UNITED NATIONS--Should criticism of religions be banned as hate speech? Can a country prevent its citizens from freely changing religion? Can a minority faith build a place of worship wherever it chooses?
These are among the questions that make up today's global discourse about religious freedom.
In October, the UN's newly appointed Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief--set out his thoughts, underscoring the importance of protecting individual human rights.
Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt formally introduced himself at the UN in New York on 21 October, in an interactive dialogue with the General Assembly. The following day, he held an introductory briefing for a group composed largely of non-governmental organizations, held in the New York offices of the Bahal International Community.
A German university professor with widely acknowledged expertise in issues of religious freedom and public policy, Dr. Bielefeldt told members of the UN General Assembly's Third Committee that freedom of religion or belief stands as a fundamental human right, related to the "inherent dignity" of all human beings--and that it cannot be taken away by anyone.
"Human dignity is neither an ascribed societal status, nor a privilege granted by Governments. It does not derive from social agreements, nor can it be made dependent on membership within a particular group of people," said Dr. Bielefeldt to the Third Committee, which oversees human rights for the General Assembly.
The concept of human dignity and its inalienable nature is spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he said. But it is also a concept that "resonates strongly in religious or philosophical traditions, across regional and cultural boundaries."
"As a consequence of its universalistic nature as a human right, freedom of religion or belief has a broad scope of application: he said.
In addition to protecting the right of everyone to profess a belief--or no belief at all--it also protects "members of newly established communities, minority groups as well as minorities within minorities."
Dr. Bielefeldt said that governments have a strong obligation to protect the individual right to freedom of religion or belief, which also extends to the individual's right to "change" one's belief--something prohibited in some countries.
"Protection must also be accorded to those who have exercised, or wish to exercise, their right to change one's religious affiliation...