30 April 2009

SKOPJE -- The United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, issued the following press statement at the end of her visit to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia:

"Members of the press, ladies and gentlemen, let me first start by thanking the Government of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia for its invitation. In fact, the Government has issued a standing invitation to all Special Procedures which shows its cooperation with the United Nations and openness to human rights monitoring. I am mindful of the fact that this country is a young democracy and it has been through a number of challenges, including the conflict in 2001. While this conflict was mainly along ethnic lines, I was told time and again by my interlocutors that there was a certain element of religious tension involved. Ethnicity and religion are separate identities, yet they do often overlap. The situation in this country is another case in point.

The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious society. There is by and large a high level of tolerance in its society. The Government, too, has shown respect for religious diversity and freedom of religion or belief. Nevertheless, some areas of concern remain to be addressed. In this press briefing, I will only be able to convey some of the impressions that I have formed since my arrival in Skopje on 26 April 2009. I will present a full report with conclusions and recommendations to the 13th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

During this visit, I traveled to Skopje, Tetovo and Prilep, where I held a number of meetings, both with government officials and members of civil society, including representatives of religious communities.

The Constitution provides that religious communities and groups are separate from the state and equal before the law. The Government therefore has a delicate role to play. On the one hand, it must ensure that principles of non-discrimination are upheld and, on the other hand, it must allow autonomy to religious communities. It also has to stay even-handed in granting official status to all communities and yet protect the rights of all individuals, whether they are theistic, atheistic or non-theistic believers. A number of my interlocutors pointed to the perception that the two biggest registered religious communities in the country wield considerable political influence and are able to make inroads to the Constitutional concept of separation of state and religion.

I was encouraged by the reforms made in the 2007 Law on Religious Communities and Religious Groups. It is in line with international human rights standards; however, the implementation of the law has so far not been streamlined, for example with regard to registration issues.

The policy of denationalization of assets belonging to religious communities is a welcomed step. A number of communities have benefited from this law, while the claims of some remain pending to this day. Religious sites and places of worship have an emotional and spiritual significance for the believers. It is therefore important to resolve these issues in a sensitive and transparent manner. In this regard, the controversy concerning the reconstruction of the mosque in Prilep which was destroyed in 2001 is one example which needs to be looked into.
The most recent judgment of the Constitutional Court striking down provisions of the law on primary education has raised a considerable public debate. I noticed that the judgment does not in any way impinge upon the freedom to receive religious instruction outside of primary school teachings. There are numerous models that are being followed throughout the world regarding the teaching of history of religions as well as religious instruction. Let me quote from the United Nations Human Rights Committee which concludes that the freedom of religion or belief “permits public school instruction in subjects such as the general history of religions and ethics if it is given in a neutral and objective way”. Furthermore, the Human Rights Committee acknowledges that it is also permissible for public schools to be involved in religious instruction, noting that it would be consistent with human rights commitments to do so, insofar as “provision is made for non-discriminatory exemptions or alternatives that would accommodate the wishes of parents and guardians.”

Against this background, I was astonished by the outrage expressed publicly by certain religious leaders and politicians against the recent judgment of the Constitutional Court. It is vital that the independence of the judiciary is fully respected, particularly when making decisions regarding religious issues. It is critical that courts are able to adjudicate upon religious matters without fear or favour. An independent judiciary is crucial for safeguarding freedom of religion or belief and ultimately for the functioning of democracy.

I am also concerned at the number of reports I have received regarding expressions of incitement to racial or religious hatred. These contribute to creating a climate of intolerance and threaten the security of individuals. I want to make a distinction between freedom of expression, even when it is deemed offensive, and advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. While the former has to be respected, the latter must be prohibited by law. Article 20 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights makes this abundantly clear. In addition, each case has to be examined on its own merits so that freedom of expression is not undermined; at the same time, in order to protect the integrity of individuals, hate speech must not tolerated. Here, too, the judiciary plays a vital role in striking the delicate balance. According to the information I received, reports that were filed by members of religious minorities concerning concrete cases of incitement to violence against them were not followed-up. On the other hand, I have also received information that the vague formulation of the law was allegedly misused against a particular religious leader. Therefore, safeguards against such abuse of the law are also vital.

Impunity in cases of incitement to religious hatred unfortunately emboldens forces of bigotry. In an otherwise tolerant society, I was saddened to learn that there have been some cases of mob violence, threats and extreme forms of pressure against members of religious minorities. Their complaints to local authorities have reportedly not been taken seriously.

The Government has a primary obligation to protect its citizens from acts of religious intolerance and discrimination. It needs the active support of civil society to create awareness on human rights issues, including freedom of religion or belief. An informed public opinion can promote tolerance and needs to be created through monitoring and advocacy of human rights. Civil society can play a lead role in this regard. It has been my experience throughout the mandate that legislation alone cannot create an atmosphere of social harmony and mutual trust. On the contrary, hasty legislation on matters of religious rights often can become contentious and there is the risk that it may lead to polarizing society along religious lines.

Despite the above-mentioned concerns, I remain optimistic that a continuing debate on freedom of religion or belief in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will contribute to a higher level of understanding and respect between different religious communities and individuals, including atheists. The country’s diversity is its strength and the Government is rightly proud of it. The Government’s initiative in organizing the World Conference on dialogue among religions and civilizations in 2007 is another indication of its commitment to enhance the principles of pluralism and democracy."

For more information, call Anh Thu Duong at + 41 22 917 9153


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