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UN expert slams limits on minorities’ rights to worship, citing Russia, Iran, among others

Dr. Ahmed Shaheed (Chair of the Board of Trustees, URG) and Ms. Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh (Chief, UPR Branch, OHCHR) on the panel (Universal Rights Group/Flickr)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A top UN expert has urged countries to repeal laws infringing on minorities’ rights to worship and hold beliefs, singling out Iran, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Russia, and Moldova, among countries of concern.

Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special investigator on religious freedom, warned in a report seen by the Associated Press on November 4 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 urged governments to “repeal all laws that undermine the exercise of the human rights to freedom of religion or belief” and to adopt wide-ranging antidiscrimination legislation.

Shaheed said that as many as 21 countries criminalize apostasy — the renunciation of religion. In 12, including Afghanistan and Iran, “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.”

Shaheed said the right to legal identity and citizenship has also been stripped because of religion and beliefs, citing the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and Eritrea.

The special rapporteur also slammed China for the treatment of its minority populations, including Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities.

The UN estimates that more than 1 million Uyghurs and members of other mostly Muslim indigenous ethnic groups in Xinjiang have been held in so-called reeducation centers that rights groups say amount to brutal concentration camps.

Shaheed also criticized North Korea, which he said “reportedly employs a sweeping surveillance apparatus to imprison Christians that engage in non-state-sanctioned activities.” he said.