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Paraguay: a religiously pluralistic society with challenges ahead

ASUNCIÓN (31 March 2011) – The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, commended the open and tolerant atmosphere in Paraguay both at governmental and societal levels. “At the same time,” he stressed at the end of his visit to the country*, “there is still much room for improvement with regard to more effective implementation of human rights, particularly in terms of non-discrimination.”

“There are enormous societal inequalities in terms of distribution of wealth, access to public or private education, political influence, ethnic and linguistic minority status, etc.,” Mr. Bielefeldt said, noting the weakness of implementation mechanisms, especially in the Chaco region where many indigenous peoples live. “The weak presence and capacity of State institutions renders certain sectors of the population structurally vulnerable to possible human rights abuses, including in the field of freedom of religion or belief.”

The human rights expert drew special attention to the Paraguayan indigenous people’s long history of suffering from discrimination, neglect, harassment and economic exploitation. While noting that the indigenous representatives he met mostly agreed that the general attitude towards their traditional beliefs and practices has become more respectful in recent years, Mr. Bielefeldt stressed that “the imposition of religious doctrines and practices, possibly against their will, is not a matter of the past only but persists to a certain degree until today.”

During his visit from 23 to 30 March 2011, the Special Rapporteur met with high-ranking officials, representatives from civil society organizations, religious groups and indigenous peoples in Asunción, Ciudad del Este and Filadelfia.

“My discussions with various stakeholders revealed a high degree of consensus on many issues but, not surprisingly, also some contentious points,”
Mr. Bielefeldt said. Representatives of the Government and of a variety of communities, ranging from the predominant Catholic Church to minority religious communities and secular NGOs, generally agreed that Paraguay is a pluralistic society. In spite of the traditional hegemony of Catholicism, public manifestations of religious diversity largely take place in an open and tolerant environment.

A topic that triggers strong emotions in Paraguay concerns school education.
“I observed tensions between advocates of more traditional religious values and those promoting the right to have information about sexual reproductive health and the inclusion of anti-discrimination principles in the school curriculum,” he said. “These issues seem to have created tensions not only between religious and less religiously-oriented sectors of society but also within some religious communities.”

The Special Rapporteur encouraged the Government of Paraguay to continue supporting the Interreligious Forum initiated two years ago, while at the same time ensuring an open and transparent participation of all interested groups and sectors of society.

“I very much appreciate the launch of the Government’s National Action Plans on human rights and on human rights education,” Mr. Bielefeldt underscored. “National Action Plans are excellent opportunities for bringing together all interested stakeholders and also for providing space to discuss issues related to freedom of religion or belief.”

The Special Rapporteur will present a report on his country visit to Paraguay with detailed conclusions and recommendations to the 19th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Mr. Heiner Bielefeldt is Professor of Human Rights and Human Rights Politics at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany. He was appointed by the Human Rights Council to the mandate of Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, effective since 1 August 2010. The mandate was created in 1986 by the then Commission on Human Rights, and was renewed most recently in 2010 by the Human Rights Council for a three-year period.

(*) Read the full end-of-mission statement by the Special Rapporteur: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=10903&LangID=E

An e-Digest on Freedom of Religion or Belief which summarizes 25 years of thought by four UN Special Rapporteurs is available online at http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=10832&LangID=E

Learn more about the mandate and work of the Special Rapporteur: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/religion/

OHCHR Country Page – Paraguay: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/LACRegion/Pages/PYIndex.aspx

For more information and press inquiries, please contact Michael Wiener (Tel: +41 22 917 9159 / email: mwiener@ohchr.org) or write to: freedomofreligion@ohchr.org