On Monday, March 9, I arrived in Geneva, Switzerland to represent the Center for Inquiry at the 28th session of the UN Human Rights Council, which is ongoing through March 27. Spread out over the past two days, March 10 and 11, the Council has hosted an Interactive Dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, on his latest annual report, “preventing violence committed in the name of religion.”
After presenting his report, member states were given the opportunity to respond to the Special Rapporteur. Several responses are worth noting.
- Saudi Arabia stated that “Islam is innocent of all violence committed in the name of religion … [it] runs counter with Islamic values,” and went on to reject the Special Rapporteur’s recommendation that governments not establish a religion: “It is not acceptable. Islam is our Constitution.”
- Denmark noted that the Special Rapporteur urged states to repeal blasphemy laws, and said that Denmark had reviewed its own blasphemy law, but has decided to keep it in place — in part because it gives the government the power to punish what it considers destabilizing acts, such as the burning of holy books.
- New Zealand said that, based on the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations, it would consider repealing its blasphemy law.
- Canada echoed the Special Rapporteur’s recommendation that states repeal their blasphemy laws — though it conveniently did not mention that Canada still has a blasphemy law on the books.
- Fiji appealed to states to adopt secularism as the best way to protect freedom of religion or belief throughout the world, particularly in states with religious conflict.
- Russia criticized the Special Rapporteur’s report, stating that religious believers have the right to be free from insults against their religious beliefs and symbols.
- The United States stressed that laws that restrict freedom of religion, belief, and expression sow seeds of intolerance, and echoed the Special Rapporteur’s recommendation that states repeal blasphemy and apostasy laws.
After state responses, non-governmental organizations including the Center for Inquiry were given the opportunity to deliver statements. Unfortunately, the Council cut short the time for statements by non-governmental organizations, and I was unable to deliver a statement I drafted on behalf of CFI.
However, we at CFI believe the Special Rapporteur’s report is timely and important, and that, at the least, our members deserve to know what we planned to say about it. So, below is the full text of our statement.
On January 7, armed extremists killed 11 staff members of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Days later in France, a gunman killed four Jewish individuals in a grocery store. In the week following these events, there were 54 anti-Muslim incidents across France, including attacks on mosques. On January 9, Saudi Arabian authorities flogged dissident Raif Badawi, in part for insulting Islam.  On February 26, machete-wielding extremists in Dhaka murdered Bangladeshi-American humanist writer Avijit Roy. Meanwhile, religious minorities including Coptic Christians, Rohingya Muslims, Ahmadiyya Muslims, and Bahais continue to suffer both governmental and social harassment.
What do these attacks have in common? They are all instances of violence committed in the name of religion. In this regard, we welcome the latest report from the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which stresses the importance of realizing not just the nature, but also the scope of violence committed in the name of religion. 
It is often thought that violence in the name of religion refers to acts committed by non-state actors. Yet it also includes acts committed by states — whether in the form of suffocating bans on religious dissent, the jailing and torture of dissenters, or campaigns of intimidation, fear, and exclusion of religious minorities and the non-religious. As the Special Rapporteur details in his report, these are not intractable problems.
Accordingly, we echo many of the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations, including his call for states to repeal discriminatory and divisive establishments of religions, and laws that criminalize dissent on religion. We also encourage states to combat and punish violence committed by non-state actors, as failure to do so creates or fans atmospheres of violence; and to protect space for individuals to engage in expression on religion, as the stifling of peaceful dissent is one of the root causes of violence.
Additionally, we urge non-state actors to speak out against any violent act committed in the name of religion — whether on Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, or other religious minorities. Similarly, we urge both states and civil society to recognize that the same set of rights that protects the liberty to express one’s views on religion also protects the liberty of religious believers to peacefully practice their chosen faith.
 Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt. https://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G14/250/87/PDF/G1425087.pdf?OpenElement
You can download our statement as a PDF here.
For continued updates from Geneva, follow me on Twitter: @mdedora