An Indian Parsi ties sacred thread around his waist before entering a fire temple during Navroze, the Parsi New Year, in Secunderabad in August 2017. Parsis, followers of Zoroastrianism, were exiled from Iran in the seventh century during religious persecution by Muslims. (Photo by Noah Seelam/AFP)
Religious freedoms are steadily being eroded across large parts of Asia and religious fundamentalism is on the rise, the United Nations' special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief has warned.
"Freedom of religion is routinely violated across much of Asia," Ahmad Shaheed said at an event hosted by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand in Bangkok. "In general, human rights are regressing in Asia."
Shaheed, a Maldivian diplomat who assumed his mandate as special rapporteur in November 2016, cited the example of communist nations such as China and Vietnam where religious believers are routinely persecuted. He also voiced concerns about countries such as Myanmar and Pakistan where religious minorities face discrimination and violent attacks.
In predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya have been driven by the military into neighboring Bangladesh in what foreign observers have described as large-scale ethnic cleansing.
Meanwhile, in Muslim-majority Pakistan, local Christians and Ahmadis, who belong to a small Islamic sect, have faced persistent discrimination as well as systematic social, political and economic exclusion.
Such cases of discrimination against religious minorities, Shaheed said, "should give us pause about what's going on in our part of the world."
He observed that even in countries where overt discrimination is less common, religious minorities may find themselves being marginalized. "Being tolerated isn't enough. There must be inclusion," Shaheed stressed.
The U.N. expert also noted that violations to religious freedoms rarely happen in a vacuum. Rather, they are invariably accompanied by violations to other essential rights such as freedom of speech.
Faith-based extremist groups and state authorities alike, he said, often use normative religious beliefs and practices as a pretext to diminish freedom of expression, such as through the enforcement of blasphemy and apostasy laws.
"If states don't let you believe whatever you want to believe, then they won't let you say whatever you want to say," he said.
Troublingly, many governments, especially in Muslim-majority nations, draw their legitimacy from upholding majority religious norms and beliefs. By doing so, they often end up violating the rights of religious minorities, either on purpose or by default.
"A state's duty is to be an impartial guarantor of everyone's religious rights" regardless of the content of religious beliefs, Shaheed argued. "There must be no coercion either from the state or from faith-based groups."
Nor should government authorities be in the business of favoring certain religious beliefs or norms over others within a faith. "The state cannot and must not determine the authenticity of one's faith," he said.
Shaheed stressed that freedom of religion should also apply equally to nonbelievers, including outspoken atheists.
"Freedom of religion also includes the freedom from religion — that is, the freedom not to have a religion," he said. "People should have an unqualified right to believe or not to believe."