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UN: Rapporteur For Religious Freedom Sees Slow Progress

Asma Jahangir in Prague on November 24 (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, November 27, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Asma Jahangir, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion, says the politicization of religions should end. Jahangir made the comments in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari.

RFE/RL: This week marks the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the 1981 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion Or Belief, which is the only international human rights instrument exclusively focused on religion. The anniversary is being marked by different events -- such as the one in Prague -- but is there really a cause for celebration when freedom of religion is yet not a reality for many people around the world and people are persecuted for their faith?

"The tools of an activist do work...they work well because building public opinion is the most difficult thing that anyone can do."

Asma Jahangir: I believe that you're right in saying that and I have in my reports always also written and reminded people that in many parts of the world religious intolerance has been on the rise; while we have overcome certain problems of the past, new ones do appear. But at the same time I think it is important to realize that in 1981 there was actually a consensus on the declaration. I don't think you could have that consensus two decades later. So I think that declaration, that document itself is a point of celebration and we need to build on it, we need to remind ourselves that the world had committed to it and that now policy makers and decision makers have to rally people around the declaration to recognize its spirit and then begin to give effect to that declaration.

RFE/RL: What are the countries that are of concern to you in terms of freedom of religion [that] need to be reminded of the principles of the declaration?

Jahangir: To be very honest there are many countries that are of concern and they are from almost every region of the world, and the concerns are different. For example, the concern in North America is very different to, say, the southern part of the Americas -- as we call it -- where we have very little allegations of human rights violations in terms of freedom of religion. There are some issues of indigenous religions that we are beginning to look into now but at the same time it's not as grave as, I believe so far, as the other parts of the world.

RFE/RL: What are your concerns regarding the United States or what reports have you received about alleged violations of the right to freedom of religion? You and several other UN rapporteurs concluded in a report that the United States should close the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

Jahangir: In the U.S. you have seen in the past that there has been a sort of rhetoric; there have been several complaints of prisoners and with my colleagues I did write a report on the Guantanamo Bay [detention center]. Then we have allegations of how people are being discriminated against, immigration laws are changing in the world. Canada we have very few allegations but they're still there and rising after September 11. In Europe you have a different kind of problem again because of large minorities, Muslim minorities, and they have -- let me put it in this way -- emphasized their identity in the past, which is being resisted and at the same time these trends of terrorism, which have stigmatized also Muslim communities, has created a complex situation.

RFE/RL: What are your concerns regarding freedom of religion in Islamic countries?

Jahangir: In the Muslim world you have in many countries open discrimination even in laws and policies. There are countries where, for example, if one were to look at it -- and it seems unrealistic to talk about it in 2006 -- where citizenship is linked to religion, you cannot be a citizen of a particular country if you're not a Muslim. There are laws against religious minorities who are not Muslims. Even penal sanctions for them if they step out of line, so to speak, [and then] registration is a problem. Then there is a huge problem -- and that I think we have not begun to address quite forcefully -- is the right of people not to have a religion, the right of people to choose a religion or to not choose a religion, and that, I believe, is a very testing problem for many countries who [practically do not accept] conversions, but theoretically every religion and every religious leader would say that "yes" it's our right to convert people in our religion -- but they don't accept [that right] of other religions.

RFE/RL: In March you expressed concern about reports that said the Iranian government has taken measures to identify the members of the Baha'i community and to monitor their activities. Do you have any new information about the situation there?

Jahangir: The situation is serious and I am extremely concerned about it because we did receive allegations that there was a letter and a copy of a letter where Baha'i community members of faith were asked to be identified by the highest authority in the country. I've been following that up and I believe there has been no withdrawal in that respect; it is still continuing and naturally there would be fear amongst that community because there has to be a reason to identify them. There has been a campaign of vilification against them in the very much government-controlled media and newspapers so it seems like building up of some action against them.

RFE/RL: Have you also received reports about the situation of Sufis in Iran? There have been a number of reports about them being harassed and persecuted by the government.

Jahangir: I have very few reports about Sufis in Iran. I would also like to the kind of mandate that we are running sometimes there may be huge problems somewhere but we may not get allegations because civil society in that part of the world or that country is not strong enough, does not have the independence and courage to send these allegations or may not be aware. So this mandate is very much also dependent on our research in a way, yet we cannot act on our research alone, we have to only act and send communications to a government on allegations that we receive from victims, from NGOs, and that too are very reliable sources.

RFE/RL: Have you requested to travel to Iran on a fact-finding trip?

Jahangir: I have requested [and] they have in principle agreed and I'm still waiting for dates. It's been, I think, over a year since I requested [a list of] dates and I hope and I believe that it will come.

