The World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF) appeared before the World Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in early April and urged the group to pay significant attention to all types of religious intolerance.In a declaration to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, WEF called for protection for the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as stated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."World Evangelical Fellowship is concerned about the myriad forms of religious intolerance that are occurring around the globe, even as we speak," WEF said in its official presentation."The search for national identity in China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Pakistan, combined with the fact that the Christian church is growing very rapidly in these countries, is creating difficult situations for Christians and other minority religions."As persecution of Christians often starts with disinformation in the mass media, we need to act as soon as we see the first signs of dissemination of incorrect information."WEF is working in a proactive rather than reactive way which requires significant interaction with ambassadors and members of the UN Commission on Human Rights during these Geneva sessions," stated WEF. WEF outlined ongoing concerns in Turkmenistan, Laos, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, India, and Turkey.WEF reported progress in a number of former communist countries, while acknowledging that there is still work to be done."While we have seen vast improvements in human rights and democracy in the former communist countries, we fear that these are being eroded by legislation limiting religious freedom. The Russian model requiring registration of groups has been followed in some form by nearly all countries in the region," stated the official report of the WEF to the Commission."A prime example is Turkmenistan, where religious groups are required to have a minimum membership of 500 in order to secure registration, yet are not allowed to engage in religious activities without registration."The feasibility of groups meeting such requirements is clearly very low, but even those who can do so have failed to secure registration."In addition, religious groups are required to submit a membership list, which is subsequently used to monitor and harass adherents, who face fines, beatings, detention and expulsion from security officials and local authorities."WEF reported that strides in religious freedom were met in Asia. "We are, however, encouraged by the withdrawal for reconsideration of draft laws which breach international standards (for example in Romania, Mongolia and Kazakhstan)."We urge the international community to assist in the drafting process to help secure legislation that genuinely protects religious freedom for all, and most particularly, protects rather than persecutes minority groups."Communist countries earned low marks from WEF for religious tolerance. "In countries which are still communist, registration and other intolerant policies pose an even greater threat to religious freedom and many believers from all faiths are denied the freedom to choose and practice their religion," the group said.WEF pointed out to the commission that professing a belief in Jesus is still a crime in several countries. "We remain highly concerned about those who are in detention for their faith."For example, we continue to be gravely concerned for the 46 Christians known to be detained in Laos. Visiting sheets clearly show their charge as 'believing in Jesus'. They are often kept in appalling conditions with inadequate food and water and access to toilets. Some are held in stocks, even when already in poor health," said WEF."In other countries, minority religious groups suffer similar deprivations. In Pakistan, Christians continue to face lengthy imprisonment and death sentences as a result of the existence of the blasphemy law."Recently Shafiq Masih, a Christian who has been in detention since 1998, was found guilty of offences against Islam and sentenced to eight years hard labor in prison and payment of a large fine. Another Christian, Ayyub Masih, has been sentenced to death by hanging, and is now seeking to appeal this decision."One of the worst offending countries in continually assaulting religious freedom is Saudi Arabia, reported WEF."Saudi Arabia continues to prohibit its citizens from practicing any faith other than Sunni Islam. Over the past year, at least 30 foreign Christians have been arrested, imprisoned and finally deported for being involved in chiefly private Christian activities."In the most recent case, the detainees included five children, the youngest of whom was only two years old."The right to change one's religion is fundamental to the right to religious freedom and cannot be removed without making a mockery of the meaning of religious freedom. Yet in many countries the exercise of this right is met with death or other severe penalties."The WEF statement also mentioned organized efforts within the Indian government to censor and restrict the religious activities of Christians and missionaries within that country, including the continual debate there regarding religious conversion."In India, fundamentalist intolerance has continued to destroy and devastate lives, as murders, gang rapes, destruction of churches and property and other attacks have been meted out against minority religious groups."This has now been complimented at an official level by legislation introduced by a number of states with the clear intention to limit religious freedom."For example, the state government in Orissa passed an order last October prohibiting conversions without prior permission of the local police and district magistrate. In Gujarat, state minorities fear revival of a bill establishing stiff penalties for the crime of converting individuals from one religion to another 'by use of force or allurement of by fraudulent means'."There is concern that this would be used to prevent religious groups from carrying out humanitarian work and from making public expressions of their faith."WEF called on the United Nations to make religious freedom a policy priority immediately."For too long, religion has been sidelined, yet the very issues that make it so sensitive demand that it should be addressed with vigor and commitment. We would particularly urge for a review of the UN system in addressing this right and for new measures to monitor and protect it to be implemented."
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