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U.S. says some states curb free speech in name of religion
* US tells UN religious defamation idea used to curb dissent
* Pakistan presents resolution on behalf of Muslim states
* Canada, EU concerned about seven Baha'is detained in Iran
By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, March 12 (Reuters) - The United States told the United Nations on Thursday some Muslim countries were using the concept of religious defamation to justify curbs on freedom of speech and civil dissent.
The Obama administration, wading into a heated debate on the issue at the U.N. Human Rights Council for the first time, also said strict rules on religious dress unfairly discriminate against worshippers of minority faiths.
"We remain deeply concerned about discriminatory restrictions on religious freedom, such as policies that unduly favour majority religious communities by placing limitations on conversion, proselytism, religious dress and the freedom to speak openly about a given religion," Anna Chambers of the U.S. delegation said in a speech.
Washington says it is concerned religious defamation is being promoted at the Geneva-based Council as a way to trump basic rights and freedoms, the political officer said.
"We are alarmed by the use of this concept by some governments to justify actions that selectively curtail civil dissent, halt criticism of political structures, and restrict the religious speech of minority faith communities, dissenting members of the majority faith and persons of no religious faith," said Chambers. "We cannot support undue limitations on free expression."
Islamic and African states often backed by China, Cuba and Russia have a majority in the 47 member-state Council, where they have pushed the defamation of religion issue hard.
'SERIOUS AFFRONT TO HUMAN DIGNITY'
Pakistan late on Wednesday presented a resolution denouncing religious defamation as a "serious affront to human dignity leading to restriction on the freedom of religion of their adherents and incitement to religious hatred and violence."
The text, submitted on behalf of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), voices deep concern at the "negative stereotyping and defamation of religions," including ethnic and religious profiling of Muslims since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
It said that Islam was "frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism."
Protests and riots erupted in many Muslim countries in 2006 when cartoons, one showing the Prophet Mohammad wearing a turban resembling a bomb, were published in a Danish newspaper. At least 50 people were killed and Danish embassies attacked.
During Thursday's debate, Canada and the Czech Republic, speaking on behalf of the European Union, stressed the need to protect religious minorities, including in Muslim states.
Both raised concerns about seven Baha'i believers detained for nearly a year in Iran for suspected spying.
"It appears these individuals are being prosecuted solely on the basis of their faith. Canada calls on Iranian authorities to release the seven Baha'i individuals and eliminate all forms of discrimination against religious, ethnic, linguistic or other minorities," the Canadian delegate said.
The seven, who could face the death sentence, have been denied access to lawyers, according to the two Western delegations. There was no immediate comment by Iran, whose judiciary said last month they could be indicted soon.
Baha'is regard their faith's 19th-century founder as the latest in a line of prophets including Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammad. Iran's Shi'ite religious establishment considers the faith a heretical offshoot of Islam.
Asma Jahangir, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said she was aware of "discriminatory practices" against Baha'i in both Iran and Egypt and was continuing to take action on the issue. (Editing by Philippa Fletcher)
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