GENEVA – The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Friday condemned recent attacks targeting religious groups in various countries across the world, and urged States to show determination in combating such violence and in rooting out discriminatory laws and practices affecting religious minorities.

“Recent deadly attacks on religious groups in various countries have been carried out by extremist groups,” Pillay said, “and it is clear that this rise in fanaticism poses particular difficulties for States. I believe that there are a number of important actions they can take that would help promote religious tolerance, and reduce the number of such attacks in the long term.”

Pillay praised the widespread condemnation by many Egyptian religious, political and civic leaders, as well as media commentators, of the bomb attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria in the early hours of New Year’s Day that killed at least 21 people and injured dozens of others. She said she was particularly heartened by the strong reaction of many ordinary Egyptian Muslims, who rallied to the support of Christian congregations as they prepared to celebrate Coptic Christmas amid fears of further attacks.

“Attacks on churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other religious sites around the world, as well as targeted attacks against individuals, should act as a wake-up call to all of us,” the High Commissioner said.

In Nigeria, repeated sectarian attacks on both Christian and Muslim communities, resulted in hundreds of deaths during 2010, including those of around 40 people on Christmas Eve in the cities of Jos and Maiduguri, despite a concerted effort by religious leaders of both groups to reduce inter-communal tensions after earlier killings.

Religious minorities in Pakistan have been subjected to an increasing number of attacks in recent years, with Shi’a, Christian and Ahmadi minorities targeted by deadly bomb attacks on the same day in early September, resulting in a total of more than 40 deaths.

Over the past year, there have also been attacks on members of religious groups in a number of other countries around the world. These have included: attacks, mostly involving arson, on 11 churches, a convent school, a Sikh temple, a mosque and several Muslim prayer rooms in Malaysia in January 2010; a bomb attack on a mosque in Iran on 15 December; a continuation of murderous attacks against Shi’a Muslims as well as Christians and other religious groups in Iraq; and continued attacks on Christians and Ahmadis in Indonesia.

“This is not a challenge limited to one region or religion,” Pillay said. “All countries have religious minorities, and many of their members face discrimination to a greater or lesser degree. All States have not only a moral, but also a legal, obligation to ensure they are protected. The recent attacks are a tragic reminder that protection of minority rights is not only a human rights imperative but also a key element in preventing conflict, before it gets out of hand.”

“States can and should resist the calls by members of one religion to uphold discriminatory measures against those who belong to different persuasions,” the High Commissioner said. “States everywhere can and should ensure that their educational approach, legal systems and political policies promote tolerance of different beliefs. They must also ensure that incitement to religious hatred is punishable by law.”

“Freedom of religion should be protected for all. I am concerned that divisive or weak state laws and policies in many countries foster the religious discrimination that feeds extremism,” Pillay added. “It is also vital that authorities discourage the exploitation of religions for political agendas.”

The High Commissioner said states should encourage conditions for the expression and promotion of the identity of minorities and remove obstacles to the establishment of such conditions in line with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities and other key international standards.

“The findings of UN human rights mechanisms – including the Universal Periodic Review, treaty bodies and special procedures – show that such obstacles are still common,” she said. “I urge all States to redouble their efforts to remove them, thereby giving their populations a clear indication of the paramount importance of providing protection to religious minorities.”