31 March 2011 The United Nations independent expert on religious freedom today commended Paraguay for the openness and tolerance of both the Government and society, but pointed out there is “much room” for improvement in tackling the issue of inequality.
“There are enormous societal inequalities in terms of distribution of wealth, access to public or private education, political influence, ethnic and linguistic minority status, etc.,” said Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief at the end of his eight-day visit to Paraguay.
He highlighted weakness in the implementation of non-discrimination mechanisms, especially in the Chaco region where many indigenous peoples live.
“The weak presence and capacity of State institutions renders certain sectors of the population structurally vulnerable to possible human rights abuses, including in the field of freedom of religion or belief.”
The human rights expert drew special attention to the Paraguayan indigenous peoples’ long history of discrimination, neglect, harassment and economic exploitation, while noting that their representatives mostly agreed that the general attitude towards their traditional beliefs and practices has been one of respect in recent years.
“The imposition of religious doctrines and practices, possibly against their will, is not a matter of the past only but persists to a certain degree until today,” said Mr. Bielefeldt.
During his 23-30 March visit, the Special Rapporteur met with high-ranking officials and representatives from civil society, religious groups and indigenous peoples in Asunción, Ciudad del Este and Filadelfia.
Government officials and representatives of a variety of communities, ranging from the predominant Roman Catholic Church to minority religious communities and secular non-governmental organisations generally agreed that Paraguay is a pluralistic society, he said.
In spite of the traditional “hegemony of Catholicism,” public manifestations of religious diversity largely take place in an open and tolerant environment, Mr. Bielefeldt said.
He said he had observed that that the issue of education triggered strong emotions in the South American country.
“I observed tensions between advocates of more traditional religious values and those promoting the right to have information about sexual [and] reproductive health and the inclusion of anti-discrimination principles in the school curriculum,” said Mr. Bielefeldt. “These issues seem to have created tensions not only between religious and less religiously-oriented sectors of society but also within some religious communities,” he added.
He encouraged the Government to continue supporting the Inter-religious Forum initiated two years ago and ensure the open and transparent participation of all interested groups.
“I very much appreciate the launch of the Government’s National Action Plans on human rights and on human rights education,” Mr. Bielefeldt underscored. “National Action Plans are excellent opportunities for bringing together all interested stakeholders and also for providing space to discuss issues related to freedom of religion or belief.”
Mr. Bielefeldt will present a report on his visit to Paraguay to the 19th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
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