UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. special investigator on religious freedom urged countries to repeal laws undermining the right of minorities to worship and hold beliefs, pointing as examples to China’s detention of Uighurs, 21 countries that criminalize apostasy, and sweeping surveillance of Christians in North Korea and Muslims in Thailand.
Ahmed Shaheed warned that “the failure to eliminate discrimination, combined with political marginalization and nationalist attacks on identities, can propel trajectories of violence and even atrocity crimes.”
He called on governments to “repeal all laws that undermine the exercise of the human rights to freedom of religion or belief,” adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation and act to empower minorities to claim all their rights to religion and beliefs.
The former foreign minister of the Maldives said in a report to the General Assembly circulated Tuesday that data suggests the prevalence of laws, policies and government actions that restrict freedom of religion or belief “increased from 2007 to 2017.”
Shaheed, who has been the special rapporteur for four years, said communications since 2015 illustrate that governments “employ a range of extralegal measures that violate freedom of religion or belief, which also serve to delegitimize and stigmatize certain religious or belief groups.”
These measures include restricting the establishment of places of worship or forcing them to close, restricting the appointment of faith leaders and persecuting them, and restricting the celebration of holidays and ceremonies and the teaching of religion or beliefs, he said.
Shaheed said as many as 21 countries criminalize apostasy, the renunciation of religion, “including 12 countries – Afghanistan, Brunei, the Islamic Republic of Iran Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen – in which apostasy is in principle punishable by death.”
Shaheed also highlighted reports of the disproportionate use of terrorist offenses against “religious or belief minorities.” In almost every region of the world, “religious minorities appear to be at particular risk of being designated `terrorist groups’ and of having members arrested under `extremism’ or `illegal activity’ charges,” he said.
In Tajikistan, Shaheed said, “peaceful religious actors, mostly Muslims, have been detained under the `Fight against Extremism’ law for engaging in activities such as promoting religious education or distributing religious literature.”
In Moldova, he said, the emblems of the Falun Gong spiritual movement are included in the state registry of “Extremist Materials.” And a Nigerian court ruled in 2019 that activities by Shiite Muslims amounted to “acts of terrorism and illegality” and ordered the government to ban their association, he said.
The special rapporteur said numerous state authorities have arrested, detained, and sometimes held incommunicado and sentenced members of religious minorities on undefined changes such as intent to “disturb political, economic or social structures”, to “disrupt state sovereignty” or to “overthrow the government”.
“China has sought to justify its coercive detention of over a million Muslim Uighurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in state-run `reeducation’ camps as part of `de-extremism regulations,’” Shaheed said.
He said “behavioral indicators of religious extremism” that warrant detention under such rules “include public displays of Islam and Uighur culture, such as young men wearing beards, women wearing face veils and persons owning goods with a star and crescent.”
Shaheed said the “counter-extremism” campaign against the Uighurs “is illustrative of broader ill-treatment by China of minority religion or belief communities such as Falun Gong and Tibetan Buddhists.”
Elsewhere in Asia, North Korea “reportedly employs a sweeping surveillance apparatus to imprison Christians that engage in non-State-sanctioned activities,” he said. And Thai authorities reportedly conduct surveillance on minority Muslim groups, “including using an artificial-intelligence-enabled closed-circuit television system, biometric data and frequent police checks.”
Shaheed said it’s estimated that 178 countries require religious groups to register for various purposes, including to be legal and have tax-exempt status. But he said in almost 40 percent of those countries, “such laws and policies are applied in a discriminatory manner against certain religious or belief groups.”
In addition, he said, Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned in 34 countries and it is reportedly difficult or illegal to run a humanist organization in over 30 countries.
Shaheed said the right to legal identity and citizenship has also been stripped because of religion and beliefs.
“Shia Muslims in Bahrain, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eritrea and Russia have had their citizenship revoked or denied on the basis of their religious identity,” he said. “In Vietnam, Hmong and Montagnard Christians have been unable to secure the necessary `house register’ documentation for citizenship. Non-Muslims may not obtain citizenship in Maldives.”
In Iran, unrecognized religious or belief groups, including the Baha’is, are unable to access employment, housing, university-level education, health care and social services, including pensions,” Shaheed said. And in Egypt and Malaysia, human rights organizations report that identity cards issued to minorities often fail to display their religious identity leading to discrimination in government services.
Shaheed also pointed to reports by human rights organizations of increasing violence, mass killings and atrocities based on religious beliefs.
In Mali, extremists threaten both Christian and Muslim communities “with severe violence,” he said. “In Egypt, security forces are accused of normalizing patterns of sectarian attacks against Coptic Christians owing to the level of impunity for acts of violence against Copts.”
Shaheed expressed deep concern at “reports of police inaction in India, where mobs have destroyed Muslim property and businesses and violently attacked Muslims.” He cited a video of police beating five Muslim men who had been injured during a mob attack in Delhi “and ordering them to sing the national anthem.”
On a positive note, Shaheed welcomed legal reforms including the repeal of apostasy laws in Sudan, of anti-blasphemy legislation in Ireland, Canada, Greece and Denmark, and the repeal of legislation in Bangladesh that banned publication, sale and distribution of materials by Ahmadi Muslims.
He also welcomed the Supreme Court decision in India calling the exclusion of women from entering all or parts of religious sites discriminatory, and a ban in Pakistan’s Sindh province on forced conversion and marriage of minors.