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'Religious defamation' idea causes concern

State department says expanding scope of concept meant to protect Islam would encourage more persecution over beliefs.

WASHINGTON // In publishing its annual report on global religious freedom, the US state department on Friday criticised the Organisation of the Islamic Conference for advancing a concept known as "defamation of religions", which a top diplomat said has had a "chilling effect" on religious tolerance. John V Hanford III, ambassador at large for religious freedom, said the OIC has attempted, through UN reports and resolutions, to "export" anti-blasphemy laws in some of its member countries to the international level.

Supporters of the "defamation of religions" concept, initially introduced in 1999 as the more narrow "defamation of Islam", say its aim is to protect against the denigration of any and all faiths. But its critics, including the Bush administration and religious rights organisations, charge that it provides a kind of cover for states that wish to quash religious freedom or criminalise religious "defamation".

"While we encourage respectful discourse, at the same time we don't want to see freedom of speech and expression suppressed," Mr Hanford said at a news conference announcing the 2008 International Religious Freedom Report. The report laid out US officials' concerns in more detail. "Despite a pretence of protecting religious practice and promoting tolerance, the flawed concept attempts to limit freedom of religion and restrict the rights of all individuals to disagree with or criticize religion, in particular Islam," the report said. "This concept is also being used by some governments to justify actions that selectively curtail civil dissent, that halt criticism of political structures and that restrict the religious speech of minority faith communities, dissenting members of the majority faith and persons of no religious faith."

The "defamation of religions" concept is "inconsistent with the freedoms of religion and expression", the report said, and will "weaken religious freedom protections, including protections for minority Muslim populations". The report on religious freedom, which Mr Hanford called "an American ideal" and "a universal aspiration", has been published annually since 1998. This year's survey assessed the record of 198 countries and territories.

Overall, the state department identified eight countries - China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan - as "countries of particular concern". The International Freedom of Religion Act defines those as states that have "engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom". But many other countries were likewise identified as violating religious freedoms, including through harassment, imprisonment, torture or even killings.

"Hundreds of millions of persons are still denied the right to believe, practise and worship freely," Mr Hanford said. Mr Hanford singled out Jordan - which he said has traditionally been a model of religious tolerance in the Middle East - as a place where religious freedom has declined. He cited cases of harassment of individuals and organisations for religious reasons. "The Government's handling of apostasy cases, expulsion of approximately thirty foreign Christian religious workers and instances of individual and organizational harassment based on religious affiliation all contributed to the decline," the report's assessment of Jordan said. "Members of unrecognized religious groups and converts from Islam face legal discrimination and risk the loss of civil rights, including threats to their person and/or family."

But Mr Hanford cited other countries that had achieved progress. Despite governmental policies that continued to severely restrict religious freedom, he said, Saudi Arabia made some incremental improvements. He cited a June interfaith conference, sponsored by King Abdullah with the support of the Muslim World League in Mecca; the release of some religious prisoners; and a decrease in the number of raids by the religious police on non-Muslim places of worship, which he said now occur "very rarely".

There was no change in the status of the UAE's record on religious freedom since last year's report. "The Constitution provides for freedom of religion in accordance with established customs, and the Government generally respects this right in practice, but with some restrictions," the report said. It said the UAE follows "a policy of tolerance toward non-Muslim religious groups and in practice interfered very little in their religious activities".

While the report found no cases of societal abuses for religious reasons in the UAE, it did note that societal pressure discouraged conversion from Islam to other religions and said the media at times promoted discriminatory religious caricatures. It also said that Etisalat, the UAE's biggest internet provider, occasionally blocked websites containing religious information. "These sites included information on the Bahai faith, Judaism, negative critiques of Islam and testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity," the report said.

eniedowski@thenational.ae

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