential to people’s ability to meaningfully choose a new religion or belief. To fully protect the right to change one’s religion or belief, governments must allow people to be proselytized.

Second, international law also protects the right to be proselytized through the rights to freedom of opinion and freedom of expression. The right to freedom of opinion allows individuals to hold opinions, including religious opinions, for whatever reason they choose, without interference.[17] Denying individuals the opportunity to be proselytized interferes with their freedom of opinion by withholding from them the chance to receive information that could inform their religious opinions. The right to freedom of expression includes the right to “seek [and] receive . . . information and ideas of all kinds . . . through any . . . media of [one’s] choice.”[18] Banning proselytism infringes this right, since the medium of proselytism allows individuals to seek and receive information that is religious in kind.

Third, international law establishes the right to be proselytized by guaranteeing that people have the right to peaceful assembly.[19] Such assemblies can include spontaneous or planned gatherings of more than one person to exchange ideas or communicate positions on issues, including for religious purposes.[20] When individuals are proselytized, they gather with one or more proselytizers in a meeting that may be initiated spontaneously by the proselytizer or planned in advance by both parties, for the purpose of exchanging religious ideas and communicating positions on religious issues. The right to peaceful assembly thus protects the right to be proselytized.

Finally, the right to be proselytized is protected by international law’s prohibition of religious discrimination.[21] Bans on proselytizing or on religious conversion often are designed[22] and/or implemented[23] in a discriminatory way, preventing people from leaving a favored religion. By prohibiting such discriminatory restrictions, international law protects the right to be proselytized.

Human Dignity and the Right to Be Proselytized

The right to be proselytized is protected not only by the terms of international law but also by a principle that underlies much of international law: universal human dignity.[24] This principle holds that all humans have an inherent inalienable dignity, simply because they are humans.[25] A prominent modern justification for this idea is that humans have the capacities of reason and conscience.[26] When individuals are proselytized, they have the opportunity to engage these capacities by reasoning through religious ideas and evaluating them through their sense of conscience. They can also expand these capacities, for example, by incorporating new religious ideas into their conscience. By contrast, when individuals are prevented from being proselytized, such as by a law restricting proselytism, they are deprived of that potential opportunity, and their capacities of reason and conscience are muted. These capacities are usurped by the government, which decides for its citizens that they would rather not be proselytized.

Restrictions on the Right to Proselytize

While international law protects a right to be proselytized, many governments and private actors infringe on that right. In many countries, laws restrict proselytism[27] or conversion,[28] and in many places, private actors harass and abuse people, including through violence, for converting.[29] Some governments and private actors attempt to justify such repression as protection of proselytizees.[30] However, recognizing that proselytizees are entitled to receive proselytism under international law and that protecting this right respects their human dignity reveals shortcomings in such justifications. Considering the right to be proselytized in the formulation and application of law can direct officials to decisions that better respect this right and proselytizees’ human rights and dignity overall.


International law protects a right to be proselytized, and governments should protect that right domestically and promote it abroad. Current scholarly literature neglects this right, and the right is jeopardized by law and abuses in some countries, so there is great opportunity and need for studying and safeguarding this right. The right to be proselytized has a solid foundation in international law, and it deserves a solid place in legal discourse and in domestic law and life.


[1] See Peter G. Danchin, Of Prophets and Proselytes: Freedom of Religion and the Conflict of Rights in International Law, 49 Harv. Int’l L.J. 249, 274–76, 289 (2008).

[2] See, e.g., The Mormons: The Mission, PBS, American Experience (30 Apr. 2007) (“Each year, approximately 53,000 Mormon missionaries go out into the world to win as many as 250,000 converts to their faith.”).

[3] See, e.g., John Witte Jr., A Primer on the Rights and Wrongs of Proselytism, 31 Cumb. L. Rev. 619, 619, 629 (2001); Moshe Hirsch, The Freedom of Proselytism Under the Fundamental Agreement and International Law, 47 Cath. U. L. Rev. 407 (1998).

[4] See, e.g., Hirsch, supra note 3, at 409.

[5] See, e.g., Danchin, supra note 1, at 274.

[6] See, e.g., id. at 289.

[7] See Richard W. Garnett, Changing Minds: Proselytism, Freedom, and the First Amendment, 2 U. St. Thomas L.J. 453, 457 (2005) (quoting Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, para. 39 (7 Dec. 1990)).

[8] See Danchin, supra note 1, at 271–72 (citing Kokkinakis v. Greece, App. No. 14307/88, ¶ 31 (ECtHR 1993)).

[9] Id. (referencing International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 19(2), 16 Dec. 1966, 999 U.N.T.S.171 [hereinafter ICCPR]).

[10] See id.

[11] See ICCPR, supra note 9, art. 18(1).

[12] Id.

[13] See U.N. Secretary-General (UNGA), Interim Report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, ¶ 66, U.N. Doc. A/67/303 (13 Aug. 2012).

[14] See ICCPR, supra note 9, art. 18(1).

[15] See Witte, supra note 3, at 627.

[16] See Danchin, supra note 1, at 271–72; Kokkinakis, supra note 8, ¶ 31.

[17] See ICCPR, supra note 9, art. 19(1).

[18] See id. art. 19(2).

[19] See id. art. 21.

[20] U.N. Human Rights Comm. (UNHRC), General Comment No. 37 on the Right of Peaceful Assembly (Article 21), ¶¶ 12–14, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/GC/37 (17 Sept. 2020).

[21] See ICCPR, supra note 9, art. 26.

[22] See, e.g., Meghan G. Fischer, Anti-Conversion Laws and the International Response, 6 Penn State J. L. & Int’l Aff. 1, 1, 9.

[23] See id. at 4 (anti-conversion “laws are selectively enforced and therefore ban conversion from the majority religion to a minority religion”); EU Guidelines on the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief, 2013 O.J. ¶ 32(b) [hereinafter EU Guidelines] (“laws that criminalize blasphemy restrict expression concerning religious or other beliefs [and] are often applied so as to persecute, mistreat, or intimidate persons belonging to religious or other minorities”).

[24] See, e.g., G.A. Res. 217 A (III), Universal Declaration of Human Rights, pmbl. (10 Dec. 1949); ICCPR, supra note 9, pmbl.; Ass’n of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, art. 1 (Nov. 19, 2012); League of Arab States, Arab Charter on Human Rights, pmbl. (2004).

[25] Lennart Nordenfelt, The Varieties of Dignity, 12 Health Care Analysis 69, 77–78 (June 2004).

[26] See id. at 78; see also W. Cole Durham, Jr. & Brett G. Scharffs, Law and Religion: National, International, and Comparative Perspectives 177 (2d ed. 2019) (referring to “thought, conscience and religion” as “the core of human dignity”).

[27] See Samirah Majumdar & Virginia Villa, Globally, Social Hostilities Related to Religion Decline in 2019, While Government Restrictions Remain at Highest Levels, Pew Res. Ctr., 78 (2021); Samirah Majumdar, How COVID-19 Restrictions Affected Religious Groups Around the World in 2020, Pew Res. Ctr., 78 (Nov. 29, 2022); U.N. Secretary-General, supra note 13, ¶ 44.

[28] See, e.g., Fischer, supra note 22, at 34–38; EU Guidelines, supra note 23, ¶ 38 (citing U.N. Secretary-General, supra note 13).

[29] See Fischer, supra note 22, at 4; EU Guidelines, supra note 23, ¶ 38.

[30] See, e.g., Fischer, supra note 22, at 13.