UN Rights Expert on Religious Minorities

by Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva, March 7, 2013

Freedom of religion: UN rights expert reports on the plight of religious minorities in the world

GENEVA (7 Mars 2013) – If you are a victim of systematic discrimination and exclusion from key sectors of society, publicly fuelled prejudices and vilification based on national myths, acts of vandalism and desecration, prohibition or disruption of religious ceremonies, threats and acts of violence, interference in your community’s internal affairs, you probably belong to a religious minority.

“In my daily work, I receive many reports of grave violations of freedom of religion or belief of persons belonging to religious minorities in all parts of the world,” said the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, during the presentation of his latest report* to the UN Human Rights Council.

“Such violations are perpetrated by States and/or non-State actors, often in a climate of impunity, and they may originate from different political, religious, ideological or personal motives,” noted Mr. Bielefeldt, based on his analysis of patterns of typical violations of freedom of religion or belief perpetrated against persons belonging to religious minorities.

In his report, the expert warns that human rights violations against persons belonging to religious minorities include disproportionate bureaucratic restrictions, denial of appropriate legal status positions needed to build up or uphold a religious infrastructure, systematic discrimination and partial exclusion from important sectors of society, discriminatory rules within family laws, and indoctrination of children from minorities in public schools.

The patterns of typical violations identified by the Special Rapporteur also comprise publicly stoked prejudices and vilification sometimes connected with historic traumas and national mythologies, acts of vandalism and desecration, prohibition or disruption of religious ceremonies, threats and acts of violence, interference in the community’s internal affairs, confiscation of community property, criminal sanctions, and denial of asylum, possibly resulting in extraditions and exposure to serious risks of persecution.

Mr. Bielefeldt stressed that “the term ‘religious minority’ should be broadly construed to cover all relevant groups of persons, including traditional and non-traditional communities or large and small communities.” In his view, “it also covers atheistic and non-theistic believers, as well as internal minorities.”

The rights of persons belonging to religious or belief minorities, the independent expert emphasized, should be consistently interpreted from a human rights perspective, and must be implemented in conjunction with all other human rights. “The human rights-based approach,” he explained, “takes respect for the self-understanding of human beings as its systematic starting point.”

“In keeping with the principle of normative universalism, the rights of persons belonging to religious minorities cannot be confined to the members of certain predefined groups,” Mr. Bielefeldt said. “Instead, they should be open to all persons who live de facto in the situation of a minority and are in need of special protection to facilitate a free and non-discriminatory development of their individual and communitarian identities.”

The UN Special Rapporteur’s report concludes with a list of recommendations concerning general policies, domestic legal provisions, administration and procedures, education, media, interreligious communication and awareness-raising in protecting and promoting the freedom of religion or belief of persons belonging to religious minorities.

Heiner Bielefeldt assumed his mandate as Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief on 1st August 2010. He is Professor of Human Rights and Human Rights Politics at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg. From 2003 to 2009, he was Director of Germany’s National Human Rights Institution. Mr. Bielefeldt’s research interests include various interdisciplinary facets of human rights theory and practice, with a focus on freedom of religion or belief. Log on: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/religion/

(*) Check the full report: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session22/AHRC2251_English.pdf

Download the “Rapporteur’s Digest on Freedom of Religion or Belief”: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/religion/docs/RapporteursDigestFreedomReligionBelief.pdf

The Special Rapporteur also presented his mission report on Cyprus: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session22/AHRC2251Add.1_English.pdf

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