The United Nations should stop passing resolutions, largely promoted by Islamic countries, calling for laws against "defamation of religion", according to international experts on freedom of expression.
The four experts -- from Africa, Europe, Latin America and the United Nations itself -- said such laws were often used to shield religious leaders from criticism and to suppress religious minorities and non-believers.
"International organisations, including the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council, should desist from the further adoption of statements supporting the idea of 'defamation of religion'," they declared.
The statement was issued on the website of the pan-European security organisation, the OSCE, as clear signs emerged in Geneva that Islamic states and their backers aim to get a call for a defamation ban into a key U.N. document on racism.
The experts were Frank La Rue, a Guatemalan who is the Human Rights Council's investigator for freedom of expression, Hungarian writer Miklos Haraszti of the OSCE, South African jurist Faith Pansy Tlakula of the African Union, and Catalina Botero of the Organisation of American States.
"The concept of 'defamation of religions' does not accord with international standards regarding defamation, which refer to the protection of reputation of individuals," they said.
"Religions, like all beliefs, cannot be said to have a reputation of their own," they added. Limits on freedom of expression should only be used to bar advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred amounting to inciting violence.
Countries which had such limits to protect religion, they said, had often used them "to prevent legitimate criticism of powerful religious leaders and to suppress the views of religious minorities, dissenting believers and non-believers."
The 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council -- where Islamic countries backed usually by most African states, Russia, China and Cuba have a built-in majority -- passes resolutions annually calling governments to act against religious defamation.
The U.N.'s General Assembly, where the same informal alliance operates on the issue, has adopted similar non-enforceable resolutions each year since 2005, although this year support for them has waned.
Islamic states say the resolutions are not aimed at imposing drastic limitations on free speech but at stopping publications like those of Danish cartoons showing the Prophet Mohammed that sparked bloody protests by Muslims in some countries.
But a discussion paper from Algeria's envoy to the U.N. in Geneva setting out ideas to be included in a U.N. declaration on racism suggests "seriously or gratuitously offensive attacks on matters regarded as sacred by the followers of any religion" ought to be banned by any state.
The declaration is to be issued at a U.N. conference in Geneva in April to update an earlier anti-racism document issued by a conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, which some countries and rights bodies said was marred by anti-Semitism. (Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Jon Boyle)