Inter-religious cooperation can be vital asset for rebuilding Sierra Leone – UN expert

Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Heiner Bielefeldt. UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

5 July 2013 – Sierra Leone's religious communities have a crucial role to play in helping to overcome the legacy of war, an independent United Nations human rights expert stated today, adding that cooperation between them will be an asset in the process of rebuilding and reconciliation.

“Religious diversity is not only a reality in Sierra Leone; it is widely seen and cherished as an asset on which to build community life from the local to the national level,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt.

“Before coming to Sierra Leone I expected to see a country characterized by a high degree of religious tolerance. What I have experienced here by far exceeds this expectation,” the expert stated, as he wrapped up his first official visit. “All interlocutors, without exception, agreed that religious communities, in particular Muslims and Christians, live peacefully and harmoniously side-by-side.”

He said the climate of religious tolerance in Sierra Leone is all the more “astounding” against the background of the country's tragic civil war. “While ethnic, regional and other differences – whether real or merely imagined – became factors of political fragmentation and violent escalation, religion was never drawn into the conflict.”

Sierra Leone was torn by a civil war that lasted from 1991 to 2002, and was often punctuated by acts of extreme brutality as marauding bands of armed youths terrorized the countryside, conscripting child soldiers and used the amputation of limbs to intimidate civilians.

“In all attempts to further develop the country, religious communities can – and do – play a crucial role,” said Mr. Bielefeldt, who briefed reporters in the capital, Freetown. “The unusual degree of interreligious tolerance and cooperation remains a great asset for rebuilding and developing the nation – also beyond the reconciliation process.”

He recalled that a Christian person remarked that when the church is overcrowded he might well decide to go to a mosque to pray. “Such a statement, which in many countries would be fairly unusual or even unthinkable, seems rather indicative of the tolerant situation in Sierra Leone,” he stated. “Likewise, Muslims told me they have no difficulty to pray in a Christian church.”

Mr. Bielefeldt noted that people in Sierra Leone can freely change their religious affiliation. “Conversions are a common phenomenon and can go into all directions,” he said.

“Religious pluralism in Sierra Leone is a dynamic pluralism in the sense that religious communities can grow and develop,” he added. “People generally do not encounter problems when bearing witness to their faith in private or in public and they can also invite others freely to join their community.”

Commending the high degree of religious tolerance enjoyed by Sierra Leoneans, he added that it should not be taken for granted.

“In the face of religious mistrust, hostility and hatred in many parts of the world, it is obvious that a climate of cross-denominational openheartedness and cooperation, as it exists in Sierra Leone, requires broad commitment and active investments,” he stated.

“It is a precious accomplishment that deserves to be cherished and further developed. Obviously, societal and State institutions play an indispensable role in this ongoing endeavour.”

During his six-day visit, the Special Rapporteur met with a wide range of relevant Government officials and agencies, as well as representatives of religious or belief communities and civil society organizations in Freetown and Moyamba.

Independent experts, or special rapporteurs, are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back, in an unpaid capacity, on specific human rights themes. Mr. Bielefeldt will present a report containing his conclusions and recommendations to the Council in 2014.


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