UN rights expert on freedom of religion voices concern about Israeli restrictions

28 January 2008

The security restrictions imposed by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territory are intrusive, disproportionate, discriminatory and arbitrary, an independent United Nations human rights expert has stated, warning that they restrict the access of Muslims, Christians and Jews to worship at their holy places.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has had “an adverse impact on the right of individuals and communities to worship freely and to attend religious services at their respective holy places,” said Asma Jahangir, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, in a statement issued yesterday after an eight-day visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.

Ms. Jahangir noted that while there are “outstanding examples” of individuals in the region extending respect and tolerance to each other’s religions and beliefs, the “elaborate system of permits, visas, checkpoints and the Barrier” meant Muslims and Christians were impeded in their ability to worship at some of their most holy sites.

“While the Israeli Government informed me that these restrictions are necessary for security reasons, I would like to emphasize that any measure taken to combat terrorism must comply with the States’ obligations under international law, including freedom of religion or belief,” she said.

“These intrusive restrictions strike me as disproportionate to their aim, as well as discriminatory and arbitrary in their implementation. My concern also extends to problems of access to holy places revered by Jews.”

Ms. Jahangir also voiced concern at differences in the identity cards of Israelis and Palestinians: while the ethnicity of Israeli citizens is not stated on their cards, the religious affiliation of Palestinian residents of the occupied Palestinian territory is disclosed.

“In my opinion, to indicate the religious affiliation on official ID cards carries a serious risk of abuse, which has to be weighed against the possible reasons for disclosing the holder’s religion.”

The Special Rapporteur, who is unpaid, said religious minorities in Israel that she spoke to during her visit acknowledged there was no religious persecution by the State, but strands within Christianity, Judaism and Islam still experienced some forms of discrimination.

There were also concerns that Orthodox Jews enjoyed preferential treatment to other communities, she said, citing the example that a conversion to Judaism within Israel is only recognized if performed by the Orthodox Rabbinate.

Ms. Jahangir noted that while religious courts in Israel had, for historical reasons, jurisdiction over such issues as marriage and divorce, the authorities must still ensure equal treatment and human rights for all.

“I find it difficult to understand that under domestic law persons can be deemed to be ‘unmarriageable’; in this regard I was informed that more than 200,000 Israeli citizens and residents with no official religious designation are barred from marrying in Israel. I wish to emphasize that freedom of religion or belief also includes the right not to believe.”

In addition, Ms. Jahangir expressed concern that women seemed to particularly vulnerable to “the brunt of religious zeal,” with reports of honour killings in the name of religion conducted with impunity in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Some reports also indicate that women in the Gaza Strip have recently felt coerced into covering their heads, she said, while minorities have faced rising intolerance. Last October, a Christian librarian in Gaza City was kidnapped and killed.

“The question whether he was engaging in missionary activities or not is entirely irrelevant. This was a hideous crime and also a violation of his right to manifest his religion or belief.”

The Special Rapporteur stressed that a possible peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians should bind both sides to protect the rights of religious minorities, especially guarantees for equality and non-discrimination and for the preservation and peaceful access to holy sites.

A “major challenge” must also be effectively banning and punishing acts of incitement to religious hatred.

“Any violence committed in the name of religion, whether violent acts by zealous settlers or even worse in the form of suicide bombings by militant Islamists, should be denounced, investigated and sanctioned.”

During her trip, Ms. Jahangir visited Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Daliyat al Carmel, Haifa, Nazareth, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, Nablus and Qalqilya, and talked with Government officials, representatives of religious groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals.


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