The World Jewish Congress (WJC) on Friday strongly condemned the previous day's passage in the United Nation Human Rights Council of a resolution calling "defamation of religion" a human rights violation.
"The World Jewish Congress, long a leader in the effort to champion human rights and freedom of religion, has for many years defended the rights of the members of all faiths, including the Muslim faith," said WJC President Ronald S. Lauder. "However, we strongly oppose the issue of 'defamation of religions' being cast as a human rights violation at the United Nations. We see it as weakening the rights of individuals to express their views and criticize other religions, and, in the case of this specific resolution, particularly Islam."
Lauder went on to say that the resolution was an attempt to bring blasphemy laws prevalent in some Muslim countries to the UN, stressing that in accordance with human rights laws, the rights of individuals to express their views should be protected and not restricted or punished by the state.
"Today's vote is unfortunately only a harbinger for what may yet transpire in Geneva at the upcoming Durban Review Conference as proposals such as this one keep coming to the fore," he added.
The proposal put forward by Pakistan on behalf of Islamic countries - with the backing of Belarus and Venezuela - passed when a simple majority of 23 members of the 47-nation Human Rights Council voted in favor of the resolution. Eleven nations, mostly Western, opposed the resolution, and 13 countries abstained.
The resolution urges states to provide "protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general."
"Defamation of religions is the cause that leads to incitement to hatred, discrimination and violence toward their followers," Pakistan's ambassador Zamir Akram said.
"It is important to deal with the cause, rather than with the effects alone," he said.
Muslim nations have argued that religions, in particular Islam, must be shielded from criticism in the media and other areas of public life. They cited cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as an example of unacceptable free speech.
"Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism," the resolution said.
Opponents of the resolution included Canada, all European Union countries, Switzerland, Ukraine and Chile.
"It is individuals who have rights and not religions," Canadian diplomat Terry Cormier said.
India, which normally votes along with the council's majority of developing nations, abstained in protest at the fact that Islam was the only religion specifically named as deserving protection.
India's Ambassador Gopinathan Achamkulangare said the resolution "inappropriately" linked religious criticism to racism.
The council is dominated by Muslim and African countries. Its resolutions are not binding, but are meant to act as recommendations for UN member states on issues of human rights.
Earlier, a coalition of more than 100 secular and faith groups had called on governments to oppose the resolution, warning that it could lead to accusations of defamation among different faiths.
The United States did not vote on the resolution because it is not a member of the council. The Bush administration announced it was virtually giving up on the body and would participate in debates only if absolutely necessary because of the Geneva body's anti-Israel statements and its failure to act on abuses in Sudan and elsewhere.
US diplomats resumed their observer role in the council after President Barack Obama took office, though it is unclear whether Washington will stand for one of the 18 council seats up for election in May.
Esther Brimmer, Obama's nominee for the job of Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizational Affairs, told a Senate hearing Tuesday that the council was a "major disappointment, diverted from its mission by states with some of the worst human rights records."