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Matthew Lee Associated Press
Published: 16 July 2011

ISTANBUL (AP) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday she's hopeful that a religious tolerance agreement between the West and Islamic countries will end efforts to criminalize blasphemy that threaten freedom of expression.

At an interfaith conference in Turkey, Clinton said an initiative by the U.S., the European Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference will promote religious freedom without compromising free speech.

"Together we have begun to overcome the false divide that pits religious sensitivities against freedom of expression and we are pursuing a new approach," Clinton said. "These are fundamental freedoms that belong to all people in all places and they are certainly essential to democracy."

Many Muslim nations have laws that punish perceived insults to Islam. As a way to rationalize those laws, those countries have long sought U.N. action condemning the defamation of religion.

In addition, they have promoted measures to combat instances of what they believe are intolerance directed at Islam. Examples include the ban in Switzerland on the construction of new minarets, the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed and the burning of the Quran by a small church group in Florida.

The U.S. and others were concerned that such a step at the United Nations could stifle legitimate debate and be used to persecute religious minorities. Earlier this year, the U.S. brokered an agreement that removed defamation language from a U.N. resolution and focused instead on ending religious discrimination.

That resolution calls for countries to encourage tolerance through education, interfaith dialogue and public debate. It would prohibit discrimination, profiling and hate crimes. But it does not endorse criminalizing controversial speech unless there is an incitement to imminent violence.

Clinton and Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the secretary general of the OIC, which represents 57 Muslim nations in international forums, announced plans for talks on how to reconcile freedom of speech with tolerance.

"We cannot and must not ignore the implications of hate speech and incitement of discrimination and violence," Ihsanoglu. He said the OIC did not want to inhibit free expression. "Our cause, which stems from out genuine concerns, should not be interpreted as calls for restriction on freedom," he said.

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