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

(Photo: United Nations)Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

The new U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief has welcomed amendments to a law signed by U.S. President Barack Obama, which recognizes non-believers and atheists and their right not to profess or practise any religion.

"This is an important development, as believers, atheists and non-believers must all be equally protected," said Ahmed Shaheed after the amendments made to the International Religious Freedom Act.

"By updating an 18-year-old religious freedom law, the U.S. Congress has for the first time taken steps to explicitly protect people who identify as atheists," Quartz reports.

The new amendment to the act passed the U.S. House and Senate unanimously, and was signed into law by President Barack Obama on Dec. 16.

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"The freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is understood to protect theistic and nontheistic beliefs and the right not to profess or practice any religion," it reads.

People who profess not to believe in any god have increased substantially in the United States in recent years.

Shaheed said in in his Dec. 28 statement, "Many humanists and non-believers are still widely stigmatized and persecuted around the world."

He noted that in some countries, the promotion of atheist thought in any form is considered an act of terrorism.

In others, he said, 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.

'RELIGION' AND 'BELIEF'

The human rights 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," 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," said the U.N. experts

Shaheed assumed his mandate as Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief on Nov. 1.

He is Deputy Director of the Essex Human Rights Centre in the United Kingdom and was the first Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on the situation of human rights in the Iran since the termination of the previous Commission on Human Rights mandate in 2002.

A career diplomat, he has twice held the office of Minister of Foreign Affairs of Maldives.

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