Reports of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief


Summary: This report extracts mentions of children's rights issues in the reports of the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Religion or Belief


Please note that the language may have been edited in places for the purpose of clarity.

Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Religion or Belief, Mr. Heiner Bielefeldt. 



Report Published: 26 December 2013

Mr Bielefeldt identified the following concerns and issued the following recommendations:

Fears of a decline in religious values: What renders policies of hatred so unfortunately “attractive” in the eyes of their followers is that they provide scapegoats on whom to project multiple fears. Obviously, fear is a basic emotion and feature of human life. Unlike animals, whose fears are triggered by imminent dangers to their physical survival, human beings can imagine a broad range of potential threats — even far-fetched or statistically unlikely ones — to which they feel directly or indirectly exposed. Moreover, given the complexity of the human condition, fears can be connected to many different interests, such as social and economic status, the educational prospects of one’s children or the long-term development of one’s community. People may also fear for their religious identities—both as individuals and as communities. For instance, rapid changes in societies may cause feelings of a gradual dissolution of one’s familiar religious lifeworld and concomitant fears of a decline in religious values. (Para. 20)  

Interreligious communication: As pointed out in the Special Rapporteur’s thematic report on the role of the State in this area (A/66/156, paras. 21–69), State activities should cover both formal and informal interreligious communication, that is, dialogue projects undertaken explicitly under the auspices of religious differences as well as forms of communication in which people meet without necessarily displaying their respective religious identities. State commitment in the field of interreligious communication should always take into account the existing and emerging diversity, including intrareligious differences, while also ensuring the substantive participation of women (who continue to be largely discriminated against in many dialogue projects). Moreover, school education also deserves special attention in this context, since the school is arguably the most influential institution in which interreligious communication (both formal and informal) can be experienced on a daily basis, during the formative years of young people and with the prospects of promoting sustained open-mindedness within the younger generation. Fair information and real experiences with religious or belief pluralism, as part of normal public and private life, are among the most important preconditions for developing societal resilience against manifestations of collective religious hatred. (Para. 46)

Role of the media: Other measures recommended in the Rabat Plan of Action include voluntary ethical guidelines for media reporting and self-regulatory supervision, support for community media, facilitation of a non-discriminatory participation of religious minorities within mainstream media and encouragement of interreligious and intrareligious dialogue initiatives, public awareness-raising campaigns and educational efforts in schools. It is worth noting that actors in the area of new information technologies can also play an important role through the promotion of religious tolerance in the digital space. Artists, journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders can help to make a difference as well, especially when their statements and actions transcend religious boundaries and denounce religious intolerance. (Para. 63)

Education: School education should include fair information on religious and belief- related issues as part of the mandatory curriculum. Such information should take seriously the self-understandings of the respective religious communities, including internal pluralism, thus overcoming mere external descriptions, which often remain stereotypical. School education can also facilitate daily encounters between students of different religious or belief persuasions, thus helping them to experience diversity as something quite natural and serving to inhibit the formation of emotions of disgust towards groups of fellow citizens. Education can also encourage students to better imagine the experience and self-perception of others, especially those from diverse religious, ethnic and cultural contexts. (Para. 69)



Report Published: 24 December 2012

Mr Bielefeldt identified the following concerns and issued the following recommendations:

Discrimination against women and girls: As requested by the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur has continued to apply a gender perspective, inter alia, through the identification of gender-specific abuses, in the reporting process, including information gathering and recommendations. A number of allegation letters and urgent appeals summarized in the communications reports specifically address practices and legislation that discriminate against women and girls, including in the exercise of their right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief. (Para. 8)

Right to freedom of religion: In the context of human rights, the identity of a person or a group must always be defined in respect of the self-understanding of the human beings concerned, which can be very diverse and may also change over time. While generally applying to different (ethnic, linguistic, etc.) categories of identity, this principle of respecting every person’s self- understanding is even more pronounced when it comes to defining religious or belief identities, since the development of such identities relates to the human right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. This human right has received international recognition in a number of instruments, including article 18 of the Universal Declaration, article 18 of the International Covenant and the 1981 Declaration. Freedom of religion or belief empowers all human beings to freely find their own ways in the broad field of religion or belief, as individuals and in community with others. They have the freedom, inter alia, to retain, adopt or change their religion or belief; to broaden their horizons by communicating with members of their own communities or with people holding different convictions; to hold religious ceremonies alone or with others; to educate their children in conformity with their own faith; to import religious literature from abroad and to network with co-religionists across State boundaries. Individuals also have the right not to be exposed publicly in their religious or belief-related orientations against their will and to keep their convictions to themselves. (Para. 23)

