Clinton: Minorities must be part of new Mideast

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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday urged a broad role for religious minorities and women in a changing Middle East, warning that a wave of democratic uprisings could be "hijacked".

"During recent protests, women and men marched together in Tunis and Cairo. Christians and Muslims stood side-by-side and even prayed together. But that spirit of unity is being tested," Clinton said in a speech in Berlin.

Clinton was accepting an award named for Walther Rathenau, a Jew who served as German foreign minister during the Weimar Republic and whose 1922 assassination was seen as a harbinger of the rise of Nazi rule.

"The tragedy of Rathenau's assassination and its aftermath provides a cautionary tale about how these transitions can be undermined and hijacked by extremists," she said.

Clinton voiced concern about attacks on the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt, including in the city of Qena, and about harassment of women in Tahrir Square -- the epicentre of protests that ousted strongman Hosni Mubarak.

And she evoked the treatment of minorities in other countries, including members of the Bahai faith in Iran, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and China's underground Christians.

She also voiced alarm over accounts that Chinese authorities have sealed off a Tibetan monastery in Sichuan province, trapping the monks inside.

Clinton aired concern as well about religious intolerance in Pakistan where Punjab governor Salman Taseer and religious minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti were assassinated this year. The two had pushed for reforms in Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which critics say have been abused against minorities.

Recalling the lessons of Rathenau's life, Clinton also warned that religious intolerance -- against Jews as well as Muslims -- had not been defeated in the West.

She condemned the defacing of Jewish sites over the past year in France, the Netherlands and Poland and spoke of alarm about "anti-Islamic rhetoric" in Germany and other European nations.

But Clinton criticised efforts to criminalise criticism of religion.

Pakistan and other Islamic nations have spearheaded efforts at the United Nations to ban the defamation of religion, clashing with Western nations.

"As we combat hate and intolerance, we should not make the mistake of violating the equally sacrosanct universal right to freedom of expression," she said.

© 2011 AFP

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