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Herr professor

"Herr professor" Continued...

Issue: "Taking a scalpel to the First Amendment," Feb. 9, 2013

 “Iran possesses the basic legal framework to guarantee Christians, as a group, the right to freedom of religion, and should ensure that this right is granted in practice as well,” Bielefeldt said in September. He called on the Iranian government to “ease the current climate of fear in which many churches operate, especially Protestant evangelical houses of worship.” 

Bielefeldt spoke out about the assassinations of Pakistani officials Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer, who died for their opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. He and other religious freedom advocates worked behind the scenes to kill off the defamation resolutions that could be used against religious converts and others, resolutions that had passed in UN bodies for a decade. 

Then last fall, fears rose that defamation resolutions would return after publicity from a U.S.-made YouTube video criticizing the prophet Muhammad sparked protests in Muslim countries around the world. Various UN officials called for resolutions that would block such insults to Islam. In the midst of the controversy, Bielefeldt refused to say the video should have been blocked. “The threshold for restricting speech is very high,” he said. The best way to address such a video, he said, was to allow more speech, not less.

“The debates on defamation—now it’s over, and I very much hope we don’t get back to it,” he told me. “It’s all wrong, but wrong ideas can be powerful.” 

But after all, what can one official really accomplish in a body as dysfunctional as the UN? Bielefeldt has a humble view of what the UN as a body can accomplish, and he sees his own role as little different from what he does back in Germany: He’s a philosophy professor. He helps people understand ideas. He fights wrong ideas. Countries are regularly trying to narrow the definition of religious freedom to a private right without protections for public practice, or to a protection for a religion, like Islam. He wants to keep the right expansive. The UN can only “clarify norms,” he said. Real changes must come “from the ground.”

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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