At the invitation of the Government, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief visited the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 4 to 15 June 2007.
The report gives an overview of the international human rights obligations and the domestic legal framework on freedom of religion or belief. Furthermore, it outlines the religious demography and concerns reported by the Special Rapporteur’s interlocutors. Subsequently, the report focuses on thematic issues such as sectarianism, counter-terrorism measures, religious education and collective worship, religious symbols, balancing of competing rights, provisions on offences related to religions, the definition of “religion” or “belief” as well as the vulnerable situation of women, converts, refugees and asylum-seekers.
In her conclusions and recommendations, the Special Rapporteur states that there is a great wealth of experience in the United Kingdom in dealing with religious tensions and terrorist acts carried out under the cover of religion. She was particularly impressed by the depth of analysis and the endeavour to solve the underlying problems as demonstrated by the authorities as well as by a vibrant civil society and academic world.
Despite the overall respect for human rights and their value in the United Kingdom, there are some issues of concern. With regard to sectarianism, for example, the Special Rapporteur is alarmed about reports that schoolchildren in Northern Ireland are often targets of abuse or physical attacks due to their perceived religious affiliation. Consequently, in legislation on offences aggravated by hostility, it may be advisable to refer not only to actual religious belief but also to the accused’s perception of the religious, social or cultural affiliation of the targeted individual or group. Furthermore, the Special Rapporteur is concerned about reports that, in the framework of counter-terrorism measures, Muslims are regularly subjected to screening, searches and arrests solely because of their religious affiliation. Concerning religious education, the authorities should pay specific attention to the contents of syllabuses in publicly funded schools and to a non-discriminatory composition of relevant committees. With regard to school uniform policies, the Special Rapporteur refers to the set of general criteria concerning religious symbols as outlined in her 2006 report submitted to the Commission on Human Rights (E/CN.4/2006/5, paras. 51-60).
The Special Rapporteur is concerned at the continued existence of the discriminatory blasphemy offence, which favours Christianity alone. She welcomes the fact that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, which also refers to non-religious believers, has recently entered into force in England and Wales and she would like to encourage the introduction of similar legislation in Scotland. The Special Rapporteur is concerned about the vulnerable situation of women and converts who face problems with the community of their current or former religion. With regard to refugees and asylum-seekers, the Special Rapporteur stresses the importance of reliable and impartial interpretation services as well as of up-to-date information about religious persecution in the asylum-seekers’ countries of origin.