By Robert Evans
GENEVA (Reuters) - The United States told a UN human rights body on Monday it considered freedom of religion inseparable from free expression, countering calls from many Islamic countries for a treaty outlawing blasphemy.
After two weeks of protests around the Muslim world over an online film mocking the Prophet Mohammed, Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told the UN Human Rights Council that religious dignity is best protected where there is free speech.
"The inseparable freedoms of expression and religion are important not for abstract reasons," she told the Geneva body in an unscheduled intervention as world leaders arrived in New York for a General Assembly where some were expected to call for action against blasphemy.
Donahoe said that when the two freedoms were allowed to flourish, "we see religious harmony, economic prosperity, societal innovation and progress, and citizens who feel their dignity is respected."
"When these freedoms are restricted, we see violence, poverty, stagnation and feelings of frustration and even humiliation," she said.
Last week, the 56-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation signaled it wanted an international ban on blasphemy, echoing calls from many Islamic clerics and some government leaders adter the film, made with private money in the United States, sparked widespread anti-Western protests.
Pakistan, which represents the OIC in the Human Rights Council, has a blasphemy law that Christians and Hindus say is sometimes used to persecute them. It has been seeking a U.N.-sanctioned ban on "defamation of religion" since the mid 1990s.
The 47-member council, dominated by developing states, has passed non-binding resolutions against defamation of religion for over a decade. Similar ones were endorsed in the U.N. General Assembly.
European countries, the United States and several Latin American nations in the council opposed the resolutions, arguing that while individual people have human rights, religions do not, and that existing U.N. pacts - if enforced - were sufficient to curb incitement to hatred and violence.
They also say there can be no global definition of blasphemy.
A diplomatic offensive headed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led the OIC last year to abandon its effort for binding commitments and to settle for a resolution aimed at fighting intolerance while maintaining free speech.
Donahoe said on Monday that that resolution was sufficient and, if properly enforced, would bring "harmony, peace, prosperity and dignity to our citizens and our societies."
However, given the OIC statements posted on its website, Western diplomats now predict a renewed push, and some said they expected a statement from the OIC in the rights body on Tuesday.
In one response to the film furore, the European Union's foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, signed a statement with the OIC, the Arab League and the African Union pledging "to work for an international consensus on tolerance and full respect for religion."
(Reported by Robert Evans; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)