Cemeteries offer vital links between the living and the dead for religious community members. Cemeteries, as holy sites, are governed by religious laws and customs that dictate the location of, appearance of, and activities and behaviours allowed in the burial grounds, Additionally, country and international laws aim to protect such sites. Here, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) examines the rising pattern of defilement of cemeteries in several countries, and explains how different religions have rights to have their own cemeteries as a fundamental human right.
Cemeteries coming under attack has been a common occurrence in recent history. During the Holocaust, the Nazi regime destroyed numerous Jewish cemeteries and used the headstones for construction projects. Similar cases occurred in several areas of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War, such as Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, Belarus, and Lithuania, where synagogues and graveyards fell into disrepair and were pillaged for building materials. The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s saw systematic destruction of religious and cultural sites, leading the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to rule that the targeted erasure of such sites can “amount to crimes against humanity.” Cemeteries were both a physical and rhetorical flashpoint for ethnic mobilization. After the outbreak of war, Serb and Croat militias eradicated graveyards of the Bosnian Muslim people. During Croatia’s war of independence, the Yugoslav People’s Army desecrated several important cemeteries in Dubrovnik and Osijek. To this day cemeteries remain a lightning rod for nationalist sentiment in the region; the Serbian government, for example, continues to highlight the desecration of Serb graveyards in the now independent Republic of Kosovo.
Cemeteries, like places of worship and other holy sites, are an essential element of the manifestation of the right to freedom of religion or belief. Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights enshrines the right to manifest religion or belief in a community with others. Religious communities typically have religious rites and practices for the disposal of the deceased in their own cemeteries that are protected under Article 18. The International Religious Freedom Act, as amended, specifically notes that the desecration of cemeteries is a violation of the freedom of religion or belief.
In protecting the rights of all persons and religious communities to dispose of the deceased in their own cemeteries, governments have the obligation to respect cemeteries and protect them from desecration or destruction. The Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was drafted in recognition of the vital importance of the preservation of sacred places. The objective of this Convention is to afford cemeteries and other places of religious or cultural significance protected status during armed conflict. An intentional attack on a cemetery or other places of religious significance may be considered a war crime.
Cemeteries are sacred sites that are of great spiritual, cultural, and historical significance to many religious and ethnic groups, as outlined in the International Religious Freedom Act. Because cemeteries take on spiritual significance for those who bury their loved ones there, the destruction of such sites is typically devastating. Often, cemeteries are destroyed as part of a wider campaign to restrict religious practice. Although states may need to demolish cemeteries for non-discriminatory purposes, states must ensure the protection of religious and cultural heritage whenever possible, including during conflict. Cemeteries should never be targeted for demolition because of their religious significance. The International Religious Freedom Act states that such attacks constitute an assault on the fundamental right to freedom of religion and are especially egregious when sponsored or tolerated by the local or national governments in the countries in which such offences occur.
Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”
Desecration of cemeteries represents a serious affront to the religious communities who utilise these spaces for remembrance and ritual purposes. Governments have an obligation to protect such sacred spaces and to diligently investigate and prosecute any instance of vandalism, desecration, or destruction of a religious burial ground, thereby respecting freedom of religion and belief for all. You may read the USCIRF Factsheet on Destruction of Cemeteries.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is an independent, bipartisan federal government entity established by the U.S. Congress to monitor, analyze, and report on religious freedom abroad. USCIRF makes foreign policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress intended to deter religious persecution and promote freedom of religion and belief. To interview a Commissioner, please contact USCIRF at email@example.com.