State support measures: Positive measures are often urgently needed to facilitate the long-term development of a religious minority and its members. The added value of article 27 of the International Covenant and similar minority rights provisions is that they call upon States to undertake such measures, which thus become an obligation under international human rights law. According to article 4(2) of the 1992 Minorities Declaration, States should “take measures to create favourable conditions to enable persons belonging to minorities to express their characteristics and to develop their culture, language, religion, traditions and customs, except where specific practices are in violation of national laws and contrary to international standards”. This requires a broad range of activities. For instance, support measures may include subsidies for schools and training institutions, the facilitation of community media, provisions for an appropriate legal status for religious minorities, accommodation of religious festivals and ceremonies, interreligious dialogue initiatives and awareness-raising programmes in the larger society. Without such additional support measures the prospects of 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 freedom of religion or belief of their individual members. (Para. 25)

Combatting causes of societal discrimination: Combating discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief is obviously a complex task which implies State obligations at different levels. First, it requires a consistent policy of non-discrimination within State institutions, including the accessibility of public positions in administration, public services, police forces, the military and public health to everyone regardless of their religious or belief orientations. If persons belonging to religious minorities suffer from a long history of exclusion from public institutions, it may be necessary to adopt special measures to encourage members of those minorities to apply for public positions, and to promote their opportunities. Furthermore, States should combat discriminatory practices in labour and housing markets, the media, welfare systems, etc. This requires promotional activities that go beyond policies of non-discrimination, such as positive outreach and promotional measures on behalf of minorities. Finally, States should critically address the root causes of societal discrimination, including existing stereotypes and prejudices against members of religious minorities; and should foster a general climate of societal openness and tolerance, for example by providing fair information about different religious or belief traditions as part of the school curriculum, facilitating encounters between people from different denominations, and encouraging interreligious communication. (Para. 28)

Structural or indirect discrimination: Besides problems of direct and open discrimination, members of religious minorities may also 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 who feel religiously obliged to obey a particular dress code. Similar problems can occur with regard to dietary rules, public holidays, labour regulations, public health norms and other issues. It may be the case that large parts of the population are not even aware of the possibly adverse implications that prima facie neutral rules may have on the rights of persons belonging to religious minorities. To prevent or rectify discriminatory consequences, States should generally consult with representatives of religious minorities before enacting legislation that may infringe on their religious or belief-related convictions and practices, and they should develop and promote policies of “reasonable accommodation” for individual members of minorities to enable them to live in conformity with their convictions. (Para. 29)

Denial of an appropriate legal status: Most religious communities – albeit not all of them – wish to have the status of a collective legal personality. Such a status position may be needed for them to be able to undertake important community functions, such as opening bank accounts, purchasing real estate, constructing houses of worship, employing professionals (including professional clergy), establishing denominational schools and running their own community media. Without an appropriate legal status, the development of a communitarian infrastructure and the long-term survival prospects of a religious minority may be in serious peril. Nevertheless, some States fail to facilitate appropriate legal status positions. For instance, certain States do not allow associations to pursue any religious or belief-related purposes, with the implication that religious groups per se cannot obtain any legal status under the law of association. Recognition procedures may also be lengthy and overly complicated, with the intentional or non-intentional effect of discouraging certain minorities from even applying.

