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GENEVA, March 12 The United States told the United Nations on Thursday that some Muslim countries were using the concept of religious defamation to justify curbs on freedom of speech and civil dissent.

The Obama administration, wading into a heated debate on the issue at the UN Human Rights Council for the first time, also said strict rules on religious dress unfairly discriminate against worshippers of minority faiths.

“We remain deeply concerned about discriminatory restrictions on religious freedom, such as policies that unduly favour majority religious communities by placing limitations on conversion, proselytism, religious dress and the freedom to speak openly about a given religion,” Anna Chambers of the US delegation said in a speech.

Washington says it is concerned religious defamation is being promoted at the Geneva-based Council as a way to trump basic rights and freedoms, the political officer said.

Islamic and African states often backed by China, Cuba and Russia have a majority in the 47 member-state Council, where they have pushed the defamation of religion issue hard.

Pakistan presented a resolution denouncing religious defamation as a “serious affront to human dignity leading to restriction on the freedom of religion of their adherents and incitement to religious hatred and violence.”

The text, submitted on behalf of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), voices deep concern at the negative stereotyping and defamation of religions, including ethnic and religious profiling of Muslims since the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

It said that Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism.

During Thursday's debate, Canada and the Czech Republic, speaking on behalf of the European Union, stressed the need to protect religious minorities, including in Muslim states.

Both raised concerns about seven Baha'i believers detained for nearly a year in Iran for suspected spying.

“It appears these individuals are being prosecuted solely on the basis of their faith. Canada calls on Iranian authorities to release the seven Baha'i individuals and eliminate all forms of discrimination against religious, ethnic, linguistic or other minorities,” the Canadian delegate said.

The seven, who could face the death sentence, have been denied access to lawyers, according to the two Western delegations. There was no immediate comment by Iran, whose judiciary said last month they could be indicted soon. Baha'is regard their faith's 19th-century founder as the latest in a line of prophets. Iran considers the faith a heretical offshoot of Islam.

Asma Jahangir, UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said she was aware of “discriminatory practices” against Baha'is in both Iran and Egypt and was continuing to take action on the issue.—Reuters