UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- Three-quarters of the world's people live in countries that either restrict the right to religion or belief or have "a high level of social hostility involving religion or belief," the U.N. special investigator on religious rights said Tuesday.
Ahmed Shaheed told the General Assembly's human rights committee that religious intolerance is prevalent globally - and rising around the world.
He said over 70 countries currently have anti-blasphemy laws that can be used to suppress dissenting views, in violation of international human rights standards.
Shaheed, a former politician and human rights expert from the Maldives, urged those countries to repeal the blasphemy laws.
He also called for the repeal of all laws that undermine the exercise of the right to freedom of religion or belief - or discriminate against that right.
Shaheed urged countries to adopt and enforce "adequate criminal sanctions penalizing violent and particularly egregious discriminatory acts perpetrated by state or non-state actors against persons based on their religion or belief."
He said governments must also pay "particular attention" to uphold the obligation to protect religious minorities.
"Increases in unlawful government restrictions against religious groups remain one of the primary and most fundamental factors resulting in higher levels of religious intolerance in any given society," Shaheed said.
Some forms of discrimination are direct, such as prohibiting some or all religions or beliefs, he said. But others may be indirect, like zoning laws that prevent construction of certain houses of worship or bans on refugees or immigrants, "ostensibly for national security reasons, from countries where majority populations belong to particular faith communities," he said.
The special investigator, or rapporteur, on freedom of religion or belief is an independent expert appointed by the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council. Shaheed previously served for almost six years as special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran.