A high-ranking United Nations official has expressed concern over the growing loss of religious freedom among children around the world, especially in places where young girls are treated as property or bounty from conquests.
Heiner Bielefeldt, a German diplomat and the UN's special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief, said in a statement Oct. 23 that all governments represented in the UN General Assembly had an obligation to "respect religious practices by children and their families and support families in fulfilling their role in providing an enabling environment for the realization of the rights of the child."
On the surface, the statement might seem like an attempt to emancipate children from their parent's instruction, but that is not Bielefeldt's goal. He said parents play a key role in leading children into religious belief.
Parents, he said, "are not obliged to provide a religiously 'neutral' upbringing in the name of the child's right to an 'open future.' The rights of parents to freedom of religion or belief include their rights to educate their children according to their own conviction and to introduce their children to religious initiation rites."
"Every individual child is a rights holder in his or her own capacity as recognized in Article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child," Bielefeldt said in his report on the rights of the child and parents in the area of freedom of religion or belief.
"Violations of freedom of religion or belief often affect the rights of children and their parents," he said. "Children, typically girls, from religious minorities for example, are abducted and forcibly converted to another religion through forced early marriage."
Recent examples have illustrated the problem. In April 2014, more than 200 Nigerian school girls were abducted by the Islamist terror group, Boko Haram. According to numerous reports, the girls were forced to wear Muslim dress, marry jihadist fighters and serve as sex slaves. Other reports indicate some of the girls have been killed.
In the Middle East, the Islamic State – marching across land once safeguarded by the U.S. military – has also abducted children and forced them into underage marriages or sex slavery. Christian children who refused to convert to Islam have been killed, while others have been forced to train for jihad and even serve as executioners for the Islamic State.
Bielefeldt said religious communities should ensure respect for the religious viewpoints and activities of children, and oppose religiously-motivated practices that seek to alter the natural development of religion in children by "publicly challenging problematic religious justifications for such practices whenever they occur."
Bielefeldt also claimed that the traditional family is the environment in which the child best develops his or her religious ideals and first learns to express them. As a result, he said, any attempt by the state to remove the child based on the pretext that the religious opinions of the parents may be harmful is "illegitimate."
"As a matter of fact, in some countries, far-reaching State interventions into families in the spheres of religious initiation, socialization and education of children actually do occur — at times also by invoking an alleged interest of the child. Such problematic State interventions disproportionately affect families belonging to religious minorities, new religious movements or small communities often stigmatized as 'sects.' Depending on the country, families not professing any religion may also be under increased threat of undue State interference. In extreme cases, children have been taken away from their families, for instance under the pretext of saving them from ill-defined 'superstitious' religions — a pretext often invoked against indigenous families in the past."
It isn't just minority sects who have been threatened in this manner. In Germany in April 2014, a conservative Christian family was threatened with legal action for providing religiously-based homeschool instruction during the school year. The couple fled to the United State and eventually won the right to stay, temporarily.
Bielefeldt said parents or legal guardians have the right and duty to direct the child in the exercise of his or her freedom of religion or belief.
"Such direction should be given in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child in order to facilitate a more and more active role of the child in exercising his or her freedom of religion or belief, thus paying respect to the child as a rights holder from early on," he said.
The diplomat also argued that the State should steer clear of making any pronouncements over a family's right to teach religion as they see fit – even if they avoid religious instruction all together.
"Some parents may take a deliberate decision not to socialize their children in a religious manner. Of course, such a decision must be respected as falling within their parental rights, however, that cannot serve as the general model to be promoted, let alone enforced, by the State. Attempts made by the State to enforce a religiously 'neutral' upbringing of children within their families would amount to a far-reaching violation of parental rights to freedom of religion or belief, as enshrined, inter alia, in article 14, paragraph 2, of the Convention on the Rights of the Child."
Bielefeldt's full report discusses issues such as religious socialization, religious instruction within the family, participation in religious community life, religious education in schools; the voluntary display of religious symbols in schools; respect for the evolving capacities of the maturing child; and non-discrimination on the basis of religion or belief.
This article was originally published in Christian Examiner.