Reuters Africa 

EU denounces attacks against Christians, Muslims

* Debate began after attack on Coptic Christians

* Statement does not take into account recent upheaval


BRUSSELS, Feb 21 (Reuters) - The European Union denounced attacks against Christians and Muslims on Monday, having previously failed to agree a statement that included Christianity among persecuted religious faiths.

The EU began a debate about religious violence after an attack on a Coptic Christian church in northern Egypt at the end of December left 23 people dead and dozens wounded.

The statement issued by EU foreign ministers after a meeting in Brussels, while not mentioning the recent upheaval in Egypt that toppled longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak, described freedom to express religious faith as a human right.

It also condemned all forms of discrimination.

"The Council expresses its profound concern about the increasing number of acts of religious intolerance and discrimination ... against Christians and their places of worship, Muslim pilgrims and other religious communities, which it firmly condemns," the statement said.

At a meeting in January, foreign ministers failed to agree a statement mentioning Christianity as among the faiths that are potentially threatened, angering Italy. Christians account for around a third of the world's population.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said last month that the lack of a Christianity reference showed an "excess of secularism" within the EU. On Monday he told reporters he was happy with the new wording.

The foreign ministers said the EU would do everything it could to uphold the freedom of religious faith, but that it was primarily up to individual states to protect their citizens.

"All persons belonging to religious communities and minorities should be able to practice their religion and worship freely, individually or in community with others, without fear of intolerance and attacks," it said.

A string of attacks against Christians in December -- in both Egypt and Iraq, where there is a sizeable Christian minority -- made the Vatican fear an exodus from the Middle East. There also were attacks in Nigeria and the Philippines.

(Reporting by Eva Dou and Francesco Guarascio; editing by Michael Roddy)

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