Thursday, March 13, 2014

There is disrespect of freedom of religion or belief in Gujarat, says UN official Heinel Bielefeldt

By Our Representative 
Senior United Nations (UN) official Heiner Bielefeldt has sharply criticized the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, which says that “a person who wants to convert to another religion must first get permission from the district magistrate to do so”. Calling this as an “unreasonable restriction not only on people’s right to convert to another religion, but also their right to propagate their own religion”, Bielefeldt, who is UN special rapporteur on religious freedom, and examined similar anti-conversion laws across different states, has particularly taken strong exception to the law in Gujarat.
Beilefeldt said, Gujarat’s law “carries a high penalty of three years’ imprisonment based on such loosely defined terms. This doesn’t do justice even to the rule of law, in which laws need to be clear, especially in criminal law.” In an interview to the "Wall Street Journal", Beilefeldt said, “India’s laws restricting religious conversions – intended to protect people from being forced to change their beliefs — are an obstacle to religious freedom, a senior United Nations figure said in an interview.”
While the the laws he discussed apply in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, the UN official insisted, things are particularly bad in Gujarat. “The converts themselves in Gujarat have to undergo a humiliating bureaucratic procedure, exposing themselves and explaining the reasons for their conversion as if the state were in a position of being able to assess the genuineness of conversion. This is disrespect of freedom of religion or belief.”
Bielefeldt, who was in Gujarat a fortnight ago, after visiting several other states, said, India is “a birthplace of many world religions. In terms of diversity, it’s second to not a single other country. There’s a heritage of pluralism.” However, he underlined, “Secularism has come under threat in India. Apart from communal violence, the main point that ranks the highest is anti-conversion laws.”
Elaborating, he said, “Conversion can mean turning to another religion or inviting someone else to turn to my religion. The former is absolutely protected in the UN's understanding. Causing someone else to convert is not absolutely protected as a right, nevertheless it is involved in freedom of religion and strongly protected. The state has to ensure this is possible in a non-coercive manner.”
The UN official pointed out, “The anti-conversion laws primarily threaten not the convert, but the missionaries. For example, the prohibition of coercion is mixed with very vague concepts like inducement or allurement. Any invitation to another religion has an element of inducement or allurement.”
But the “laws are also applied in a discriminatory manner in the practice of re-conversion. This term describes cases where people revert back to their original beliefs. Re-conversion, or so-called homecoming, ceremonies are encouraged by some of these laws. I heard from eyewitnesses how Indian festivals are used or abused to stage big ceremonies of mass re-conversions.”
Bielefeldt during his India visit “met survivors of the violence against Christians in Gujarat’s Dangs district in 1998, and of the violence against Muslims in 2002, where more than 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed”, said Wall Street Journal. He also visited Orissa’s Kandhamal district and Karnataka where anti-Christian violence occurred in 2008.
Giving his “impression of what happened”, Bielefeldt said, “There is a continued climate of fear, and maybe that’s even the purpose. The acts of violence are part of a broader pattern of instigating fear into the minorities, sending them a message they don’t belong to this country unless they either keep at the margins or turn to Hinduism.”
He added, “People feel that not enough has been done. The state apparatus seems to function to a certain degree, nevertheless the extremely late, slow responses of some important actors like law and enforcement and security indicate a clear gap in protection.”

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