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UN expert hails US move placing atheists on equal footing with faith groups

Religious leaders. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
NEW YORK – A United Nations human rights expert on freedom of religion or belief has welcomed the United States’ legislative amendments aimed at protecting non-believers and atheists.

“This is an important development, as believers, atheists and non-believers must all be equally protected,” said the newly appointed Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, in a news release from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

“Many humanists and non-believers are still widely stigmatized and persecuted around the world.”

US President Barack Obama signed the amendments to the International Religious Freedom Act on Friday.

According to the news release, the promotion of atheist thought in any form is considered an act of terrorism in some countries. In others, any expression of non-belief or atheism is condemned as blasphemy or apostasy and receives harsh punishment, including the death sentence or attacks by vigilante groups.

“People often do not fully understand the scope of the international human right to religious freedom. It is not just about religions or beliefs, but it also covers the right to freedom of thought and conscience as provided by the Universal Declaration for Human Rights,” noted the Special Rapporteur.

The expert said the terms “religion” and “belief” should be understood in a broad sense to include theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.

“All of them have important roles to play in building pluralistic and inclusive societies for the 21st century that are peaceful and prosperous,” Mr. Shaheed stressed.

“In the face of increasing diversity, the freedom of religion or belief can be upheld only with the acceptance and full inclusion of atheists and non-believers,” he concluded.

Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.

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