Sects or Religions?

6 12 2012


By Willy Fautré, Director of Human Rights Without Frontiers [1]

Is there a distinction to be made between “cults” or “sects” and religions? Should religious freedom be only accessible to so-called historical religions and their members? Should other minority religious or spiritual movements called “sects” or “cults” be denied the enjoyment of the provisions of international declarations and covenants guaranteeing freedom of religion or belief?

Is there a difference between a sect or cult and a religion?

International instruments guarantee freedom of religion or belief and not only religious freedom.

Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Article 18.1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) guarantees the right to freedom of conscience and religion in the following terms:

“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

The United Nations, religious experts, and UN treaty-based bodies have consistently found that the expression “religion or belief,” as well as the individual terms “religion” and “belief,” must be construed broadly to include non-traditional religions and all forms of belief.

In particular, the UN Human Rights Committee provided in its General Comment No 22 on the interpretation to be given to Article 18 of the ICCPR on the Right to Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion[2]:

“Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms “belief” and “religion” are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions. The Committee therefore views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reason, including the fact that they are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility on the part of a predominant religious community.(emphasis added)

Furthermore, the 1996 Annual Report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom makes clear the Rapporteur’s opinion on the broad scope of the term “religion” and the need for equal treatment of all religions, including so called “sects” or “cults”.  First, the Rapporteur noted the inadequacy of labeling certain belief groups as “sects”:

“The term “sect” seems to have a pejorative connotation. A sect is considered to be different from a religion, and thus not entitled to the same protection. This kind of approach is indicative of a propensity to lump things together, to discriminate and to exclude, which is hard to justify and harder still to excuse, so injurious is it to religious freedom.”

Second, the Special Rapporteur then explained:

“Religions cannot be distinguished from sects on the basis of quantitative considerations saying that a sect, unlike a religion, has a small number of followers.  This is in fact not always the case.  It runs absolutely counter to the principle of respect and protection of minorities, which is upheld by domestic and international law and morality.  Besides, following this line of argument, what are the major religions if not successful sects?”

“Again, one cannot say that sects should not benefit from the protection given to religion just because they have no chance to demonstrate their durability.  History contains many examples of dissident movements, schisms, heresies and reforms that have suddenly given birth to religions or religious movements.”

And finally the Rapporteur concluded by writing that:

“All in all, the distinction between a religion and a sect is too contrived to be acceptable.  A sect that goes beyond simple belief and appeals to a divinity, or at the very least, to the supernatural, the transcendent, the absolute, or the sacred, enters into the religious sphere and should enjoy the protection afforded to religions.”[3]

The terminology to be used when discussing these issues is of utmost importance. The UN language in this regard is neutral and universal. It is not influenced by the perception in a particular cultural and religious context or in a particular part of the world, such as European and American countries with Christian traditions.

The UN experts and treaty bodies use the neutral term “religious or belief systems” to cover the broad spectrum of religions and worldviews, and the term “religious or belief communities” to encompass the various forms of religious, spiritual and non-religious communities or organizations. They never endorse the terms “sects” or “cults”.


First conclusion, all religious or belief communities around the world and their members are treated equally by the UN. Therefore they must be treated equally by Governments and must have access to the same rights and also the same duties as other citizens. Governments have a duty to neutrality and they should not discriminate against specific religious or belief communities nor should they adopt a specific law that puts specific mechanisms and implements specific policies to target specific groups. Last but not least, Governments also have a duty to protect their citizens against any infringement upon their rights regardless of their religion or belief.

Second conclusion, freedom of religion or belief is indivisible. If a faith or a belief community, their leaders or their religious ministers violate laws which are consistent with international standards, they must be prosecuted. If a member of a religious or belief community violates the laws, he/she must be prosecuted but his/her community should not be stigmatized on this ground.

About these ads

FECRIS – Inquisiton of the 21st century

2 12 2012

The Inquisition was an ecclesiastical body of Catholic Church set up in medieval times to search and destroy any attempt of heresy. Although the times of the Inquisition are far behind us, people who wish to punish any form of belief outside of the frame of historic religions, are still among us.

FECRIS, acronym for Fédération Européenne des Centres de Recherche et d’Information sur le Sectarisme (European Federation of Centers for Research and Information on Sects), is an umbrella organization of about 25 anti-religious organization from 16 countries. A key objective of FECRIS is establishment of European Observatory on groups of religious, esoteric or spiritual nature so that anti-religious groups in various countries can exchange information. In the minds of FECRIS members any and every minority religion is labeled as “sect” and attacked in orchestrated media campaigns. The only real product of FECRIS is increased intolerance of minority religions in several European countries.

The Journal for the Study of Beliefs and Worldviews recently published a 200 pages long research of the Human Rights Without Frontiers under title larger image Freedom of Religion or Belief, Anti-Sect Movements and State Neutrality/A Case Study: FECRIS.

Central-European Religious Freedom Institute commands this book to all individuals and organizations caring about human rights and religious freedom.

HRWF-logoPDF version is available at the web site of Human Rights Without Frontiers by clicking on the logo of Human Rights Without Frontiers.

Paper copies of the book can be ordered directly from the publisher by writing to or by clicking on picture below.


SOUTH KOREA: Over 700 conscientious objectors in prison

17 06 2012

Since 1950, 16,655 Jehovah’s Witnesses sentenced to a total of 31,739 years in prison

Human Rights Without Frontiers urges the Republic of Korea to recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service

By Willy Fautré/Human Rights Without Frontiers


Over 700 Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently in prison in South Korea because they refuse to perform military service. Each year, some 500 to 900 young men continue to be added to the list of conscientious objectors criminalized in Korea.

