Religious minority rights and citizens rights belong together, says UN rapporteur

By agency reporter
September 29, 2013

Work for the rights of religious minorities should be done in a spirit of universalism, said Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, in his address at the opening session of a recent World Council of Churches (WCC) consultation in Geneva, Switzerland. “Minority rights are human rights,” he added.

Professor Bielefeldt called the focus on the central values of human rights a paradigm shift away from the mere protection of religious minorities. He argued that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that all human beings are born free, with equal rights and dignity. Therefore these principles should guide the understanding of minority rights.

Bielefeldt’s address set the tone for the consultation, which was organised by the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA). The event was focusing on 'Politicisation of Religion and Rights of Religious Minorities'.

In his address, Professor Bielefeldt questioned the “labelling” of minorities. He quoted examples from several countries where people are numerically a minority and have special vulnerabilities but, he said, they insist on being defined as “citizens” rather than a “minority”.

“All human beings have equal rights but not all human beings live in equal circumstances,” he said. Bielefeldt added that freedom means “respect for the self-understanding of the human beings; therefore the self-understanding of religious minorities must be fully respected”.

Professor Bielefeldt also stressed the importance of creating spaces for religious diversity without creating divisions or exacerbating existing fragmentation.

He said, these are long term projects but can be accomplished through inter-religious communication and building trust through public institutions.

The WCC General Secretary, the Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, also addressed the opening session, introducing the theme of the WCC’s upcoming assembly, 'God of life, lead us to justice and peace'.

He said that the issues of religious freedom and minorities are part of the daily struggles of the churches. He emphasised the need for a critical analysis of the politicisation of religion, relevant to the minority religious communities.

Dr Tveit mentioned the WCC’s long term engagement in promoting religious freedom and the protection of religious minorities. He also talked of the churches’ initiatives for collaboration with civil society and faith based organisations in advocacy at various levels.

The opening session was chaired by the vice-moderator of the WCC Central Committee, Metropolitan Professor Gennadios of Sassima.

The consultation discussed the content of a proposed statement on the politicisation of religion and the rights of religious minorities, which will be presented at the WCC 10th Assembly, to be held from 30 October to 8 November in Busan, Republic of Korea.

* Podcast of the presentations from Olav Fykse Tveit and Heiner Bielefeldt:


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