Support for UN vote against defaming religion wanes
* Muslim states vote for resolution, Western ones opposed
* U.S. says anti-defamation laws threaten free speech
UNITED NATIONS, Nov 23 (Reuters) - A U.N. General Assembly committee once again voted to condemn the "vilification of religion" on Tuesday, but support narrowed for a measure that Western powers say is a threat to freedom of expression.
The non-binding resolution, championed by Islamic states and opposed by Western countries, passed by only 12 votes in the General Assembly's Third Committee, which focuses on human rights, 76-64 with 42 abstentions.
Opponents noted that support had fallen and opposition increased since last year, when the Third Committee vote was 81-55 with 43 abstentions. The 192-nation General Assembly is expected to formally adopt the measure next month.
The resolution was amended from versions passed in previous years in an attempt to secure support from Western nations. Instead of defamation of religion, it speaks of "vilification." It also condemned acts of violence and intimidation due to "Islamophobia, Judeophobia and Christianophobia."
Last year's resolution, as in previous years, focused on Islam and did not mention Judaism and Christianity.
Despite the changes, however, the United States, European Union and their allies rejected the resolution's calls for legislation banning the defamation of religion.
The text, submitted by Morocco on behalf of Muslim states, said the assembly "urges all States to provide ... adequate protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from vilification of religions, and incitement to religious hatred in general."
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
U.S. envoy John Sammis told the Third Committee Washington believes the amendments are inadequate.
"We are disappointed to see that despite our efforts and discussions on this resolution, the text once again seems to take us farther apart, rather than helping to bridge the historical divides," he said.
"The resolution still seeks to curtail and penalize speech," he said. "The changes ... unfortunately do not get to the heart of our concerns -- the text's negative implications for both freedom of religion and freedom of expression."
He also said it was wrong to try to apply international human rights laws to religious beliefs, since human rights are intended to protect individuals, not governments or religions.
Islamic states say such resolutions do not aim to limit free speech but to stop publications like those of the Danish cartoons showing the Prophet Mohammed, which sparked bloody protests by Muslims around the world in 2005.
Pamela Kling Takiff of Human Rights First, a U.S.-based advocacy group, said the resolution fails to recognize the importance of freedom of expression and provides explicit support for national blasphemy and defamation laws that have been used to stifle freedom of expression.
Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, issued a statement welcoming the decline in support for the resolution.
"Each year, more and more countries are recognizing that laws protecting religions from 'defamation' or criticism increase intolerance and human rights violations, instead of reducing these problems," Leo said. (Editing by Todd Eastham)