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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief on Thursday spoke out against intolerance toward religious groups such as Falun Gong and the Baha'is, remarks that irritated China.
"Small communities, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Baha'is, Ahmadis, Falun Gong and others are sometimes stigmatized as 'cults' and frequently meet with societal prejudices which may escalate into fully fledged conspiracy theories," Heiner Bielefeldt told the U.N. General Assembly's human rights committee.
A member of the Chinese delegation at the meeting of the committee, which all 192 U.N. member states belong to, said China rejects religious intolerance and that all religions there "coexist in harmony."
But she made clear that Beijing disagrees with Bielefeldt's remarks on Falun Gong.
"Falun Gong is an evil cult," said the delegate, whose name was not immediately available. "It is not a minority religion."
Speaking through an interpreter, the Chinese delegate said Falun Gong exercised "psychological control over its practitioners" and that more than 2,000 of them had died as a result of suicide or refusing treatment at hospitals.
She said it was proper for China to severely punish and ultimately "eradicate" Falun Gong.
Falun Gong was banned in 1999 after thousands of members gathered in central Beijing to protest around the Communist Party headquarters. Over 3,300 Chinese Falun Gong practitioners have died in prison or due to abuse in the 10 years of the crackdown, according to members of the group.
The Baha'i faith, founded in Iran in the 19th century, is considered by Iran's Shi'ite government to be a heretical offshoot of Islam.
Exiled Baha'i leaders say hundreds of followers have been jailed and executed since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The Iranian government denies it has detained or executed people for their religion.
Without naming what religions he might have in mind, Bielefeldt also told the committee that "all practices that are contrary to women's rights should be condemned and combated."
Ever since a row over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that appeared in a Danish newspaper in 2005 sparked bloody protests by Muslims around the world, defamation of religion has been high on the agenda of Islamic U.N. member states.
For the last five years the General Assembly has adopted a nonbinding resolution that condemns defamation of religion, eliciting criticism from Western states that say it threatens freedom of speech.
Bielefeldt said that religious freedom "does not include the right for one's religion or belief to be free from criticism or all adverse comments."
But he stopped short of supporting the prevailing Western view on defamation.
Editing by Xavier Briand