Conscientious objectors to military service in Korea are criminally prosecuted, convicted, and generally sentenced to 18 months of imprisonment for violation of the Military Service Act Article 88 Paragraph 1.

Between 1950 and December 2011, a total 16,655 men have been sentenced to 31,739 years of imprisonment for conscientious objection to military service. As of December 2011, 761 Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned for conscientious objection to military service. Since 2008, more than 2,496 conscientious objectors have been tried and convicted by the courts, and sentenced to total 3,726 years of imprisonment.

Conscientious objectors who are called up as reservists face multiple prosecutions and repeated punishments over an eight-year period for violation of Homeland Reserve Forces Act Article 15 Paragraph 9. A reservist is not exempt from being repeatedly called up for the very training that he failed to perform even after paying fines or serving a prison term. Currently, over 80 of Jehovah’s Witnesses are caught in the cycle of being accused and sentenced to repeated fines and possible prison terms because of the religious beliefs they have come to accept after serving their basic terms in the military. A reserve forces training call up is issued over and over again, two or three times a year, even after one is penalized for the conscientious objection to it. For example, Mr. Shin, whose case was rejected by last year’s constitutional court decision, has been prosecuted 37 times as of December 31, 2011, and is expected to face call ups and trials for two more years.

Despite repeated recommendations issued from international and domestic human rights bodies, Korea has not introduced a single provision for conscientious objectors.

A few days after the 8th Session of the UN Universal Periodic Review in 2008 which recommended to the Republic of Korea to “to recognize the right of conscientious objection by law, to decriminalize refusal of active military service and to remove any current prohibition from employment in Government or public organization”, it was reported by a news media that the Ministry of Defense would discontinue its consideration of introducing alternative service for conscientious objectors (Donga Daily, July 5, 2008, “Reconsider alternative service for conscientious objectors”). On December 24, 2008, the Korean government officially announced that it would not introduce alternative service.

The Korea government’s decision not to adopt alternative service is based on a study conducted by a professor named Jin, Seok-yong (Daejeon University, Political Science and Mass Communication) who comprehensively examined the possibility of alternative service. Although the study was positive in suggesting various ways of operating alternative service, the government highlighted the negative result of a public poll included in the study, which indicated the 68.1% of Koreans were against the plan. In interviews with several media sources, the professor who conducted the study explained that the government and the Ministry of Defense distorted his study result (Hankook Daily, January 7, 2009, “Government distorted the study on alternative service”; News & Joy, February 15, 2009, “I feel deceived by the Ministry of Defense.”)

No bill for alternative service or revision of the military service act was ever submitted to the National Assembly by the government.

Human Rights Without Frontiers urges the Republic of Korea to recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service in harmony with its commitment to the norms of international law and to implement alternative service in line with international standards.

Sikhs win turban case against France at the United Nations

17 01 2012
International Civil and Human Rights Advocacy ( ICHRA)
/ Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF)
“The UN Human Rights Committee has asked France to submit a report by March 15th on measures it is taking to remedy the violation of the religious freedom of 76 year old Ranjit Singh,who was asked to remove his turban for his ID photo” said Mejindarpal Kaur, UNITED SIKHS Legal Director, who is in the fore-front of a legal campaign for French Sikhs’ right to wear their turban. 

ICHR (12.01.2012) / HRWF (16.01.2011) - The UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) has concluded that France had violated the religious freedom of 76 year old Ranjit Singh when he was asked to remove his turban for his ID photograph. This was disclosed today at a media conference, in Bobigny (near Paris), by the UNITED SIKHS legal team, who had filed a communication on behalf of Ranjit Singh to the UNHRC in December 2008.

The media conference was told that the UNHRC observed that “even if the obligation to remove the turban for the identity photograph might be described as a one-time requirement, it would potentially interfere with the author’s (Ranjit Singh’s) freedom of religion on a continuing basis because he would always appear without his religious head covering in the identity photograph and could therefore be compelled to remove his turban during identity checks.”

The Committee said that France had failed to explain how the Sikh turban hindered identification since the wearer’s face would be visible and he would be wearing the turban it at all times, therefore, the regulation constituted a violation of article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which was entered into force for France on 4 February 1981. You may read the Committees views in full here. The views were adopted at the 102nd session of the Committee’s sitting.

“I had faith that truth and justice would prevail and I patiently waited for this day. I pray that France will now fulfil its obligation and grant me a residence card bearing my photo without baring my head,” said Ranjit Singh, who despite his ill-health has had no access to the public health-care system or to social benefits since 2005 because his residence card was refused due to his refusal to remove his turban.

UNITED SIKHS is heartened by the Committee’s observations that France is under an obligation to provide Ranjit Singh with an effective remedy, including a reconsideration of his application for a renewal of his residence permit and a review of the relevant legislative framework and its application in practice. France, the Committee noted, is also under an obligation to take steps to prevent similar violations in the future,” said Mejindarpal Kaur, UNITED SIKHS Legal Director, who addressed the media conference.

“We now look to France to fulfil its treaty obligations under International law and its moral duty to ensure that the freedom of religion and belief is upheld for everyone who lives within its territory,” she added.
“We are very pleased with the views that the Committee adopted and we welcome France’s compliance with these findings. We also look forward to a similar resolution for Shingara Singh, whose case is still pending before the Committee,” O’Melveny & Myers, a New York law firm engaged by UNITED SIKHS, said in a statement through their attorneys who spoke during a telephone interview. A decision is still awaited for Shingara Singh, whose passport has not been renewed by France because he refused to remove his turban for his ID photograph.

Issued by:
Mejindarpal Kaur
Legal Director
International Civil and Human Rights Advocacy ( ICHRA)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 51 other followers

Powered by
%d bloggers like this: