Herr professor

United Nations Religious freedom advocates, often ignored, find a friend in UN representative Heiner Bielefeldt | Emily Belz

Herr professor

Heiner Bielefeldt
Paulo Filgueiras/UN

German philosophy professor Heiner Bielefeldt has a beard, rosy cheeks, and the lively lecturing manner of good teacher. He enjoys discussions about Immanuel Kant or Georg Hegel. He’s not the kind of man you imagine as a United Nations official, and originally he never imagined himself as one. But after officials passed over the main candidate in 2010, Bielefeldt found himself the new UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. 

Bielefeldt, a Catholic, is a professor of human rights at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and was the founding director of the German Institute for Human Rights, created by the German Bundestag. In the two years since his election to the UN, the unlikely point man has won the admiration of the religious freedom advocacy community, which often feels forgotten at the international body. 

“He’s doing an outstanding job,” said Ann Buwalda, director of the Jubilee Campaign. 

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Last fall Bielefeldt blew into New York from Geneva, where the UN Human Rights Council is based, to deliver his latest report to the UN General Assembly. While in town, he had lunch with religious freedom advocates, who greeted him warmly. Among UN diplomats and international organizations, religious freedom receives paltry attention. Bielefeldt, whose position is unpaid, has “one and a half” staffers in Geneva, he said, and when he is in New York someone from the UN counterterrorism office is assigned to work with him. 

Meanwhile, outside groups advocating for religious freedom are scant too, especially compared to other interest groups at the UN like the gay-rights lobby. Open Doors USA recently shut down its advocacy operation at the UN in New York, though it still has staff in Europe. The Jubilee Campaign, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Alliance Defending Freedom, the American Center for Law and Justice, the World Evangelical Alliance, the Humanist and Ethical Union, and the Bahais have staff tasked to lobby the UN on the issue. That amounts to about a dozen people doing full-time advocacy on an issue that affects billions of people around the world.

“All of us are so stretched thin,” said Buwalda.

Buwalda also said Bielefeldt “does not care which governments he offends”—a striking trait for a UN official. In his reports, Bielefeldt does not name offending countries, but the insinuations are clear, something Buwalda thinks is brilliant: “If [the countries] go after him, they’ve revealed that he’s talking about them.”

“It doesn’t really require much courage to say what I say,” Bielefeldt said, adding that speech is free in Germany. His predecessor in the position was a Pakistani, who lived under laws restricting speech. “I don’t know if I’m really courageous. I’ve never been tested.”

Officials chose Bielefeldt over Malaysian candidate Ambiga Sreenevasan, whom Islamic countries objected to. Bielefeldt hasn’t been afraid to confront Islamic countries. In the past he has criticized the Organization of the Islamic Conference’s (OIC) Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which he said is “problematic” because “it puts all human rights under the proviso that they should comply with Islamic Sharia.” Such ideas “undermine the very validity of universal rights,” he said in 2002. In other interviews, he has said when Sharia conflicts with human rights, “human rights must prevail.” (Representatives from the OIC were invited to the lunch with him in New York, but said they had other engagements.)

Now Bielefeldt is focusing his energies on two issues that are problems mainly in Islamic countries. One issue is “defamation of religion” laws and resolutions, the “blasphemy” measures that some Islamic countries have in place at home and have tried to set in place at the UN. The second is persecution based on conversion, also common in Islamic countries. 

Bielefeldt’s latest report to the UN General Assembly centers on protections for converts and those who are doing missionary activities, which he said are “inextricable dimensions of freedom of religion or belief.” His report also states that no one may interfere with parents who teach their children about their beliefs. “The very nature of freedom of religion or belief is at stake,” he told me, in terms of the freedom to convert and proselytize. “What would remain is a fuzzy tolerance language.”

In the real world beyond UN reports, Bielefeldt has spoken repeatedly on behalf of Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was imprisoned for three years and sentenced to death on charges of converting to Christianity and proselytizing. Iran released Nadarkhani following international pressure, and then recently re-imprisoned and released him again.

 “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.”

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