Atheists face extensive discrimination, UN rights council told

Humanist group raises concerns amid new efforts by Muslim countries in UN to ban denigration of religion

Pakistan protest over Muhammad caricatures

Atheists, humanists and freethinkers face widespread discrimination around the world, with expression of their views criminalised and even subject to capital punishment, the United Nations has been told.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) said atheism was banned by law in a number of states where people were forced to officially adopt a faith.

“Extensive discrimination by governments against atheists, humanists and the non-religious occurs worldwide,” said the union, which has 120 member bodies in 45 countries.

In Afghanistan, Iran, Maldives, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan “atheists can face the death penalty on the grounds of their belief”, in violation of UN human rights accords, the IHEU said in a document submitted to the UN human rights council.

In several other countries legal measures “effectively criminalise atheism [and] the expression and manifestation of atheist beliefs” or lead to systematic discrimination against freethinkers, it said.

Three of the states on the rights council – Pakistan, Mauritania and Maldives – have legislation providing for death for blasphemy against Islam, a charge that can be applied to atheists who publicly reveal their ideas.

The paper was submitted as the council opened its annual spring session against a background of new efforts in the UN by Muslim countries to obtain a worldwide ban on denigration of religion, specifically what they call Islamophobia.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, told the council there was a “rising trend” of Islamophobia. “We condemn all sorts of incitement to hatred and religious discrimination against Muslims and people of other faiths,” he said.

This month a senior official of the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) said the body would focus on getting agreement on criminalising denigration of religion in coming talks with western countries.

Last November the head of the 21-country Arab League told the UN security council in New York that his organisation wanted a binding international framework to ensure “that religious faith and its symbols are respected”.

The IHEU and other non-governmental rights groupings argue that many Muslim governments use this terminology and the concept of “religious blasphemy” within their own countries to cow both atheists and followers of other religions.

A number of these governments “prosecute people who express their religious doubt or dissent, regardless of whether those dissenters identify as atheist”, the IHEU document said.

Islamic countries including Bangladesh, Bahrain, Egypt, Indonesia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey had also stepped up prosecution of “blasphemous” expression of criticism of religion in social media such as Facebook and Twitter, it said.

OIC countries have 15 seats on the council, all from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, making up almost a third of the rights body.

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