Prof. Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt (UN Special Rapporteur for the Freedom of Religious Belief)

02.10.2010 - Interview conducted by Elizabeth Hurst

Q1. Some Islamic states adhere to a certain reading of the Quran with regard to punishment for breaking religious law, despite the fact that many of these punishments are considered human rights violations. The recent case of Sakineh Mohammad Ashtiani from Iran and her death sentence from stoning was widely condemned internationally. In cases where the sanctity of the religion is violated, or the punishment is a violation of human rights. How can these challenges be overcome where a mutual solution benefits both ideals?

If it is a direct conflict then in the end, human rights must prevail because human rights are based on the condition of human dignity. They have been spelled out in legally binding conventions, but first let us look at the matter more precisely, and see if it is a real clash.Because the superiority that human rights claim in the cases of conflict is not an ideological superiority, it’s not that human rights has a new religion, and that Islam is a sub-denomination. They have different scopes of meaning, but in terms of practical norms human rights must hold priority if there is a conflict. But sometimes, we must take a closer look and try to find ways out of that, but it will not always work, but we have to stay firm and ensure that human rights are valid.They are not a post religious creed, or a doctrine or ideology, but in practical terms, they must be complied with.

Q2. The idea of Turkey joining the EU is welcomed by some EU member states, while opposed by others. Some observers suggest that one of the obstacles is that Turkey, a predominately Muslim state, would have a clash of cultural and religious ideals with the EU which is predominantly Christian. Do you think such thoughts are valid, and how much will religion play into the final decision of whether or not Turkey joins the EU?

It is indeed an emotional issue, and some do oppose Turkey’s membership for such reasons. What strikes me as quite odd is in all these notions, it is hardly mentioned that Turkey has been a member of the Council Of Europe for many decades. The Council of Europe includes Russia and many former Soviet states as well, and Turkey has been a member for decades. So to say Turkey is not European, is to say that the Council of Europe is not European. So it is a bit absurd.

Q3. Cultural diplomacy aims to mitigate the gaps in understanding between different cultures and religions. Do you think enough is being done to foster this understanding?

The answer is obviously a ‘no’ because it is never enough. You realize that if you look at the current debates in Europe, one of them being ‘Islamaphobia’, there are many stereotypes and prejudices of course. What I find important is respect is not due to religion per se, but the primary subject of human rights is the human being. Sometimes, textbooks are too traditional, and the portrayal is only about the big human rights issues, and that Judaism, Christianity and Islam. What we often focus on is the minorities, or the minorities within the minorities. Who cares about freedom of religion? But in terms of religious freedom, they are one of the most vulnerable.

Q4. How do you think that comes into conflict when religious groups themselves are exclusive, and do you think that adds to a perception of fear amongst other people?

Religious groups have a right to be exclusive. So for instance, the Catholic church might be in the position to say that something racist, or the holocaust denial is something that we accept. The important thing from a human rights perspective is that even though religious communities may compete, it must be made clear that respect for rights, basic human rights must never be undermined. We have to organize our co-existence on the basis of rights, but still be able to complete over truth claims, and that membership has its limits by saying this position does not belong to us.

Thank you so much for your time.