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‘State religions’ should never be used for national identity politics – UN expert

GENEVA (6 March 2012) – United Nations Special Rapporteur Heiner Bielefeldt today said that “official ‘State religions’ should never be used for purposes of national identity politics, as this may have detrimental effects for the situation of individuals from minority communities.” He also urged States to make sure that any privileges, financial or otherwise, granted to ‘official’ religions or beliefs should not amount to any kind of discrimination against members of other religions or beliefs.

“It seems difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of an official ‘State religion’ that in practice does not have adverse effects on religious minorities, thus discriminating against their members,” said Mr. Bielefeldt presenting his report* on freedom of religion or belief and ‘recognition’ issues, at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council.

The report explores key issues from the meanings of ‘recognition’ regarding the right to freedom of religion or belief, to the limits that registration procedures can impose on certain religious or belief communities, and the need for States ensure that an official ‘State religion’ does not discriminate religious minorities.

“Respect for freedom of religion or belief as a human right does not depend on administrative registration procedures, as it has the status of a human right, prior to and independent of any acts of State approval,” the Special Rapporteur stressed.

Mr. Bielefeldt distinguishes between three different meanings of the concept of State recognition, underscoring the need of clearly distinguishing between them to avoid misunderstandings that could affect the implementation of freedom of religion or belief, or even undermine its status as a universal human right.

· “Recognition” as due respect for the status of all human beings as right holders by virtue of their inherent dignity.
· “Recognition” in terms of States providing the status of legal personality, which religious or belief groups may need for the exercise of important communitarian aspects of their freedom of religion or belief.
· “Recognition” in the sense of States according a specific privileged status position to some religious or belief communities.

The UN independent expert called on States to offer appropriate options for religious or belief communities to achieve the status of legal personality, which may be needed to undertake important community functions relevant for the full enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief, which is a right of individuals to be exercised either alone or together with others. “Registration procedures for obtaining legal personality status should be quick, transparent, fair, inclusive and non-discriminatory,” he said.

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://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomReligion/Pages/FreedomReligionIndex.aspx

(*) Check the full report: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session19/A-HRC-19-60_en.pdf

Other reports by the Special Rapporteur:
Paraguay: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session19/A-HRC-19-60-Add1_en.pdf
Moldova: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session19/A-HRC-19-60-Add2_en.pdf

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 Chian Yew Lim (+41 22 917 9722 / clim@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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