World faiths call conversion basic religious right

Vatican City - A conference grouping an array of world religions, including Christians, Jews and Muslims said on Wednesday everyone should have the right to convert to another faith.

Some Muslim countries fiercely contest religious conversion and people leaving the Islamic faith can face death.

The statement on religious freedom was issued on behalf of the conference by the Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC), the organiser along with the Vatican.

The conference was billed in advance as a first step towards shaping a "code on religious conversion" -- or a rule-book that all faiths should follow.

"Freedom of religion connotes the freedom, without any obstruction, to practice one's own faith, freedom to propagate the teachings of one's faith to people of one's own and other faiths ...," the statement said.

This also meant "the freedom to embrace another faith out of one's free choice".

The WCC, which groups mainstream Protestant and Christian Orthodox churches, said the four-day conference near Rome was attended by 27 participants from Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and African Yoruba religious backgrounds.

It did not identify them individually, and it was not clear what the level of Muslim representation was or where the Muslim representatives were from.

The meeting was sponsored on the Vatican side by the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and the thrust of the statement was in line with recent calls by the Vatican and other Christian bodies for better treatment for non-Muslims in Islamic countries.

Pope Benedict on Monday told a Vatican conference on immigration to and from Islamic states that Christian minorities in those countries should enjoy reciprocity -- or the same rights Muslims generally have in Western countries.

Vatican officials, leaders of other Christian and non- Christian faiths as well as atheists and humanists, say limits on non-Muslims in Islamic countries are far harsher than any restrictions imposed in the West that Muslims decry.

Saudi Arabia bans public expression of non-Muslim religions, and sometimes arrests Christians for worshipping privately, while Pakistan's Islamic laws deprive local Christians of basic rights although churches can function.

In Iran and some other Muslim countries, converts to other religions or to humanism -- like controversial Dutch Somali-born politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali -- are condemned as "apostates" and can be executed if they refuse to repent.

In Afghanistan, Islamic clerics in March condemned Western pressure for the release of man who had been jailed after converting to Christianity and said he should have been executed for abandoning Islam.