Press Release
Department of Public Information · News Coverage Service · New York

31 May 2001

Fifty-fifth General Assembly
101st Meeting (PM)


Also Approves Extension of Mandate of UN High Commissioner
For Human Rights; Adopts Text on Protection of Religious Sites


By the terms of the second resolution -- also adopted without a vote -- the Assembly condemned all acts or threats of violence, destruction, damage or endangerment, directed against religious sites, calling upon all States to ensure respect and protection of such sites in conformity with international standards and national legislation. Relevant intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations were also invited to develop appropriate initiatives in this field. To ensure protection of the collective heritage of humankind, the Assembly encouraged promotion, through education, of a culture of tolerance and respect for the diversity of religions and for religious sites.

Speaking in exercise of the right of reply after the adoption of this text were the Observer for Palestine (on behalf of the Arab Group of States) and the representatives of Israel and Turkey.



As the General Assembly met this afternoon, it was expected to consider several items on its agenda and to take action on three draft resolutions.

The Assembly had before it a draft resolution on the protection of religious sites (document A/55/L.81) sponsored by: Afghanistan, Algeria, Andorra, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belgium, Bhutan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, France, Gabon, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Latvia, Lebanon, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Mali, Malta, Mauritius, Mexico, Monaco, Mongolia, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Russian Federation, Saint Kitts and Nevis, San Marino, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Thailand, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Yemen, Yugoslavia and Zambia.

By the terms of the text, the Assembly would condemn all acts or threats of violence, destruction, damage or endangerment, directed against religious sites as such, that continue to occur in the world. It would call upon all States to exert their utmost efforts to ensure that religious sites are fully respected and protected, in conformity with international standards and in accordance with their national legislation. States would also be called upon to adopt adequate measures to prevent such acts or threats of violence and invite relevant intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations to contribute to those efforts by developing appropriate initiatives in this field.

By further terms of the text, the Assembly would encourage all States, relevant intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations and the media to promote, through education, a culture of tolerance and respect for the diversity of religions and for religious sites, which represent an important aspect of the collective heritage of humankind. It would request the Secretary-General to devote -- in consultation with the relevant bodies of the United Nations system -- attention to the issue of protection of religious sites in forthcoming reports on the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations. The Assembly would decide to continue consideration of the protection of religious sites under the item entitled "United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations".


Action on Texts before Assembly

The Assembly first took up a draft resolution on the protection of religious sites.


ANDRÉ ERDÖS (Hungary) introduced the draft, saying that over the last few years the world had witnessed a phenomenon of greatest concern, that of violence against holy sites. Unfortunately, religious intolerance remained both the cause and result of numerous bloody conflicts carried out against people, buildings, monuments, and sites belonging to several religions. The original sponsors of the draft wished to be sure that the voice of the United Nations would be heard unequivocally regarding intolerable manifestations of fanaticism. Those countries formed a representative group of the world Organization. The draft sent a universal message with relevance to all. In the meantime, many other countries had become co-sponsors of the draft. The number of co-sponsors now numbered 113. There was not only the desire to take a position, but also the firm readiness to consider the spiritual diversity of mankind as a valuable element of mankind’s joint heritage.

The draft condemned all violence against religious sites and demanded that States make all possible efforts to protect those sites, he said. He hoped the draft would be adopted by consensus, which would highlight the determination of the United Nations to bring its moral weight to bear on what challenged human existence on earth. The entire international community, including civil society and business, must work together to achieve a better and more tolerant world.

PER NOSTRÖM (Sweden), speaking on behalf of the European Union and associated States, said it was a sad truth that acts of threats of violence against religious sties continued to occur throughout the world. Such acts could not only violate religious rites of persons, but they also destroyed part of the human heritage. Destruction of religious sites resulted in an impoverishment of the common heritage. There was a need not only to speak out against such deplorable acts of destruction which, unfortunately, still took place, but also to look beyond and seek general confirmation of the principle of common responsibility to protect religious sites. In the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations, the United Nations must find broad consensus on condemning acts or threats of violence against religious sites. The United Nations must now call for full respect for, and protection of, religious sites. The Union wholeheartedly supported the timely initiative.

SINGHARA NA AYUDHAYA (Thailand) expressed appreciation to Austria and Hungary for taking the initiative in preparing the draft. Thailand was willing to co-sponsor the resolution and hoped it would be adopted by consensus. A few months ago, the international community had watched as the Taliban in Afghanistan demolished 1,000-year-old Buddhist statues. Despite the best efforts of the Organization, the destruction of the Buddha statues proceeded as planned. It was a time of great sorrow for the Buddhist people. While wrongs could not be undone, the international community could do its best to ensure that similar acts were not repeated in the future. The draft laid a foundation to deter such senseless acts of destruction, and sent a clear message that the destruction of religious sites was contrary to everything the United Nations stood for. Words alone were not adequate, however. Members must take responsibility for overseeing the safety of religious sites. Intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations could also contribute to the protection of religious sites. Steps must be taken to ensure the right of religious believers to access such sites. Tolerance was a fundamental value in the new millennium. Respect for diversity was a key element. It was important to promote a better understanding of the rich cultural diversity that humanity had to offer. Thailand commended the Organization of the Islamic Conference for its pioneering role under the agenda item. The adoption of the draft would strengthen dialogue among civilizations. Thailand extended its full support to the draft and called upon all Members to let the resolution be the first of many steps to build an edifice of mutual tolerance.

ERWIN ORTIZ (Bolivia) expressed its fervent support for the draft resolution. He asked the President to include Bolivia on the list of co-sponsors.