In some instances, religious organizations may be deprived of their status and de-registered, thus losing key rights and privileges afforded to registered religious organizations. (Re)-registration procedures may stipulate conditions such as a minimum number of followers or years of existence in a particular country that a priori exclude smaller or new groups. An administration may also arbitrarily use negative labels, such as “sect” or “cult”, to generally prevent certain groups from obtaining legal personality status. Non-recognized communities typically live in situations of increased legal insecurity and structural vulnerability. There are also examples of de facto authorities prohibiting and disrupting meetings of members of religious minorities on the mistaken assumption that such activities could not be undertaken by unregistered communities. (Para. 43)  

Structural discrimination and exclusion: Persons belonging to religious minorities often suffer from systematic discrimination in various sectors of society, such as educational institutions, the labour market, the housing market or the health-care system. Scores of examples account for structural discrimination in those and other important societal areas. Minorities are frequently underrepresented in the public sectors as well, including in the police force, the military, public media and high-level posts in public universities. Members of certain groups, once identified as such, may not have access to higher education or certain public positions, or may be expelled from previously held positions. Moreover, many members of religious minorities experience multiple, intersectional and otherwise aggravated forms of discrimination, for instance a discriminatory link between scheduled caste status and affiliation to specific religions, or a combination of religion and ethnicity-based violence. Women or girls often have to cope with gender-based and religious discrimination, for example dress code regulations that discriminate against persons belonging to religious minorities, in particular women. (Para. 44)

States should issue anti-discrimination legislation with a view to protecting persons belonging to religious or belief minorities effectively from any grounds of discrimination based on religion or belief in education, employment, housing, welfare systems, media, public positions, etc. In particular where religious or belief minorities suffer from a long history of structural discrimination, positive measures are required to reach out to members of such minorities, to encourage them to apply for positions and to promote their opportunities. (Para. 68)  

Discriminatory implications of family laws: An issue warranting special attention concerns discriminatory family laws, especially if personal status matters are adjudicated by religious courts. Some countries continue to restrict marriages between individuals from different denominations, thus violating article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which provides that men and women of full age have the right to marry and to found a family, without any limitation due to religion. Members of religious minorities, in particular women, may feel compelled to change their religion or belief as a precondition for marrying a person with a different religious affiliation. Depending on the specific cases, this may amount to a violation of article 18(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits subjecting anyone to coercion in questions of religion or belief. Furthermore, individuals belonging to religious minorities may also experience discriminatory treatment in divorce settlements, a problem that often affects women. It is reported that judgements of family courts and religious courts in child custody cases have been biased against the parent who belongs to a religious minority. (Para. 45)  

States should reform family law and personal status law provisions that may amount to de jure or de facto discrimination against persons belonging to religious or belief minorities, for example in inheritance and custody matters. (Para. 67)

Alienation and indoctrination of children: Parents from religious minorities also face difficulties in exercising the right to educate their children in conformity with their own convictions, as enshrined in article 18(4) of the International Covenant. A particularly sensitive area in this regard is school education. In some States, children from religious or belief minorities are exposed to religious instruction against their will or the will of their parents or guardians. They may have no option to obtain an exemption from religious instruction, or exemptions may remain linked to a high threshold or humiliating circumstances. There are also reports about children from minorities facing pressure in public schools to participate in rituals and ceremonies of a religion other than their own or being baptized by a priest without the parents’ prior consent. Reportedly, children have even been urged to distance themselves from their own religion as a precondition for passing their school exams. Students who refuse to follow certain religious instruction at school are also allegedly punished or assaulted by their teachers. In extreme cases, such pressure can amount to violations of the right not to be forced to convert. There are also cases where exemption from religious instruction is granted but due to the lack of resources in certain public schools, children exempted from religious instruction may have to remain in the classroom, which means that in practice they are still exposed to religious instruction that may go against their convictions. (Para. 46)

States should organize training for teachers to sensitize them with regard to the particular needs and challenges of children belonging to religious minorities in schools. This should include training programmes aimed at discovering mobbing by peers and providing support measures in such situations. Furthermore, states may consider employing professional communicators from members of religious or belief minorities with the purpose of building confidence between the school administration and parents who belong to minorities. States should ensure that children attending school are not exposed to religious instruction against their will or against the will of their parents or legal guardians. Religious instruction as part of the general school curriculum must always include the option of exemptions. Appropriate monitoring should ensure that this option can actually be used. (Para. 76-78)

States have a responsibility to ensure that no child is at risk of being pressured to attend religious ceremonies or rituals in public schools against their will or against the will of their parents or legal guardians. In this regard, particular attention should be given to the situation of children from religious or belief minorities. Education in public and private schools should cater for the specific needs of members of religious minorities. Teaching materials on religious and belief diversity should present a fair picture of different religions and beliefs, in particular minorities, which can best be achieved through direct consultation with representatives of the relevant communities. (Para. 79-80)

