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United Nations: Religious liberty advocates make progress against a ‘defamation of religions’ resolution

By Emily Belz

12/4/2009 (WORLD) When President Obama delivered a June speech in Cairo, he made clear in warm words cushioned with cultural knowledge that his administration would reach out to the Muslim world.

But at the end of October, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sharply condemned an effort of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a coalition of 56 Muslim countries. An OIC member introduces a resolution every year condemning “defamation of religions,” what U.S. religious freedom groups have called blasphemy laws designed to shield Islam from criticism. The resolutions, which aren’t legally binding, condemn “gratuitously offensive attacks” on religions, but the only religion specifically mentioned in the resolutions is Islam.

The United Nations General Assembly is scheduled to vote on this year’s defamation resolution the second week in Decem­ber. It’s expected to pass, though with fewer votes than last year. The first defamation resolution passed by consensus in 1999, then in landslides for years after, mainly because it was couched as an anti-discrimination resolution nestled among anti-racism resolutions. But in 2001 the United States started voting “no” and began lobbying other countries to join it. Last year, the number of countries supporting the resolution dropped from 108 to 86, meaning the number of “no” votes and abstentions outnumbered the “yes” votes. The resolution still passed because the “yes” votes outnumbered the “noes.”

In the global debate, the Obama administration has support against the defamation resolutions from a strange alliance of international nongovernmental organizations. Over 100 NGOs—a spectrum of groups from the Baptist World Alliance to the American Humanist Association to the American Islamic Congress—signed a common statement on the matter in November. “From the beginning the issue has made odd bedfellows,” said Becket’s Wu, adding that she hopes more Muslim American groups sign on.

“United Nations resolutions on the ‘defamation of religions’ are incompatible with the fundamental freedoms of individuals to freely exercise and peacefully express their thoughts, ideas, and beliefs,” the statement reads.

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