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Sierra Leone: “Interreligious cooperation, an asset for rebuilding the nation” – UN expert

FREETOWN / GENEVA (5 July 2013) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, today underlined the role played by all religious communities in Sierra Leone in order to help the nation overcome the legacy of the war.

“In all attempts to further develop the country religious communities can – and do – play a crucial role,” Mr. Bielefeldt said* at the end of his first official visit to Sierra Leone. “The unusual degree of interreligious tolerance and cooperation remains a great asset for rebuilding and developing the nation – also beyond the reconciliation process.”

“The very tangible climate of religious tolerance in Sierra Leone is all the more astounding against the background of the country’s tragic history of civil war, which had torn the nation apart,” he said. “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.”

At a press conference in Freetown, the UN Special Rapporteur underscored that the harmonious relations between religious communities can play a crucial role in the ongoing process of rebuilding the nation. “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,” the expert noted.

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

The human rights expert also noted that religious tolerance comprises both inter-religious and intra-religious relations in Sierra Leone, and that people 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,” the Special Rapporteur said. “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.”

“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,” said the independent expert charged by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor freedom of religion or belief worldwide. “All interlocutors, without exception, agreed that religious communities, in particular Muslims and Christians, live peacefully and harmoniously side-by-side.”

The Special Rapporteur noted that the open atmosphere in Sierra Leone provided a fertile ground for the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief as guaranteed in section 24 of the Constitution and in article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Sierra Leone is a party.

“The way people in this country live together in peace across religious differences sets an example, from which other countries as well as religious and political leaders worldwide can learn,” Mr. Bielefeldt stressed. “Sierra Leoneans have good reasons to be proud of this precious heritage.”

During his six-day visit to Sierra Leone, from 30 June to 5 July 2013, which was undertaken at the invitation of the Government, the human rights expert 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. The Special Rapporteur will present a report containing his conclusions and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in 2014.

Heiner Bielefeldt assumed his mandate as the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief on 1 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. Learn more, visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomReligion/Pages/FreedomReligionIndex.aspx

(*) Check Mr. Bielefeldt’s full end-of-mission statement: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=13506&LangID=E

UN Human Rights, country page – Sierra Leone: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/AfricaRegion/Pages/SLIndex.aspx

Download the “Rapporteur's Digest on Freedom of Religion or Belief”: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Religion/RapporteursDigestFreedomReligionBelief.pdf

Check the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/religion.htm

For more information and media requests please contact In Freetown:
Peter Tumuhekyi (+232 78 124 915 / tumuhekyi@un.org) or
Sharof Azizov (+41 79 444 6129 / sazizov@ohchr.org) or write to freedomofreligion@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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