During a debate at the U.N. Human Rights Council today, Islamic countries complained that a report on religious freedom did not adequately attack Israel, while daring to criticize Islamic countries. The report was presented by U.N. expert on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Ms. Asma Jahangir of Pakistan.
Palestine was the first to protest the report’s lack of focus on Israel. Referring to Israel as “the occupier,” Palestine exclaimed, “We reject the policy of promoting religious hatred, and we call on Israel to review its policies.” Denying that school books issued by the Palestinian Authority preach hatred, it pointed the finger at the purported bigotry of Israeli school curricula.
Yemen, speaking for the Arab Group, asked why the report did not address “the restrictions on freedom of movement and access to places of worship” for the Palestinian people. It accused Ms. Jahangir of “obvious bias” and “espousing of the Israeli viewpoint in this report.”
Iran and Algeria also spoke vociferously about purported Israeli assaults on Arab Muslim and Christian holy places, including during the recent attack on Gaza. Iran condemned “Israeli discriminatory practices and incitement to hatred.”
Egypt complained that Ms. Jahangir was not responding in a satisfactory manner to these complaints. It aggressively accused her of coming to the session with pre-written speeches that do not address the concerns raised regarding Israel, telling her that if this is the case, it is a waste of time to attend the council. It would be better, Egypt told her, “that you just e-mail us your statement and we will e-mail our reply.”
The debate became especially heated when certain Western countries highlighted the abuses of religious freedom in Muslim countries—some of which were alluded to in Ms. Jahangir’s report.
Canada called upon Iran to release several Baha’i political leaders. The Czech Republic, speaking for the European Union, also noted the plight of the Bahai’s in Iran.
In its “right to reply,” Iran called these allegations “baseless” and a “distortion of reality.”
The United Kingdom inquired about Ms. Jahangir’s pending requests for country visits to Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Burma, and “particularly Iran.” Ms. Jahangir had repeatedly been denied her requests to investigate rights abuses in Iran.
Canada also urged the Egyptian government to issue identification cards to all its citizens. Members of certain faiths had been denied this right. Without an official identification card, these Egyptians are unable to have a driver’s license, open a bank account, register children for schools, or be admitted to a government hospital.
Egypt interrupted Canada at this point, arguing that this issue is not mentioned in the report, is thus not a legitimate statement, and should be deleted from the meeting record. Canada rightfully responded that its statement was made in the context of paragraphs 58 and 59 of the reports among others, and continued speaking.
Aside from raising issues surrounding religious freedom for specific groups, Ms. Jahangir has also expressed concern about the attempt by Islamic countries to criminalize “defamation of religions,” i.e. impose Islamic anti-blasphemy laws on the international community. In this context, the United States stated its concern about the “undue limitations” of freedoms of expression and belief posed by such provisions.
Another newsworthy event of the debate: Sri Lanka made a dig at Western governments, claiming that groups funded by Australia and Canada were engaging in propaganda against the Sri Lankan government. Australia denied the allegations; Canada did not respond.