U.N. rights chief sees bigotry in Europe on Islam

Geneva, Switzerland - United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said on Monday that bigotry and prejudice, especially in regard to Muslims, were common in Europe and called on governments to tackle the issue.

The remarks from the former Canadian Supreme Court judge, which came in the wake of similar charges issued last week by a U.N. rights investigator, were quickly challenged by a leading global non-religious grouping.

The report by investigator Doudou Diene of Senegal documented what he called an alarming rise in intolerance, and in particular Islamophobia, in European countries, and Arbour said, "I have no reason not to share his concerns."

Europeans "are shocked at times when it is pointed out that bigotry, prejudice and stereotyping is still sometimes very present in their attitude to others," she said.

Diene's work, she declared, highlighted "a challenge for Western countries that needs to be addressed."

Roy Brown, past president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) which groups non-religious organizations around the globe said Arbour was "just plain wrong."

"The little regrettable hostility that does exist among indigenous Europeans has not arisen in a vacuum, but as a reaction to Islamic extremism -- deionization of Jews, infidels and homosexuals and contempt for Western culture," said Brown, the IHEU's representative at the U.N.'s Human Rights Council.

Diene's report said Islamophobia and equating Islam with terrorism created a climate favoring racial and religious hate.

But it also criticized Islamic states for their treatment of non-Muslim minorities and for refusing to recognize the right of people born into Islam to change their religion.

Diene pointed to the recent appearance of a cartoon in a provincial Swedish newspaper that governments of Islamic countries say offended their religion as an example of abuse of the right of free speech to sow suspicion of Muslims.

He also hit out at Switzerland over perceived anti-immigrant campaigning by the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP/UDC).

European countries in the Council responded in low-key to his "Islamophobia" charges.