World Council of Churches Office of Communication
Press Update
150 route de Ferney, P.O. Box 2100, 1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland
E-mail: media

9 April 1999


The following is the full text of the intervention made today to the 55th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, meeting in Geneva, 22 March-30 April 1999, by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches:

"Madam Chair, distinguished representatives,

This is a joint intervention by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches. All of these international church organisations monitor very closely the implementation of the commitments in the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion and Belief. They are each actively engaged in promoting tolerance and mutual respect among religious communities.

We welcome the report of the Special Rapporteur under this agenda item, and particularly his emphasis on the need to review legislation and to promote a "culture of tolerance".

New legal provisions in many countries, whereby an increasing level of state control is exercised over religious institutions and minority religions are increasingly restricted, remain a matter of ongoing concern. We receive alarming reports from our member churches, in particular from those countries where a separation of religion and state is not recognised and plurality is not valued. In this context we want to draw your attention to the joint Written Statement of the World Council of Churches, Franciscans International, the Dominicans and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches with regard to the Blasphemy Law and the growing environment of religious intolerance in Pakistan. The provisions of the Separate Electorate and Blasphemy Law have been used to isolate, persecute and victimize the Christian minority in that country.

Madam Chair,

In the post-cold war period many countries have established new legal provisions affecting religious freedom and many others are in the process of drafting new legislative frameworks. While these often recognise the practice of freedom of religion for the individual, we observe serious practical set-backs for religious communities in enjoying religious freedom. The new legislation in Uzbekistan may serve as one example among many others. On 1 May 1998, the parliament of Uzbekistan passed amendments to the 1991 Law on Religious Organisations and the Criminal Code. Among other restrictions, the amendments now require 100 citizens to sign a religious community’s application for registration and criminalise any unregistered religious activity.

The Special Rapporteur has begun to establish a compendium of national enactments on or relating to freedom of religion and belief. This material is designed to serve as a basis for a comparative study of national legislation and for the examination of allegations received. We urge all governments which have not yet done so, to reply to the request of the Special Rapporteur and to provide him with the necessary material, which should also be made accessible to NGOs. The survey, however, is only a first step. We therefore hope that studies arising from this material, on issues like requirements for registration of religious communities and equality of majority and minority communities before the law, might lead to an intensified dialogue among governments on the practical implementation of religious freedom. To promote this objective, the Special Rapporteur might well draw on the instruments and experiences of regional bodies under the UN Charter, such as the Experts’ Panel on Religious Freedom of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Madam Chair,

At present we are faced with a situation in which religions are increasingly mobilised for competing interests seeking to maintain or secure political influence. At the same time, as the Norwegian Minister for International Development and Human Rights indicated in her address to the Commission, "religion or belief can also be a powerful force for the resolution of conflict". In order to avoid that religion be misused for political purposes and instead become a powerful force in civil conflict resolution, legal provisions protecting religious freedom for all religious communities is an indispensable pre-condition. However, legal instruments by themselves will not be sufficient to promote a culture of tolerance.

We welcome the emphasis of the Special Rapporteur on fostering a culture of tolerance through education. We believe that his office needs strengthening in order to be able to engage in preventive measures, such as more in-situ visits, promoting dialogue between governments and religious communities in any given country and education for tolerance. At the occasion of his in-situ visits, contacts and dialogue with media representatives are of utmost importance, since the media often play a crucial role in either promoting a culture of tolerance or fueling religious prejudices.

As the preventive aspect of the Special Rapporteur’s work should be uppermost, we would welcome the proposed change to the title of his mandate as suggested to "Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief".

Thank you!

For more information contact:
Karin Achtelstetter, Media Relations Officer
tel.: (+41 22) 791 6152 (office);
e-mail: media
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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 336, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.