Iran urges UN action to stop 'defamation' of Islam

Geneva, Switzerland - Iran backed efforts by Islamic states on Thursday to get the United Nations new Human Rights Council to counter what they call "defamation of religion" around the world.

But Canada accused the Iranians of discrediting the Council by including in their delegation the state Prosecutor-General who Ottawa says was linked to the arrest and death in Tehran of a Canadian woman journalist.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told the 45-member Council, holding its first-ever session, that freedom of expression "should not constitute a pretext and a platform to insult religions and their sanctities.

"Defamation of religions, particularly the divine message of Islam, should be rejected," he declared. Action on this should be part of the rights standards set by the Council and pursued through "implementation at the international level."

His remarks echoed a call from the Organization of Islamic States (OIC) and assertions by Saudi Arabia that Islam faced "an escalation of hatred and animosity ... disdain for its values and everything it holds sacred."

Although some diplomats say the drive reflects Muslim anger over cartoons published in the West last year depicting the Prophet Mohammad, others see it as part of a longer-term effort to counter criticism of the rights records of many OIC states.

Members of the grouping, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, were often accused at the Council's predecessor, the Human Rights Commission, of violating the rights of women and national and religious minorities.

In his speech, Iran's Mottaki accused Western countries of trying to impose "uniculturalism" on the U.N. system to ensure their own values set the model for all human rights standards.

But Mottaki made no reference to the complaint to the Council from Canada's MacKay, who also called on other delegations to protest over the presence in the Council of the Iranian prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi.

By including Mortazavi in its delegation, MacKay said in a statement issued through his office, "Iran is trying to discredit the Council and deflect attention from its goal of ensuring greater respect for human rights."

Independent human rights groupings at the session say Mortazavi has played a key role in the detention of hundreds of domestic critics of Iran's Islamic authorities, as well as of journalists accused of defaming the state.

In his speech, the President of the newly created Saudi Human Rights Commission said his country "in keeping with Islamic tradition ... accords special attention to the issue of religious tolerance" and respect for different cultures.

Although there were ongoing efforts in the West to link it with terrorism, he declared, "Islam is a moderate religion that advocates mutual tolerance, empathy and coexistence and rejects fanaticism, obscurantism and coercion."