The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a factsheet this week detailing the impact of coronavirus on religious practice and freedom of religion (FoRB). The USCIRF urges governments to avoid implementing public health initiatives in response to the pandemic that place undue burdens on religious groups.
In its factsheet, the USCIRF outlines the rights guaranteed under international law, as well as a list of countries in which government or societal responses to the pandemic may significantly impact freedom of religion.
“It is important for governments to account for religious freedom concerns in their responses to COVID-19, for reasons of both legality and policy effectiveness. From a legal perspective, international law requires governments to preserve individual human rights, including religious freedom, when taking measures to protect public health even in times of crisis. From an efficacy perspective, considering religious freedom concerns can help build trust between governments and religious groups, who in past public health crises have played a critical role in delivering health interventions. Such concerns include the cancellation of large gatherings, among them religious activities, where viruses easily can spread,” the USCRIF factsheet notes.
The factsheet affirms that the right to freedom of religion or belief is secured under international law by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The documents use similar language to each other to give “robust protections to FoRB,” and clearly define the limited circumstances where a country can restrict religious practice in order to further state interest, including reasons related to public health.
It also notes that according to the prevailing guidelines for interpreting the ICCPR’s provisions, restrictions of FoRB must not be used to “destroy a protected right,” must not be discriminatory in any way, and must be narrowly applied.
International organizations and leaders have echoed the importance of properly of balancing public health interest with FoRB, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the USCRIF stresses. The WHO also provided several guidelines for limiting the harm of the virus, including recommending limiting mass gatherings. Earlier in the month, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for “human dignity and rights need to be front and [center]” in the efforts to contain the coronavirus and that effort to save lives to be “in strict accordance with human rights standards and in a way that is necessary and proportionate to the evaluated risk.”
The fact sheet concludes with a brief look into the responses so far of the governments of a number of countries - China, South Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Italy, United Arab Emirates, Georgia, and Tajikistan – and underscores the concern of human rights advocates that the prevailing situation may risk exacerbating ongoing restrictions and violations of human freedoms.