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UN expert on religious freedom ends visit in Prishtinë/Priština

8 May 2009

Full text of the press briefing of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ms. Asma Jahangir, on 8 May 2009 in Prishtinë/Priština at the conclusion of her visit to the Balkans region (see also her press statements of 30 April 2009 and 5 May 2009):

Members of the press,

Let me take this opportunity to first thank you for being here and to introduce the mandate I hold. The United Nations Human Rights Council appoints a number of persons as Special Rapporteurs, Special Representatives of the Secretary-General, Independent Experts and members of Working Groups to monitor and analyze the situation of human rights in a specific field allocated to them. The whole body of Special Rapporteurs, Special Representatives of the Secretary-General, Independent Experts and members of Working Groups is known as the United Nations human rights Special Procedures.

I am responsible for the thematic mandate on freedom of religion or belief. The Human Rights Council has requested me to monitor the human rights situation of freedom of religion or belief globally and to present annual reports on the related trends, key areas of violations as well as conclusions and recommendations. In the framework of their mandate, Special Procedures also carry out visits to assess the human rights situation on the ground in order to study emerging trends, identifying violations and making concrete recommendations for improvements where gaps exist.

I am following in the footsteps of my colleagues – the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Representative of the Secretary-General on the human rights of internally displaced persons and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights defenders – who were here in 2004, 2005 and 2007. In the framework of my official visit as Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief I arrived in Prishtinë/Priština on 5 May 2009 and subsequently visited Gra?anica/Graçanicë, Prizren, Gjakovë/Djakovica and Deçan/De?ani. Let me also take this opportunity to thank all those who met with me in Kosovo*. I would particularly like to thank the Deputy Prime Minister, the Justice Minister and the leaders of different religious groups as well as representatives of civil society organizations. My programme was ably coordinated by the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and I am extremely grateful to them for their excellent support.

During my visit, I noticed that the scars of the recent conflicts remain and yet there is a yearning by all communities for sustainable peace. It is extremely difficult for me in this press briefing to give a general assessment on the situation of freedom of religion or belief in Kosovo since religious issues in this very region are so interlinked with ethnicity and historical experiences. I will expand on these matters in my forthcoming report to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

In my mandate I am usually confronted with cases of discrimination targeting members of religious minorities in a given society. In Kosovo, however, the vast majority of the population is Muslim, mostly of Albanian ethnicity, who has suffered enormously, indeed as others, from the persecution of the Miloševi? regime in the 1990s. It is still struggling with the aftermath of those traumatic years. It is facing a huge challenge in shaping its future in which the rights of religious minorities must also play a central role. There have been recent instances of threats and violence directed against religious minorities in Kosovo but I was told by most of my interlocutors that the society has historically been characterized by a culture of religious tolerance. This may sound paradoxical but the situation here is complex in the sense that both positive and negative trends in terms of religious tolerance can sometimes co-exist side by side.

According to my experience, healing comes through justice rather than through revenge or reprisals. In this regard, I was disturbed by the reports of looting, arson attacks and violence against the Serbian Orthodox believers and their religious sites in March 2004. I was informed that numerous lives were lost and a large number of churches and monasteries were vandalized, desecrated and demolished. All of the international and local interlocutors that I met were unanimous that they were caught by surprise and had not seen any warning signs five years ago. It is therefore important to remain vigilant in detecting any emerging religious tensions.

In my report I will try to identify the related trends and further contentious issues that I have noticed during my visit. The issue of wearing religious symbols in educational institutions has been a matter of controversy in Kosovo. I have extensively reported on religious symbols in general, both in my annual reports and other country reports. Let me reiterate that the fundamental objective should be to safeguard both the positive freedom of religion or belief as manifested in observance and practice by voluntarily wearing or displaying religious symbols, and also the negative freedom from being forced to wear or display religious symbols.

One of the tools for promoting religious tolerance is a meaningful inter-religious and intra-religious dialogue, particularly in order to address contentious issues that religious leaders can resolve amicably through negotiations rather than confrontation. I would urge a more cooperative attitude in this regard, especially from the leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo. At this critical moment, religious leaders have a responsibility to play a constructive role so that religious freedoms can be enhanced in a democratic and non-discriminatory manner. Their public position and words have a direct impact on their communities and can have either positive or detrimental effects on religious harmony.

There are also disturbing indicators about rifts within the Muslim community in Kosovo and I have received reports about extreme forms of religious practices that are thrust upon other members of the community. There were at least three cases where allegedly Muslim religious leaders were threatened and beaten up for opposing radical religious approaches. While freedom of religion or belief is absolute, its manifestation may be subject to limitations that are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. Coercion and violence in the name of religion cannot be accepted. I expect that the relevant authorities will take swift action and devise creative measures to counter this worrying trend.

These are only a few preliminary issues of concern for my mandate that I wanted to flag during this press briefing at the conclusion of my mission. In my report to the 13th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council I will give a more detailed account of my observations and analysis of the situation. I will also present my conclusions and recommendations to various actors in this multi-facetted environment.

* All reference to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, shall be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo.

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