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2008-03-05
London, United Kingdom
UN Warning to Britain on Religious Rights
A UN report on religious freedom in Britain has urged the government to protect the rights of Asian women and Muslim converts to Christianity, and not privilege ethnic and religious communities over individual rights.

Britain has a high degree or religious freedom and tolerance, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief reported. However, government anti-terrorism policies were viewed as discriminatory by Muslim groups, while the continuation of the Blasphemy Offence under law was an anachronism that should be repealed or reformed.

Prepared for the UN’s Human Rights Council by Pakistani human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir (pictured) the 23-page Feb 7 report finds Britain has an “overall respect for human rights and their values” and that religious persecution is rare.

However, problem areas exist in Northern Ireland, among the Muslim community, and with recent government legislation that religious groups believed denigrates traditional morals.

Ms. Jahangir visited Britain for 11 days last June, meeting with a cross section of political, religious and social leaders ranging from the prime minister to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement to Scientologists to the Muslim Council of Britain.

The UN’s rapporteur noted that Britain’s 2001 census divided the population along religious lines as: 71.8 per cent Christian, 2.8 per cent Muslim, 1 per cent Hindu, 0.6 per cent Sikh, 0.5 per cent Jewish and 0.3 per cent Buddhist, 15.1 per cent no religion and 7.8 per cent of people chose not to state their religion, the actual rates of religious observance were much lower than the rates of affiliation.

However, the rate of churchgoing was much lower. “In 2007, approximately two-thirds of the British either did not claim membership of a religion or said that they never attended a religious service, compared with 26 per cent in 1964,” the report said.

In her interviews with religious and secular leaders, Ms Jahangir found localized dissatisfaction with some aspects of religious freedom in Britain. Jewish groups complained of increased anti-Semitism in the wake of the government’s war on terror, Hindus objected to government education curriculum favoring Urdu over Hindu, while Sikhs called for proportional representation by religion in parliament.

Muslim respondents complained of “the application of counter‑terrorism legislation and the adverse influence on the situation of British Muslims” and of the inflammatory consequences of the media’s reporting of Islamist terrorism.

Northern Ireland reported problems with sectarian violence, while “Christian Students’ Unions at several universities were reported to face pressures with regard to their adherence to university equal opportunities policies.”

“The Government’s Sexual Orientations Regulations were perceived by some Christians as hampering the work of Christian adoption agencies and establishing a hierarchy of rights with religion having a rather low priority,” the report said.

Secularists and some religious minority groups, however, complained of the “particular role and privileges of the Church of England.”

The UN report recommended the government continue the drive toward reducing sectarian tensions in Ulster, and recommended “affirmative actions strategies” to bring Catholics into government employment.

The Special Rapporteur commended Britain for the “balanced approaches” in “tackling” religious based terrorism. However she urged the government to review its counter-terrorism tactics as police “profiling techniques based on physical appearance seem to cause anger among many young Muslims and may lead to a lack of trust between the police and communities.”

“Several provisions in counter-terrorism legislation seem to be overly broad and vaguely worded,” she noted, urging the government to make sure that “criminal liability is limited to clear and precise provisions in the law.”

Ms Jahangir urged education authorities to “pay specific attention to the contents of syllabuses in publicly funded schools,” and not privilege one local or particular faith group. She further noted the “continued existence of the blasphemy offence” under English law was at odds with European Human Rights Law and favored the Christian faith over others. Blasphemy should be either broadened or removed from the statute books, she said.

While there were no state policies that discriminated against women and religious converts, the UN’s Special Rapporteur found that “many women are in a vulnerable situation within their own communities” as were “converts who face problems with the community of their former religion.”

The UN paper concluded that “equality must be all-encompassing and the argument by some religious leaders that traditions should override the rights of women is unacceptable.”

Source: The Church of England Newspaper
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