Press Conference by Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

20 October 2011

Press Conference by Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

20 October 2011
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief


To create a true environment of religious tolerance and open dialogue, said the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief this afternoon, the method of communication and connection needed to be diverse and multi-faceted.

Heiner Beilefeldt, appointed in 2010 and mandated as an independent expert by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council to promote worldwide the right to freedom of religion or belief, said at a Headquarters press conference that the most shocking experience he came across almost daily in discharging his duties mandate was that of the “extreme degree of hatred” and intolerance.

“Hatred, hatred, hatred,” he declared, and explained that, depending on the location, such hatred manifested itself in different ways, targeted different groups, and sometimes was perpetrated under different auspices, such as competing religions or national identity.  Mr. Beilefeldt had highlighted similar issues in his address earlier today to the General Assembly’s Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian, Cultural).  (See Press Release GA/SHC/4016.)

When addressing the root causes of hatred, communication was the most important component and it needed to be present on all levels, he stressed.  When facilitating inter-religious communication, both formal and informal dialogues, as well as a diversity of participants needed to be present.  Such participants should include those with knowledge of theological questions and those more grassroots practitioners with more general associations.  In that way, a platform could emerge that would allow for different avenues of dialogue and connection.

“We know from experience that communication [does not] always lead to positive results,” he observed.  However, efforts were more productive when certain conditions were met, for instance, ensuring that all participants met on equal footing and had interactions that went “beyond a handshake”.  Identifying common ground, common interests and cooperation in concrete projects also successfully supported connection.  The role of the State would be that of engendering a general atmosphere of appreciation for such communication, he said, but noted that was not always the case, as some Governments found such endeavours “ridiculous”.

That led to his next point on the overall responsibility of States.  Indeed, States not only had a role to play towards ensuring respect for freedom of religion or belief, but must also work to protect and promote such freedom and create a general atmosphere of appreciation for diversity, dialogue and tolerance.  Such aims could be achieved through projects promoting inter-religious dialogue and tolerance, subsidizing those projects financially, and inviting groups to participate within State institutions.

Admitting that his next point might be his most controversial, he underscored the necessity of being aware of negative side-effects, where, for instance, in initiatives and activities, only the “big guys” reached out.  “The big-bearded guys and I can say that because I’m big and bearded, myself.  And male,” he remarked.  But, in those cases where only the “big bearded guys” were reaching out, “small groups” were ignored. 

Inter-religious dialogue often referred to Christian-Muslim, or Christian-Jewish dialogue, but it wasn’t the Muslims and Baha’is or the Christian mainstream churches and Mormons.  He was concerned that when States conducted large-scale interreligious projects, at the end of the day, the “small guys” were even more marginalized, which could then further acerbate situations of intolerance. 

Another concern was the downplaying of internal pluralism and diversity.  In high profile dialogue projects, there typically was interest in large figures, such as “the popes, the sheiks or the rabbis”.  However, the alternative voices were not heard from.  He then offered his last point on the marginalization of women, a situation evident “all over the place”, especially when addressing questions of religious traditions. 

He was very much in favour of States supporting, subsidizing and engaging in such big projects.  However, those initiatives always needed to be developed and implemented from the point of view that the freedom of religious belief was a human right and that such endeavours should be based on a human rights perspective, taking into account the human rights of everyone involved, not just minorities, “but the minorities within the minorities, the converts, the women, and the people who often get trampled underfoot”.

Mr. Beilefeldt was asked to offer specific examples of response, in particular to the Muslim world, where imams had imposed intolerant views about non-believers, infidels and moderates within the Muslim world.  In this case, wasn’t there a need for specific dialogue that addressed that particular source of violence, rather than “at 30,000 feet?” a reporter asked.

Responding, Mr. Beilefeldt emphasized that in fact, he was “very much down to earth” as he dealt with practical violations on a daily basis.  Reports and communications within the United Nations were driven by the “court of conduct” to keep information on the abstract level.  However, when dealing within his mandate, he addressed real problems and violations as they occurred.  Any confidence building measures needed to be down to earth, or people would get suspicious they were mere marketing.  “What I’m preaching is not rosy pictures but realistic pictures.”

There were also limits to dialogue, and it wasn’t always about “easy harmonious” approaches.  However, he said, religious communities were never monolithic.  They were filled with human beings with different ideologies and different biographies.  There was, he underscored, more diversity within religions than people thought.  In meeting people, problems might not be overcome, but the stereotype could be broken. 

He also pointed out that the actual work of the Special Rapporteurs — the letters and communications — was available, usually two months after a case was addressed.  Some examples he offered included the attacks on Coptic churches in Egypt, the sentencing of Baha’is in Iran, and anti-Muslim activities in Switzerland.  There would soon be joint communications from all the Special Rapporteurs being made public, which would illustrate their efforts and State responses.

A reporter asked how his office had responded to the situation of the Baha’is in Iran, as it was clear from a recently-released report that the Iranian Government had launched a campaign of systematic discrimination and hatred. 

Mr. Bielefeldt said that he approached the situation through both direct communication, as well as public statements.  What he had found problematic within United Nations resolutions was that when describing intolerance, it was often in regards to “Isalmic-phobia” or “Christian-phobia”.  But “Baha’is-phobia” wasn’t noted.  One obstacle to addressing that particular situation was that the Iranian Government did not consider Baha’is a religion but an “evil cult” that should be abolished not only within Iran but throughout the world.  That was a line several other States followed as well.  He looked forward to working with the newly-appointed Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation Iran, a mandated just recently re-established.  

Before concluding, he reiterated that freedom of religion was a fundamental right and that understanding could not begin with the assumption of a limited group of religions.  The starting point was human beings’ deep conviction; that, in his view, “is what counts”.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.