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Violated in practice, questioned in principle – UN expert urges Governments to protect the right of conversion

NEW YORK (25 October 2012) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, today urged States to consistently respect, protect and promote the human right to freedom of religion or belief in the area of conversion.

“The right of conversion and the right not to be forced to convert or reconvert belong to the internal dimension of a person’s religious or belief-related conviction, which is unconditionally protected under international human rights law,” said Mr. Bielefeldt presenting his report* to the UN General Assembly.

In his study, the independent expert analyses the patterns of abuses that are perpetrated in the name of religious or ideological truth claims in the interest of promoting national identity or protecting societal homogeneity, or under other pretexts such as maintaining political and national security.

“While some undue restrictions on the rights of converts or those trying non-coercively to convert others are undertaken by State agencies, other abuses, including acts of violence, stem from widespread societal prejudices,” the Special Rapporteur noted.

“Violations in this sensitive area also include forced conversions or reconversions, again perpetrated either by the State or by non-State actors,” he said. “In addition, the rights of converts or those trying non-coercively to convert others are sometimes questioned in principle.” In this context, he stressed, the rights of the child and his or her parents must also be guaranteed.

The right to conversion
“In addition to being exposed to manifestations of social pressure, public contempt and systematic discrimination, converts often face insurmountable administrative obstacles when trying to live in conformity with their convictions.”

“In some States, converts may also face criminal prosecution, at times even including the death penalty, for such offences as ‘apostasy,’ ‘heresy,’ ‘blasphemy’ or ‘insult’ in respect of a religion or the country’s dominant tradition and values.”

The right not to be forced to convert
“While some members of religious or belief minorities experience pressure to join a religion or belief deemed more ‘acceptable’ in society, converts are often exposed to pressure to reconverting to their previous religion. Such pressure can be undertaken both by Government agencies and by non-State actors, including by directly linking humanitarian aid to an expectation of conversion.”

The Special Rapporteur said he was particularly concerned about pressure or threats experienced by women, sometimes in the context of marriage or marriage negotiations, to convert to the religion of their husband or prospective husband.

The right to try to convert others by means of non-coercive persuasion
“Many States impose tight legislative or administrative restrictions on communicative outreach activities. Many such restrictions are conceptualised and implemented in a flagrantly discriminatory manner, for instance, in the interest of further strengthening the position of the official religion or dominant religion of the country while further marginalising the situation of minorities.”

“Members of religious communities that have a reputation of being generally engaged in missionary activities may also face societal prejudices that can escalate into paranoia, sometimes even leading to acts of mob violence and killings.”

The rights of the child and his or her parents
The Special Rapporteur said he had also received reports of repressive measures targeting children of converts or members of religious minorities, including with the purpose of exercising pressure on them and their parents to reconvert to their previous religion or to coerce members of minorities to convert to more socially ‘accepted’ religions or beliefs.

“Such repressive activities may violate the child’s freedom of religion or belief and/or the parents’ right to ensure an education for their children in conformity with their own convictions and in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.”

(*) Check the full report: http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N12/461/30/PDF/N1246130.pdf?OpenElement

ENDS

Heiner Bielefeldt assumed his mandate as Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief on 1st August 2010. He is Professor of Human Rights and Human Rights Politics at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg. From 2003 to 2009, he was Director of Germany’s National Human Rights Institution. Mr. Bielefeldt’s research interests include various interdisciplinary facets of human rights theory and practice, with a focus on freedom of religion or belief. Log on:http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/religion/

Download the “Rapporteur's Digest on Freedom of Religion or Belief”: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/religion/docs/RapporteursDigestFreedomReligionBelief.pdf

For more information and media requests please contact:
In New York: Nikolaus Schultz (+1 9173674291/ schultzn@un.org) or Fred Kirungi (+1 917 367 3431 / kirungi@un.org)
In Geneva: Chian Yew Lim (+41 22 917 9722 / clim@ohchr.org) or write to freedomofreligion@ohchr.org.

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