Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, who was a guest speaker at the IHEU World Congress in Oslo in August last year, presented his annual report to the UN Human Rights Council on 5 March.  It was a blockbuster, putting many until now controversial aspects of religious freedom squarely into the context of international law.

In the following “interactive dialogue” with the Special Rapporteur, IHEU representative Roy Brown complimented Prof Bielefeldt on his report and especially on his emphasis on the negative impact of religious registration on freedom of belief, and pointing out just how far respect for this freedom falls short in many States in the Islamic world.

Here is the text of Roy’s speech in full:

UN HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL: 19th Session
Speaker: IHEU Main Representative, Roy W Brown, Tuesday 6 March 2012
Interactive Dialogue with SR on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Restrictions on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Thank you, Mr Vice-President,

We thank the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief for his report and for his inspiring presentation yesterday afternoon. We particularly welcome his focus on the question of recognition of religions, in which he clarified the many aspects of this issue, setting them clearly within the framework of international law. Recognition of religions and the associated problem of registration of one’s religion in official documents are widely used to limit the freedom of believers to manifest or exercise their religion or belief, and to penalise, sometimes extremely severely, those who profess the “wrong” belief.

As the recent Pew report has shown[1], restrictions on religion and belief are on the rise worldwide. Citizenship is frequently denied to those who do not adhere to the dominant religion, and the penalties from attempting to leave, or even express doubts about, the dominant religion can be heavy indeed.

As just one example, last month at the request of the Saudi authorities, Malaysia arrested a journalist and blogger, Mr Hamza Kashgari who was on his way to New Zealand, and returned him to Saudi Arabia where he may face the death penalty for expressing doubts about the Prophet Mohammed.[2]

Many OIC Member States have argued that the right to have a religion does not include the right to change it. But this is mere sophistry. People’s beliefs change all the time in the light of increasing knowledge. You can’t legislate against what goes on in people’s minds, nor should States attempt to do so.

It is a well-known tenet of Islam, Mr Vice-President, that there is “no compulsion in religion”[3], so it is deeply ironic that in many Islamic states the penalty for apostasy is death.

We urge the OIC Member States to bring their laws into line with those that fully respect freedom of religion or belief, and to recognise that this freedom – including the right to change one’s religion – is absolute. As the Special Rapporteur reminded us yesterday, this freedom is the inalienable right of every human being. It is not in the gift of States to either award or deny it. 

Thank you sir.

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