UNITED NATIONS (AP) - The head of the Arab League called Wednesday for the international community to criminalize blasphemy, warning that insults to religion pose a serious threat to global peace and security. The comments put him squarely at odds with the United States and many of its western allies, which are resolutely opposed to restrictions on freedom of expression.
Nabil Elaraby told the U.N. Security Council that if the west has criminalized acts that result in bodily harm, it must also criminalize acts that insult or cause offense to religions. He condemned the violence that erupted throughout the Muslim world in response to an anti-Islam film produced in the United States. But, he said that unless blasphemy laws are enacted and enforced, similar incidents could happen again.
"While we fully reject such actions that are not justifiable in any way, we would like to ring the warning bell," Elaraby said. "We are warning that offending religions, faiths and symbols is indeed a matter that threatens in international peace and security now."
"If the international community has criminalized bodily harm, it must just as well criminalize psychological and spiritual harm," he said. "The League of Arab States calls for the development of an international legal framework which is binding ... in order to confront insulting religions and ensuring that religious faith and its symbols are respected."
Elaraby maintained that the 21-member Arab League valued the freedom of speech but stressed that "we don't see any relation between freedom of expression which aims at enriching culture and building civilization of the one hand and activities that merely offend and insult the beliefs, culture and civilization of others."
Individual members of the Arab League, including Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, have issued similar calls.
Elaraby spoke a special session of the Security Council called to discuss developments in the Middle East, including the crisis in Syria and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also addressed the meeting but did not specifically discuss Elaraby's comments. On Tuesday, though, President Barack Obama gave a powerful defense of free speech rights as he spoke to the U.N. General Assembly. He strongly defended the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of the freedom of expression, "even views that we profoundly disagree with."
Clinton and other foreign ministers at the meeting did take the opportunity to complain that the U.N. Security Council has been unable to unify behind a plan to end the violence in Syria and promote a political transition. Clinton said the council was "paralyzed." French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said it was "shocking" that the council had been unable to act.
China and Russia have blocked Security Council action on Syria.
Earlier Wednesday, Clinton said western and northern African nations need to tighten security on their borders to combat the increased movement of extremists, weapons and drugs. She called the Sahel region is a "powder keg" of hunger, displacement and insecurity, and said the world can't ignore the situation.
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