Understanding the interplay between states and religious traditions is vital to protecting religious freedom for all, said Ahmed Shaheed, U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief, in his annual report released on Feb. 12.

“The degree to which States are entangled with various religions or beliefs has far-reaching implications for their disposition and ability to guarantee human rights, especially those rights exercised by persons belonging to religious or belief minorities,” the report stated.

The state-religion interplay is complex, Shaheed said. While monitoring official state policy with regard to religion is important, analyzing practices is essential to gain an accurate picture of the state of global religious freedom.

He cited as an example a 2017 study of 193 U.N. member states finding “that some 42 percent of States either declare official support for one religion (21 percent) or confer favour onto one or more religions (21 percent),” and then noted that “declaring an official religion does not always lead to high levels of actual support for that religion.”

Shaheed explained, “Key indicators of a State’s disposition to promote non-discrimination include how it ‘addresses women’s rights, minority rights, criminal punishments, neutrality in education, neutrality in resolving disputes between and within various religious or belief communities, and public manifestations of freedom of religion or belief.'”

There are 41 U.N. member states with an official state religion, with Islam being the official religion in 25 states (61 percent), Christianity in 13 states (32 percent) and another faith tradition in the remaining three states (7 percent).

“While States that impose official religions on their populations and those that seek to restrict all forms of religion are most prone to violating the right to freedom of religion or belief, no State-religion governance model is truly immune from unlawfully restricting or unduly interfering with manifestations of religion or belief,” Shaheed said. “Amidst rising diversity, it appears axiomatic that the role of the State as an impartial guarantor of the rights of all is mostly likely to be fulfilled when the State adopts a posture of cooperation and accommodation without identification.”

The full report is available here.

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