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UNITED NATIONS, Dec 19 (Reuters) - For the first time in more than a decade, the U.N. General Assembly on Monday condemned religious intolerance without urging states to outlaw "defamation of religions," an appeal critics said opened the door to abusive "blasphemy" laws.
The call on countries to prohibit "defamation" had been included in a non-binding resolution on combating religious intolerance passed annually by the 193-nation assembly.
The resolution approved on Monday declares that "discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief constitutes a violation of human rights." It also expressed concern about the incitement to religious hatred and the failure of some states "to combat this burgeoning trend."
The General Assembly adopted the resolution by consensus without a vote. The versions passed in previous years had enjoyed increasingly less support in assembly votes due to Western and Latin American opposition to the "defamation" idea. The resolution barely received a majority of yes votes in 2010.
The New York-based rights group Human Rights First welcomed the resolution prior to its adoption, describing the new version as "a decisive break from the polarizing focus in the past on defamation of religions."
"Governments should now focus on concrete measures to fight religiously motivated violence, discrimination and other forms of intolerance, while recognizing the importance of freedom of expression," Human Rights First's Tad Stahnke said.
Earlier this year Western countries and their Latin American allies joined Muslim and African states in backing a new approach that switched the focus from protecting beliefs to protecting believers. That new approach led to Monday's resolution.
Since 1998, the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) had won majority approval in U.N. rights bodies in Geneva and at the U.N. General Assembly for annual resolutions on "combating defamation of religions."
Critics said the concept ran against international law and free speech and left the way open for tough "blasphemy" laws like those in Pakistan that have been invoked this year by the killers of two moderate politicians there.
They argued that it also allowed states where one religion predominates to keep religious minorities under tight control or even leave them open to forced conversion or oppression. (Reporting By Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Bill Trott)