RFE/RL: You had also requested to visit countries such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, but it seems that they have failed to respond to your request. How do you deal with countries where there are reports of violations of the right to freedom of religion, yet you cannot travel there yourself?

Jahangir: Well, you have to continue using all diplomatic means and it's not only Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; there are countries -- and I respect all countries -- and governments like the government of China, they have invited my predecessor, we have now written to them and asked for dates. [Russia], Israel -- these are countries that we very much want to and very much look forward to cooperating with because I think somehow when a special rapporteur goes into a country people begin to feel that it's a kind of a clash with the government but we really do look at our mandate very sincerely and want to have those governments that want to do something about the problems. Naturally, if a government doesn't want to do anything about a problem they would consider us as intruders. My experience has been very optimistic. I have been to, for example, Azerbaijan; to France, to Sri Lanka, to Nigeria, and I think that some governments have -- more than others -- cooperated very well but to a very satisfactory level they have all cooperated.

RFE/RL: You have praised the government of Azerbaijan for its good cooperation with you and you also said in your recent report that there is an indisputable degree of tolerance among the population.

Jahangir: The government of Azerbaijan was exceptional. Their cooperation was, to a degree, where there was anything that you asked for, it was very open and you got the feeling that they know that there is a problem. They want to do something about it and they may not be able to but here I think a start has to be made somewhere.

RFE/RL: As you have said yourself and you also mentioned it earlier, religious intolerance has increased since 9/11 and now some link Muslims and Islam with terrorism. What needs to be done to sort of disassociate Islam from terrorism?

Jahangir: Let me first of all correct myself: I think that as I said earlier, while we got over some of the previous problems new ones have emerged so I cannot really quantify whether it has increased really in every respect because we cannot forget that 50 years ago religious persecution was not even considered as [a violation] of other people's rights so, in that respect, I think that I would not want to sound alarmist but certainly why I do worry a lot is that there is a polarization and that polarization is being carried from the UN down to the streets and communities of countries and people. I think the leadership has to rethink how they want to deal with it, should they not keep their differences aside and really look at the interest of the population of the world. And I really...urge people not to divide themselves in terms of Muslims and non-Muslims, Buddhists, or Christians because you are first of all human beings and have to respect each other. It's not a division, it's diversity. First, I think its extremely important that when I do travel in my missions I see that the ordinary people are quite aware of it, the ordinary people are living with each other, the higher you go up the ladder the more you find politicization of religions and that really has to stop.

RFE/RL: As you know the pope is due to travel to Turkey on [November 28]. To what extent do you think his trip will help heal wounds and ease tensions that were created following his remarks over Islam and jihad?

Jahangir: Well, the remarks were sad and I hope that after his statement people will reconsider their anger toward him and the gesture that he's made to go to Turkey. How it will heal will really depend on how he's received and what he says there. I have often sort of said -- and I did at the last council meeting as well -- when people of that eminence say something there are always political ramifications and political costs to it. It's not a human rights violation but there are political costs to it and so I believe that people learn from it; it's not a world where a word said in a small place by people of that stature and eminence remains there, it's carried across the world and there is rapid awareness. People are vigilant, they're very quick to point [things] out to each other and I hope that they also look [at] what they...say about other people.

RFE/RL: You've been actively fighting for human rights for more than three decades, first in your own country, Pakistan, then as the special UN rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, and now as the UN rapporteur for freedom of religion. What do you think has been your biggest achievement?

Jahangir: Sometimes you think it's such a long time and you've achieved nothing and frankly very little but honestly, to struggle for human rights is a long struggle. You sew the seeds today, you'll reap it maybe in the next generation. I think for me one of the greatest learning experiences has been the teamwork that I have done with my colleagues back home and [our] work with our regional partners. You learn so much from your older and much wiser colleagues and the fact that in 1980, when the first women's movement started in Pakistan -- and what we call the new women's movement -- that was not distributing sewing machines to women but telling them that they have rights. Nobody had heard of [such a thing] and people were mostly critical and amazed that anybody should be talking about rights for women. But today, when I think I see that not only in urban centers but even in the rural areas women are very much aware that they need those rights. I travel extensively in my own country and I know that at times I've gone to a village and men have come and said to me we don't want to take you home because our wives, when they find out that you're here, we will have to hear lectures from them about how much we deprived them of their rights. So I think that has been a great achievement for many of us in Pakistan, the fact that there were new issues that were brought up. The tools of an activist do work; they perhaps take too much time but they work well because building public opinion is the most difficult thing that anyone can do.