Statement of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, during the 22th session of the Human Rights Council

5 March 2013

Distinguished delegates, ladies and gentleman,

It is my pleasure and honour to have this opportunity of an interactive dialogue with you. In the present annual report to the Human Rights Council I have decided to focus on freedom of religion or belief of persons belonging to religious minorities.

Whoever works on behalf of the implementation of freedom of religion or belief will inevitably be confronted with the vulnerable situation of persons belonging to religious or belief minorities. In my previous reports to the Human Rights Council or to the General Assembly’s Third Committee, including the country related reports, this topic has always been present. It also constitutes an important part of the communication that I have with governments on individual cases. The majority of such communications are joint initiatives taken in close collaboration with other mandate holders, including the independent expert on the rights of minorities, Rita Izhak. During the preparation of my current report we had intensive communication on issues of common concern, and we are both committed to continue this close cooperation in the future.

Patterns of violations of freedom of religion or belief of persons belonging to religious minorities

Persons belonging to religious or belief minorities often suffer from violations of their human rights, including their freedom of religion or belief. Abuses are perpetrated by States and/or non-State actors, sometimes in a climate of impunity, and they may originate from different political, religious, ideological or personal motives. Practical examples of violations include arbitrary bureaucratic restrictions and burdensome administrative stipulations imposed on minorities; compulsory indication of religious affiliations in passports; denial of legal personality status for certain communities; lack of an infrastructure needed for upholding religious community life; intimidating effects of criminal law sanctions (e.g. for possessing and distributing religious literature); indoctrination of children from religious minorities in public schools; violations of parents’ right to educate their children in conformity with their own convictions; discriminatory structures in family law; threatened loss of custody rights for children in divorce cases; and arbitrary confiscation of property and partial exclusion of members of minorities from certain public services, such as education, health care and social security. Furthermore, people belonging to religious minorities suffer from stereotypes and public demonising, acts of vandalism of their houses of worship, desecration of cemeteries, mob violence and even incidents of torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial killings. While people from virtually all religious or belief backgrounds, when living in a minority situation, may be exposed to anti-minority victimization, certain religious communities have a particularly impressive and long-lasting history of discrimination, harassment and even persecution.

Human rights approach to the protection of rights of persons belonging to religious or belief minorities

Initiatives on behalf of securing the rights of persons belonging to religious or belief minorities should consistently be based on a human rights perspective. This clarification is necessary, since minority issues are often associated with protection concepts that historically emerged outside of the human rights framework. However, amalgamating different concepts of “minority protection” harbours the danger that the specific profile of the human rights approach becomes blurred. It is all the more important to reiterate that the rights of persons belonging to religious minorities as established in the context of international human rights law naturally share all the characteristics of the human rights approach in general which is based on the principles of (1) normative universality, (2) freedom and (3) equality or non-discrimination.

(1) Based on the assumption that all human beings are rights holders in international human rights law, they all deserve respect for their self-understanding in the area of religion or belief. Given the experience that self-understandings of human beings in questions of religion or belief can be very diverse, freedom of religion or belief accordingly must have a broad scope of application and should be implemented in an open, inclusive manner. A broad and inclusive understanding must also guide the interpretation of the rights of persons belonging to religious minorities. Accordingly, the term “religious minority” should be conceptualized in such a way as to cover all respective groups of persons, including traditional as well as non-traditional communities or large and small communities. One should also take into account the situation of internal minorities, i.e. minority groups within larger minorities. Against a widespread misunderstanding, it seems important to emphasize that the rights of persons belonging to religious minorities are not anti-universalistic privileges reserved to the members of certain predefined groups. Rather, all persons factually living in the situation of a religious or belief minority should be able to fully enjoy their human rights on the basis of non-discrimination and benefit from measures which they may need to develop their individual and communitarian identities. The question which individuals or groups of individuals fall under the specific guarantees of article 27 of the ICCPR and similar minority rights provisions should be established on the basis of the self-understanding of the concerned persons in conjunction with an empirical assessment of their actual need of promotional measures in order to keep and develop their identity.

