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Press Conference by Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, 25 October 2012

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

Blasphemy laws should be repealed worldwide to ensure the rights of converts, said the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief at a Headquarters news conference today.

“In my daily work as Special Rapporteur, I come across grave violations of freedom of religion or belief affecting many people in the field of conversions,” Heiner Bielefeldt said, outlining the main points of his report, which, following the press conference, was to be presented to the General Assembly’s Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural). (See Press Release GA/SHC/4048.)

Those violations could be observed in different parts of the world and were perpetrated by States and non-State actors for different motives, such as religious hegemony and truth claims, he said. In some countries, converts could be perceived as subversive forces.

Under the human rights norm, he continued, people had the right to convert, as well as the right not to be forced to convert or reconvert. Those rights “have the statuses of absolute protection under Article 18 of the International Convent on Civil and Political Rights”, he pointed out. However, the right to try to convert others with non-coercive means, which protected community outreach activities, could be restricted by States under certain circumstances. Still, he stressed, that right enjoyed “strong”, if not “absolute”, protection.

Mr. Bielefeldt also noted that criminal laws in some States targeted missionaries engaging in “proselytism”, a term which had negative connotations without being clearly defined in most cases. Such legislation could be found in Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and South-East Asia. “Sometimes mere possession of literature that is used to convert others leads to sanctions, including long-term imprisonment,” he said. A handful of States had “apostasy” legislation, while many more States had “blasphemy” laws, which could carry harsh penalties. Converts faced a greater risk of being criminalized under blasphemy laws.

Converts also faced administrative obstacles, he went on to say. Many States required registration of religious belief or orientation in passports, identification cards and other official documents. “If a person converts in a way that is not accepted, their IDs or passports simply reflect their previous religious adherence,” he said. Converts were also subject to social pressure by non-State actors, such as employers threatening job security, or family behaving in a coercive manner.

Turning to a host of measures that ensured the rights of converts, he said public awareness and education played important roles. Administrative reform was also necessary to stop exposing persons’ religion or belief in passports and other documents. In addition, repealing blasphemy laws were in line with the United Nations recent efforts to contain hate speeches.

When asked about United State President Barack Obama’s remarks in defence of the author of an anti-Islam YouTube video, Mr. Bielefeldt said he was reluctant to criminalize the video maker, contending that “the threshold for restricting speech is very high”. Further, that understanding had been broadly shared, not just said by one politician.

Describing the video as primitive and failing to make any meaningful contribution to the discussion on religion, he said the best way to counter such content was to publish more qualified speeches. Some of the countries that had blasphemy laws were Pakistan, Iran and Egypt, as well as some European States, including Ireland and Greece.

Responding to an inquiry about two Egyptian cases of imprisonment for blasphemy, one involving a 9-year-old, he said those cases were evidence of problematic consequences of blasphemy legislation, which had a chilling effect on society. Freedom of religion and freedom of expression were closely linked, and although they were not the same, freedom of religion had a dimension of communication.

He went on to say that people should be able to express convictions, doubts, new ideas and even strange ideas and not fear persecutions. “Practice of religious belief can best flourish in a society that allows for freedom of expression,” he stated, adding, “I can’t even imagine a society to have freedom of religion without freedom of expression.”

Pressed further on the case involving the 9-year-old, he said “it’s easy for me to say that’s unacceptable”. What was more important, however, was to repeal blasphemy laws and establish human rights infrastructures in those countries that violated the freedom of religion or belief.

On the role of the United Nations, he said that important changes must come from the ground, and the world body could only coordinate capacity-building and clarify norms. A United Nations unit in Geneva helped Member States establish national human rights institutions.

Responding to a question about formulation of constitutions in Arab countries, he emphasized that it was difficult to ensure freedom of religion or belief in countries that had an official religion. “Having an official religion is not a violation of international law,” he said, arguing that those countries should bear the extra burden of justification to ensure non-discrimination for those who do not practise the State’s religion.

When asked about Buddhist extremisms in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, he pointed out that when conflict arose from a combination of factors, religion was just one element. Thus, he stressed, it was important to have interfaith dialogue. Where there was no communication among religions, there would be paranoia, rumours and hysteria.

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