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UN body OK's call to limit religious criticism

Associated Press / March 27, 2009
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GENEVA - The UN's top human rights body approved a proposal by Muslims nations yesterday urging passage of laws around the world to protect religion from criticism.

The proposal put forward by Pakistan on behalf of Islamic countries - with the backing of Belarus and Venezuela - had drawn strong criticism from free-speech campaigners and liberal democracies.

A simple majority of 23 members of the 47-nation Human Rights Council voted in favor of the resolution. Eleven nations, mostly Western, opposed the resolution, and 13 countries abstained.

The resolution urges states to provide "protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation, and coercion resulting from defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general."

"Defamation of religions is the cause that leads to incitement to hatred, discrimination, and violence toward their followers," Pakistan's ambassador Zamir Akram said. "It is important to deal with the cause, rather than with the effects alone."

Muslim nations have argued that religions, in particular Islam, must be shielded from criticism in the media and other areas of public life. They cited cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed as an example of unacceptable free speech.

"Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism," the resolution said. Opponents of the resolution included Canada, all European Union countries, Switzerland, Ukraine, and Chile. The United States did not vote on the resolution because it is not a member of the council.

"It is individuals who have rights and not religions," Canadian diplomat Terry Cormier said.

India, which normally votes along with the council's majority of developing nations, abstained in protest at the fact that Islam was the only religion specifically named as deserving protection.

India's Ambassador Gopinathan Achamkulangare said the resolution "inappropriately" linked religious criticism to racism. The council is dominated by Muslim and African countries. Its resolutions are not binding.

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