Repeal blasphemy, apostasy laws, urges UN expert

(Photo: Reuters /Rebecca Cook)Imam Sayed Hassan Al-Qazwini (R) and Father Rani Abdul-Masih (2nd L) stand with other religious leaders in front of the Islamic Center of America, during an interfaith peace rally calling for an end to the violence triggered by a privately made anti-Islam video, in Dearborn, Michigan Sept. 21, 2012.

The United Nations' top expert on religion and belief has called on countries to repeal blasphemy and apostasy laws that can lead to persecution and severe punishment in some countries.

"States should repeal any criminal law provisions that penalize apostasy, blasphemy and proselytism, as they may prevent persons belonging to religious or belief minorities from fully enjoying their freedom of religion or belief," the U.N.'s special rapporteur on religion and belief Heiner Bielefeldt said in his yearly report to the Human Rights Council.

Addressing journalists on Thursday after he had spoken to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Bielefeldt a German professor on human rights politics, would not be drawn into singling out specific countries engaging in persecution.

He said nations should enact legislation to protect members of religious or belief minorities, noting the universal status of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief for individuals and communities.

He agreed that the blasphemy law in Pakistan is used against religious minority groups such as Christians, Ahmadis or against Shiah Muslims.

Bielefeldt reiterated comments he made at a meeting the previous day outside of the rights council in which he argued that criminalizing notions such as blasphemy could endanger free speech because there is not a clear definition of it.

For some people it is viewed as mild criticism, but others as criminally insulting of some religious entity.

He noted that often individuals from religious minorities face discrimination, banning from key areas of society, bigotries based on national myths, acts of vandalism and defilement, interruption or closing of religious ceremonies, and acts of violence.

"In my daily work, I receive many reports of grave violations of freedom of religion or belief of persons belonging to religious minorities in all parts of the world," said Bielefeldt who is independent of the United Nations.

He warns in the report that human rights violations against people belonging to religious minorities include disparate bureaucratic limits, and rejection of fair legal status necessary to build up or uphold a religious infrastructure.

These discriminatory rules can invade family laws, and the indoctrination of children from minorities in public schools.

"The human rights-based approach," explained Bielefeldt, "takes respect for the self-understanding of human beings as its systematic starting point."

He added, "The rights of persons belonging to religious minorities cannot be confined to the members of certain predefined groups.

"Instead, they should be open to all persons who live de facto in the situation of a minority and are in need of special protection to facilitate a free and non-discriminatory development of their individual and communitarian identities."

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