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UN: Special Rapporteur Calls on States to Embrace Inter-religious Dialogue as Means to Fight Intolerance
On 20 October 2011, Mr Heiner Bielefeldt, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, took part in an interactive dialogue with the General Assembly Third Committee. His report and oral presentation focused on the promotion of inter- and intra-religious communication as a means to combat religious intolerance and hate speech. Mr Bielefeldt also called attention to the possible adverse side effects that may occur in the context of interreligious dialogue projects; including if religious communities are portrayed stereotypically or if full inclusiveness in projects is falsely claimed.
In addition, he urged all stakeholders to talk about issues in ways that do not generate hate but which dispel myths, stereotypes and propaganda. With the 30th anniversary of the General Assembly’s 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief approaching, he pushed for more ‘qualified’ discussions, imploring States to just “do it!, do it!, do it!”
Mr Bielefeldt argued that education and interreligious communication can help address religious intolerance, which stems from misunderstandings and misconceptions of other religions or beliefs. He stressed the benefits of both formal and informal discussion settings, and at the request of several States (the EU, Austria, Germany and Egypt), cited the following best practice examples:
- the Republic of Moldova’s Ministry of Justice reform of a 2007 Law on Religious Denomination and their Component Parts,
- Paraguay’s Interreligious Forum,
- neighbourhood projects in Egypt where Muslims and Christians provide skills for youth, and
- the West Eastern Divan Orchestra of musicians from Israel, Palestine and other Arab countries.
Mr Bielefeldt also stressed the importance of opening the discussion up to all relevant stakeholders. Inter-religious communication could therefore involve religious minorities, women, and those who lack theological knowledge. In this regard, informal settings, such as within multicultural neighbourhoods, clubs, and schools, are particularly vital.
In response to questions on women and freedom of religion or belief (EU, US), Mr Bielefeldt stressed that States need to encourage women to participate in formal inter-religious projects and in high-level segments. Initiatives, such as the feminist readings of holy texts, could also be undertaken. Women’s work and existing and emerging partnerships should be more visible within the community.
Austria and Germany questioned how States can sponsor interreligious communication and still maintain “neutrality” or “secularism”. Noting that different understandings exist of those terms, Mr Bielefeldt underscored that States must open up public dialogues to everyone, be fair, and non-discriminatory. The State must not align itself with any particular group, sect or religion, and must respect all, including those who choose not to participate.
Iraq commented on the link between religious intolerance and terrorism, and asked what action States could take against those inciting hatred and religious intolerance. Mr Bielefeldt concurred with Iraq’s analysis that fear and misconceptions can be the root causes of terrorist acts. To unmask many of the stereotypes underneath the resentment, the State must respond to hate speech. However Mr Bielefeldt urged that restrictions on hate speech are only used as a last resort.
Despite the fact that the Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 on combating intolerance and incitement to violence against persons based on their religion or belief was adopted by consensus in March 2011, Professor Bielefeldt did not refer to this landmark development in his report or oral presentation. He also did not respond to questions on the issue posed by Liechtenstein and Pakistan.
See Professor Bielefeldt’s press release from his September 2011 country visit to Moldova, http://bit.ly/re4arH
See Professor Bielefeldt’s press release from his March 2011 country visit to Paraquay, http://bit.ly/rdDU78
See the West Eastern Divan Orchestra’s website, http://www.west-eastern-divan.org/