(2) Measures used to promote the identity of a specific religious minority always presuppose respect for the freedom of religion or belief of all of its members. Thus, the question how they wish to exercise their human rights finally remains left to the personal decisions of each individual. This in turn means that the State cannot, strictly speaking, “guarantee” the long-term development or identity of a particular religious minority. Instead, what the State can and ought to do is create favourable conditions for persons belonging to religious minorities to ensure that they can take their faith-related affairs in their own hands in order to preserve and further develop their religious community life and identity. Positive measures are often urgently needed to facilitate the long-term development of a religious minority and its members. This requires a broad range of activities, such as subsidies for schools and training institutions, the facilitation of community media, provisions for an appropriate legal status of religious minorities, accommodation of religious festivals and ceremonies, inter-religious dialogue initiatives and awareness-raising programmes in the larger society. Without such additional support measures, the prospects for the long-term survival of some religious communities may be in serious peril which, at the same time, would also amount to grave infringements of the freedom of religion or belief of individual members.

(3) Combating discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief obviously is a complex task that implies State obligations at different levels. First, it requires a consistent policy of non-discrimination within State institutions. For instance, it creates the need for accessibility of public positions in administration, public services, police force, military and public health to everyone regardless of their religious or belief orientations. Moreover, States should also combat discriminatory practices within society at large, such as the labour market, the housing market, the media and other societal systems. This may require promotional activities that go beyond policies of formal non-discrimination, such as positive outreach and promotional measures on behalf of minorities. Finally, States should critically address the root causes of societal discrimination, i.e. existing stereotypes and prejudices against members of religious minorities, and they should foster a general climate of societal openness and tolerance, for instance, by providing fair information about different religious or belief traditions as part of the school curriculum, facilitating encounters of people from different denominations and encouraging inter-religious communication. Members of religious minorities also typically suffer from hidden forms of discrimination, such as structural or indirect discrimination. For instance, seemingly neutral rules relating to dress codes in schools or other public institutions, although not openly targeting a specific community, can amount to discrimination against persons belonging to a religious minority if they feel religiously obliged to adhere to an alternative dress code. Similar problems can occur with regard to dietary rules, public holidays, labour regulations, public health norms and many other issues. To prevent or rectify discriminatory consequences, States should generally consult with representatives of religious minorities when enacting legislation that may seriously infringe on their religious or belief-related convictions and practices. Moreover, systematic attention should be given to forms of multiple and intersectional discrimination, for instances discriminatory patterns in the intersection of religious and gender discrimination.


In my daily work I receive many reports of grave violations of freedom of religion or belief of persons belonging to religious minorities in different parts of the world. Given the number and gravity of human rights violations, the need for concerted action to better safeguard the human rights of persons belonging to religious minorities is more than obvious. The annual report therefore concludes with a number of practical recommendations addressed to different stakeholders, including States, civil society actors, media professionals, religious or belief communities and international human rights bodies.

Mission to Cyprus

A report on my mission to Cyprus, including the findings and recommendations, can be found as addendum to the thematic report. I appreciate the high degree of cooperation and many substantial discussions, all of which took place in an open and constructive atmosphere. I am also indebted to all interlocutors from the whole island, coming from different sectors of society, as well as from different religious communities who helped me better understand the complexities of the political and social situation on the island of Cyprus. The overall situation has clearly improved after the opening of the checkpoints in 2003, with positive implications also for the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief throughout the entire island. At the same time, I have identified existing challenges for Christian minorities in the northern part, for Muslim minorities in the southern part and for other religious minorities outside of the ambit of bi-communalism. I am encouraged by recent initiatives towards enhancing interreligious communication, with a view to cultivating relationships of trust and peaceful coexistence, both at the level of religious leaders and at the grass-roots levels. I have just received the positive news that for the first time in the history of Cyprus in 50 years the heads of three main Christian communities of the island are meeting with the Mufti of Cyprus discussing peace, human rights and freedom of religion or belief in Cyprus. I would be highly interested in continuing the dialogue with the various stakeholders.

Finally, I am happy to announce that the Kingdom of Jordan has invited me to conduct a country mission in September this year and that also the Republic of Viet Nam has agreed to a country mission taking place this year.