UNHRC ceiling

The United Nations Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by Tom Page via Flickr

LONDON (RNS) Eight of the 47 countries that hold seats on the United Nations Human Rights Council imprisoned people in 2013 under laws that restrict religious freedom, according to a new report from Human Rights Without Frontiers International, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Belgium.

The eight UNHRC member states on the group’s second annual World Freedom of Religion or Belief Prisoners List, released Monday (Dec. 30), are Morocco, China and Saudi Arabia (whose new three-year terms begin Wednesday) and current members India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Libya and South Korea.

Hundreds of believers and atheists were imprisoned in these and 16 other countries for exercising religious freedom or freedom of expression rights related to religious issues, according to the report. These rights include the freedom to change religions, share beliefs, object to military service on conscientious grounds, worship, assemble and associate freely. Violations related to religious defamation and blasphemy are also included in the report.

According to the report’s findings from 2013:

  • In China, Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims and Falun Gong adherents were arrested for proselytizing, holding illegal gatherings, providing religious education classes and publicizing their persecution.
  • In Morocco, a convert to Christianity was arrested and fined for “shaking the faith of a Muslim” by sharing his newfound beliefs.
  • In Saudi Arabia, 52 Ethiopian Christians were arrested for participating in a private religious service.
  • In India, Protestants were arrested for holding private prayer meetings.
  • In Indonesia, a Pentecostal pastor was arrested for holding religious services without a valid permit, and an atheist was sentenced to 30 months in prison for starting an atheist Facebook page where he posted the words “God does not exist.”
  • In Kazakhstan, an atheist was arrested for allegedly inciting religious hatred in his writings.
  • In Libya, foreign missionaries, dozens of Coptic Christians and a Protestant were arrested and allegedly tortured for proselytizing.
  • In South Korea, nearly 600 Jehovah’s Witnesses were serving prison sentences for conscientious objection to mandatory military service.

The report designates China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea and South Korea as countries of particular concern for the highest number of religious freedom prisoners. The U.S. State Department’s latest International Religious Freedom Report includes Saudi Arabia on its list of worst offenders.

“Human Rights Without Frontiers is alarmed by the evolution of the UN Human Rights Council which accepts as members an increasing number of countries perpetrating egregious violations of human rights and, in particular, of religious freedom,” the group said in a statement.

The UNHRC replaced the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in 2006, in part “to redress (the Commission’s) shortcoming,” which included granting membership to countries with poor human rights records. The resolution establishing the revamped UNHRC declares that member states “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.”

But that’s not happening, said Willy Fautre, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers.

“Our best wish for the New Year is that these and the other member states of the Human Rights Council may give the good example to other nations of the world by releasing such prisoners of conscience and not depriving any other believer or atheist of their freedom in 2014,” he said in a statement.

Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the U.N. General Assembly adopted in 1948, explicitly protect freedom of thought, conscience, religion, opinion and expression.

The U.N. General Assembly has the power to suspend the rights of UNHRC members that commit serious human rights violations. Libya became the first and only country to be suspended from the council in 2011 amid the Gaddafi regime’s brutal suppression of protesters. Libya was readmitted to the council eight months later under new leadership.



  1. Nabuquduriuzhur

    “In South Korea, nearly 600 Jehovah’s Witnesses were serving prison sentences for conscientious objection to mandatory military service.”

    This happened in the U.S. during WWII as well.

    This is not “conscientious objection”. JWs are normally offered alternatives to potential combat service, just as they were in WWII in the U.S. However, they chose prison instead, which made little sense.

    It’s not a matter of principle or religion, or they would have served in civilian roles or military roles as medics, cooks, drivers, etc. Instead, they adamantly refused to have any role at all despite their country needing them.

    Why prison is preferable to any sort of service at all (such as medicine or humanitarian) does not rise to the level of “conscientious objector”.

    A “conscientious objector” is one who will have nothing to do with killing the enemy, which is quite understandable.

    Refusing any sort of mandatory service to one’s country in it’s time of need is quite something else. It’s moral evil.

    “Time of need”. Yes. Unlike other nations, Korea has never ceased to be at war with the North since the North has never permitted anything more than a ceasefire. Every few months, the North stages a minor attack, just to remind the South that they are still there. People are killed in the attacks. It’s a war that never ended, with every attempt by the South to end it being rebuffed.

    It can’t be forgotten that the North not only has a standing army twice the size of the South, but also has nuclear weapons.

    Unlike most nations with no outside threat, mandatory service in Korea is in constant threat.

    “Conscientious objector” is not an appropriate term for this.

    • Nabuquduriuzhur

      Somehow I messed up a sentence, so here it is, plus editing “Unlike most nations with no outside threat, Korea is in constant threat. Thus some kind of mandatory service to train people for when war does happen again.”

    • You statement is incorrect and a gross generalization. JW’s refuse to support any and all military efforts. They would do civilian service as long as not under military control. There are more ways to support military operations besides active duty. JW’s do not support any military in any nation around the globe in ANY capacity. They are full conscientious objectors.

    • Wouldn’t you agree I can’t tell you what’s a matter of conscience to you? It isn’t fair to say what’s the limit of mine. Early Christians were put to death by the Romans because of refusal to serve them. Didn’t their country need them too? Communists & Nazis imprisoned & executed JWs at the same time they were imprisoned in the west. Hitler started by turning his country from poor to prosperous in a very short time. He told his people he needed them, their country needed them. If Germanys major christian religions would have followed JWs WW2 would not have happened. The bible says God will soon destroy the govts & armies of the entire world. But religion will go first! And the only distinction will be those who aren’t willing to compromise what God says how they should conduct themselves. Dan. 2:44, Matt.7.

  2. ” In India, Protestants were arrested for holding private prayer meetings.”

    1. Indian constitution supports private prayer meetings.
    2. Can you please send me or publish the news by reliable source that the private prayer meetings were considered illegal. Where it happened and when it happened?
    3. Is the meeting opposed by a private group ? or by the Government ?

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