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ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed with a major global Islamic organization on Friday to pursue new ways of resolving debates over religion without resorting to legal steps against defamation.
Clinton met Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the head of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), in Istanbul to help set up new international mechanisms both protect free speech and combat religious discrimination around the world.
"Together we have begun to overcome the false divide that pits religious sensitivities against freedom of religion. We are pursuing a new approach based on concrete steps to fight intolerance wherever it occurs," Clinton said.
Under heavy U.S. pressure, the OIC agreed in March to set aside its 12-year campaign to have religions protected from defamation, a step which allowed the U.N. Human Rights Council to approve a broader plan on religious tolerance.
Western countries and their Latin American allies, strong opponents of the defamation concept, joined Muslim and African states in backing without vote the new approach that switches focus from protecting beliefs to protecting believers.
Ihsanoglu underscored that the OIC's aim was not to limit free expression, but to combat religious intolerance which he said was spreading dangerously around the world.
"Our cause, which stems from our general concern, should not be interpreted as calls for restriction of freedom," he said.
"We believe that mutual understanding, tolerance, respect and empathy should also be accompanying components when we advocate supremacy of freedom of expression."
Both Ihsanoglu and Clinton outlined steps they would take to cultivate religious and cultural diversity along guidelines set by the U.N. Human Rights Commission, part of a process that will be overseen by the United Nations.
"These are fundamental freedoms that belong to all people in all places and they are certainly essential to democracy," Clinton said. "We now need to move to implementation."
The new approach calls on countries to protect freedom of religion and counter offensive expression through education, dialogue and public debate. It also calls for prohibitions on hate crimes and discrimination, but not to criminalize speech unless there is incitement to imminent violence.
Debates over international moves to "combat defamation of religion" have occurred regularly since 1998, pitting opponents who say such steps would violate free speech and against proponents who say they are necessary.
Since 1998, the OIC had won majority approval in the council and at the United Nations General Assembly for a series of resolutions on "combating defamation of religion."
Critics said the concept ran against international law and free speech and allowed states where one religion predominates to keep religious minorities under tight control or even leave them open to forced conversion or oppression.
Islamic countries pointed to the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in Denmark in 2005, which sparked anti-Western violence in the Middle East and Asia, as examples of defamatory treatment of their faith that they wanted stopped.
Reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Alison Williams