MOKHTAR LAMANI, of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, said the draft was a necessary and important one, as it was the first landmark on the road to dialogue among cultures. It was timely, important, necessary and natural, as more attacks were taking place. It was natural because the exchange of dialogue between civilizations had demonstrated noble principles, making possible a solid basis of understanding among the peoples of mankind. There was no region that had not experienced war. He expressed the hope that resolutions such as the current one would be grounds for reflection on how to respect the creation of a better and more prosperous future that would respect diversity. Recently, there had been a proliferation of initiatives from various Islamic countries to achieve such objectives. Islamic civilization was an eternal civilization and had achieved the building of modern cultures, which covered the history of science, the civilization of Persia and other interactions leading to the building of humankind. All of mankind represented one family; all were creatures of God, and all sons of Adam. The Organization of Islamic Conference fully backed the principles contained in the draft and designed to ensure mutual respect and understanding, peace and justice.

The Assembly was informed that Trinidad and Tobago and Bolivia had joined the list of co-sponsors of the draft.

The draft resolution on protection of religious sites was then adopted without a vote.

Speaking on behalf of the Arab Group, the representative of the Permanent Observer Mission for Palestine said that he was pleased that the Assembly had taken up the question of protection of religious sites, which was of utmost importance. He thanked the delegations of Austria and Hungary for taking the initiative in presenting the resolution just adopted. However, the Arab Group believed that there could be no complete examination of the issue while the sites of great religious significance -- including the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Christian churches -- had remained under foreign occupation for over 30 years. The Arab Group had agreed to join the consensus today, and some members of the Group had joined the list of countries sponsoring the resolution, because the Arab States were aware of the acts of violence against religious sites. But the Group could not continue to follow along that path without considering that some religious sites remained under foreign occupation. That was clearly one of the most dangerous manifestations of violence.

In exercise of the right of reply, the representative of Israel said that his country was proud to be a co-sponsor of the newly adopted draft resolution. He completely supported the aims expressed in the draft, for religious sites represented the common heritage of humankind. As a people persecuted for centuries and denied access to its holy sites under ancient empires, the Jewish people felt strongly about religious freedom. He was surprised by the unfounded allegations he had heard today. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, all religious groups had religious freedom and access to the sites there. Religious groups had practical autonomy over the sites of worship. Today, the city of Jerusalem and its holy sites were the freest in almost three millennia, with various religious groups having freedom of access to worship at their respective holy places. Also, a law which was passed in 1967 guaranteed freedom of access to holy sites and mandated imprisonment for everybody who violated such freedom.

The representative of the Observer Mission for Palestine said that he was also taking the floor in exercise of the right of reply. The Arab Group had for some time tried to express its just viewpoint in a concise fashion without clashing with the other side. It was regrettable to see that the representative of Israel had insisted on involving the Group in what comprised Israel’s black registry, which included occupation of a whole people. The representative of Israel had brought up the question of the empires which had occupied the land. That was so laughable that he did not want to touch upon the issue. No one could swallow the statement that Israeli occupation was legal and lawful. There was no such thing as “good” occupation -- the occupation by a foreign force must come to an end. As for the allegations regarding free access to the religious sites and places, it was sufficient to mention what Palestinians had to endure when they wanted to visit the holy places. The hurdles they encountered included closures, acts of genocide and attacks against private citizens.

The representative of Israel said that his delegation deeply regretted the statement by the Palestinian Observer. He would leave to the General Assembly to decide who had instigated the debate. His delegation had come to the meeting with full support for the draft. The attack against Israel brought into question the reputation of the Palestinian Authority as far as the protection of holy sites was concerned. In the early stages of the current violence, the holy sites under the Palestinian Authority had become the sites of clashes between Jews and Muslims.

One such incident near Nablus was particularly distressing, he continued. To avoid further tension, the Israeli army had relinquished control of the site in question to the Palestinian Authority. After that, the crowd proceeded to desecrate the site violently, burning books and sacred objects. The Palestinian Authority had failed to disperse the crowd. There were also many examples of hostility against Jewish worshipers. Jews who made pilgrimage to the sites in or in proximity to the Palestinian areas were regularly harassed. The statement by the Palestinian representative was an attempt to unjustifiably slander what had been a history of religious tolerance on the part of Israel. Before making such statement, the Observer should first examine the Palestinian record.

Also in exercise of the right of reply, the representative of Turkey said that he understood that when talking about empires, the representative of Israel had been, indeed, referring to the Roman, and not to the Ottoman, Empire, which had been tolerant of Jewish people, including those expelled from Spain. Those facts were recognized by the Jewish nation today.

The Observer for Palestine said the representative of Israel had spoken of a Palestinian position hostile to Jewish religious sites. That could only show the low level of his statement. Palestine was proud to say that its history was known for tolerance of religious places. As for Joseph’s Tomb, that was a regrettable situation that had been dealt with. The Israeli side acted to change that site. It had killed over 20 Palestinians. The Assembly had been told a bit of history out of context. Israel had done worse, not only in Palestinian territory but also within Israel. Other recent incidents must be mentioned, including the Israeli bombing of small Arab towns. He had been speaking of a grave phenomenon -- religious sites under foreign occupation. He had not mentioned the name of Israel in his statement. There was no such thing as a “good” foreign occupation. It must come to an end. It was the only way to preserve religious sites for all three religions.

The representative of Israel, speaking on a point of order, agreed with everything said by the representative of Turkey. The Jewish people were grateful to the role played by the Ottoman Empire in accommodating Jews and in promoting coexistence between Jews, Arabs and Turks. That positive historic experience continued to guide the relationship between Israel and Turkey.

The Observer for Palestine, speaking on a point of order, said that the previous statement of Israel was not on a point of order and was, in fact, a violation of the rules of procedure.


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For information media - not an official record