UNITED NATIONS - U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has launched an initiative to protect religious sites around the world in the face of growing attacks on places of worship.
"Religious sites should be places of worship, not places of war," Guterres told reporters Thursday.
The initiative aims to provide concrete recommendations to help countries ensure that houses of worship and their congregations are safe and that the values of compassion and tolerance are fostered globally.
In June, Guterres launched a companion effort to address root causes of hate speech, which he has repeatedly warned is inflaming intolerance around the world. He has been especially critical of politicians who encourage xenophobia and use language targeting minorities, refugees, migrants and, as he put it, "anyone considered the so-called ‘other,’ ” though he has refrained from calling out offenders by name.
"When political figures add fuel to the wildfire, we are all threatened," he said.
In the aftermath of the attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that killed more than 50 people, Guterres visited the country to express his solidarity. Since then, he and his high representative for the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations have been reaching out to governments, religious leaders, faith-based organizations, civil society and other actors to formulate a plan to safeguard religious sites.
"Religious sites are powerful symbols of our collective consciousness," Guterres told member states at the launch. "When people are attacked because of their religion or beliefs, all of society is diminished. Houses of worship around the world must be safe havens for reflection and peace, not sites of bloodshed and terror."
Asked if he had a specific message for China on the detention and mistreatment of 1 million Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang province, the U.N. chief refrained from criticizing Beijing.
"My specific message to all countries in the world is that religious freedom needs to be respected in all circumstances, and that in the context of religious freedom being fully respected, all religious sites must be protected," he said.
Human rights groups have repeatedly criticized Guterres for not taking a strong public stance on the abuses.