Publicly stoked prejudices: Rather than combating existing prejudices against religious minorities, Governments and public officials at times even stoke and exploit prejudices for political purposes, such as fostering national homogeneity or blaming political failures on scapegoats. In this context, minorities have been negatively portrayed as undermining the moral fabric of society. For instance, minorities who tend to refuse military service on conscientious grounds have been held responsible for military defeats and other national traumas. Surprisingly often, stoked political paranoia targets small groups of people who are demonized as wielding some mysteriously “infectious” power by which they allegedly pose a fatal threat to societal cohesion. There are also examples of religious minorities being stigmatized by politicians or radio hosts as “a fifth column” who supposedly act in the interest of hostile foreign powers, thus violating the interest of the nation. The spread of negative stereotypes and prejudices obviously poisons the relationship between different communities and puts people belonging to religious minorities in a vulnerable situation. Unfortunately, stigmatizing prejudices also continue to exist in schoolbooks and teaching material for children who, given their tender age, can easily be impressed by anti-minority propaganda. (Para. 47)

Obstacles against religious rituals or ceremonies: Persons belonging to minorities may have difficulties when wishing to perform rituals that they consider as essentially belonging to their religious identities. This includes rituals of religious socialization of children, for example male circumcision. Members of religious minorities may also face administrative obstacles when holding processions or celebrating religious ceremonies in public. A number of governments pursue unduly restrictive policies in this regard, sometimes with reference to unspecified “public order” interests at variance with the criteria enshrined in article 18(3) of the International Covenant. It also happens that public ceremonies or gatherings are disrupted by the police or by non-State actors with the police merely standing by, thus conveying the impression that State authorities do not care or even implicitly approve of such acts. Furthermore, funerals have been disrupted by crowds of people who claim that the cemeteries, albeit owned by the municipality, should be reserved for the adherents of the predominant religion and not be used by “heretics”. As a result, persons from religious minorities at times cannot bury their dead family members in a quiet, dignified way. (Para. 49)  

Human rights violations against persons belonging to religious minorities: Human rights violations against persons belonging to religious minorities include disproportionate bureaucratic restrictions; denial of appropriate legal status positions needed to build up or uphold a religious infrastructure; systematic discrimination and partial exclusion from important sectors of society; discriminatory rules within family laws; indoctrination of children from minorities in public schools; publicly stoked prejudices and vilification sometimes connected with historic traumas and national mythologies; acts of vandalism and desecration; prohibition or disruption of religious ceremonies; threats and acts of violence; interference in the community’s internal affairs; confiscation of community property; criminal sanctions; denial of asylum, possibly resulting in extraditions and exposure to serious risks of persecution. (Para. 56)



Report Published: 22 December 2011

Mr Bielefeldt identified the following concerns and issued the following recommendations:

Religious Education: Similarly, communities lacking legal personality status are faced with additional obstacles when trying to establish private denominational schools. This in turn may have negative repercussions for the rights of parents or legal guardians to ensure that their children receive religious and moral education in conformity with their own convictions – a right explicitly enshrined in international human rights law as an integral part of freedom of religion or belief. (Para. 47)

It may be even more difficult to establish institutions of higher education, including theological training institutes, which are vital to intellectually further develop and convey the tenets of a faith to the next generation. This may seriously hamper the freedom to teach a religion or belief in places suitable for these purposes and the freedom to train appropriate leaders called for by the requirements and standards of any religion or belief.15 In some situations, the denial of legal personality status might jeopardize the long-term survival chances of a religious or belief community. (Para. 48)

Criminal Law: The Human Rights Committee has also expressed concern about the use of criminal laws to penalize the apparently peaceful exercise of religious freedom and that a large number of individuals have been charged, detained and sentenced in this context (CCPR/CO/83/UZB, para. 22). Moreover, the Human Rights Committee has dealt with registration issues in individual cases, for example by finding a violation of article 18, paragraph 1, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights following a State‟s refusal to register a community as a religious association, which made impossible such activities as establishing educational institutions and inviting foreign religious dignitaries to visit the country. (Para. 53)



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