UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion

At the end of a week’s visit to the oPt (0ccupied Palestinian territory) the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Asma Jahangir, made a statement, from which here are extended excerpts:

“The visit has been both fascinating and disturbing for me. This is a land blessed with a rich diversity and important holy sites of many religions. Yet, this very diversity, which should have been a blessing, tragically has polarized people on the lines of religion. Indeed, the conflict has an adverse impact on the right of individuals and communities to worship freely and to attend religious services at their respective holy places. I have noticed that people of all religions have the will and aspiration to live side by side in peace. There are outstanding examples where despite conflict and religious polarization people have been able to extend respect and tolerance to each other’s religions and beliefs. There have been encouraging instances of inter-faith and intra-faith dialogue on various levels. At the same time I have also met individuals who bear resentments against other religions and their adherents.

“A major issue of concern for my mandate is the restricted access to holy places. Muslims and Christians are impeded from worshipping at some of their most holy places in the world due to an elaborate system of permits, visas, checkpoints and the Barrier. While the Israeli Government informed me that these restrictions are necessary for security reasons, I would like to emphasize that any measure taken to combat terrorism must comply with the States’ obligations under international law, including freedom of religion or belief. These intrusive restrictions strike me as disproportionate to their aim as well as discriminatory and arbitrary in their implementation. My concern also extends to problems of access to holy places revered by Jews.
In addition, I was more than surprised to learn about the subtle differences with regard to indicating religious affiliation on official ID cards. While Israeli citizens’ ID cards no longer state the holder’s ethnicity, those of Palestinians residents of the oPt do disclose their religion. In my opinion, to indicate the religious affiliation on official ID cards carries a serious risk of abuse, which has to be weighed against the possible reasons for disclosing the holder’s religion.

“During my talks with members of religious minorities in Israel, my interlocutors have by and large acknowledged that there is no religious persecution by the State. Within the Israeli democracy, I would like to emphasize the important role that the Supreme Court has played in the past and can play for safeguarding freedom of religion or belief.   However, strands within the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths have experienced different forms of discrimination. There are concerns that the State gives preferential treatment to the Orthodox Jewish majority in Israel to the detriment not only of other religious or belief communities but also of other strands of Judaism. For example, conversion to Judaism within Israel is only recognised if performed by the Orthodox Rabbinate. Another concern is the urgent need to preserve and protect Christian and Muslim holy sites; many of those have been made inaccessible or neglected since decades, while Jewish places have appropriately been designated as holy sites and hence protected. Further concerns have been raised with regard to unfair allocation of subsidies at the expense of religious minorities and strands. I have also received reports that the religious rights of detainees are not fully respected. I will be dealing with these issues in more depth in my report to the Human Rights Council.

“Personal status questions in both Israel and the oPt show the delicate relationship between State and religion. Even though the various religious courts for historical reasons have the jurisdiction for issues such as marriage and divorce this does not absolve the authorities from their responsibility to ensure equal treatment and the implementation of human rights for all individuals. I find it difficult to understand that under domestic law persons can be deemed to be ‘unmarriagable’; in this regard I was informed that more than 200.000 Israeli citizens and residents with no official religious designation are barred from marrying in Israel. I wish to emphasize that freedom of religion or belief also includes the right not to believe.

“This brings me to the contentious question of conversion, which socially speaking is considered a taboo and is restricted by religious laws. In Israel, offering or receiving inducements for conversion is also prohibited by the domestic law. Hence, some small communities in Israel have refrained from proselytising. In the oPt, the few conversions which have taken place, particularly when involving interfaith relationships, have been followed by serious tensions and in some cases violence.

“Women seem to be in a particularly vulnerable situation and bear the brunt of religious zeal. I was informed about cases of honour killings carried out with impunity in the oPt in the name of religion. Reportedly some women in Gaza have recently felt coerced to cover their heads not out of religious conviction but out of fear.

“Further apprehensions concerning the situation in the oPt have been expressed by minority communities, including some small Christian groups, who fear a rising level of religious intolerance. In October 2007, a Christian librarian in Gaza city was threatened and subsequently kidnapped and killed. The question whether he was engaging in missionary activities or not is entirely irrelevant. This was a hideous crime and also a violation of his right to manifest his religion or belief. I welcome that the representatives of the Palestinian Authority who I met expressed concern and had taken note of these incidents … In my report I will recommend that all parties to a possible peace agreement bind themselves legally to protect the rights of religious minorities. Particular attention should be paid to include guarantees for equality and non-discrimination based on religion as well as for the preservation and peaceful access to holy sites.

“A major challenge, which needs to be addressed immediately, if we are to avoid deterioration, is to effectively prohibit and sanction incitement to religious hatred. Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights clearly states that any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law. However, impunity for incitement is a concern. Any violence committed in the name of religion, whether violent acts by zealous settlers or even worse in the form of suicide bombings by militant Islamists, should be denounced, investigated and sanctioned. Furthermore, it is particularly worrying when children are being incited to express hatred toward those with a different religious affiliation.

“Today is a sobering day. We solemnly mark the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. I join the United Nations Secretary-General in saying: ‘We remember those whose rights were brutally desecrated at Auschwitz and elsewhere, and in genocides and atrocities since. We vow to apply the lessons of the Holocaust to our lives and to those of succeeding generations’.”

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