Blasphemy is a crime not only in Pakistan, but Europe too

Pakistan’s top court on Wednesday overturned the death sentence of a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. While Ireland recently voted to oust its ‘medieval’ law, many European countries still have laws criminalising blasphemy.

AFP | Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi applying her thumb to appeal papers filed against her death sentence for blasphemy charges, November 20, 2010.

Could the tide finally be turning against blasphemy? On October 26, 64.8 percent of the Irish population voted to remove blasphemy as an offence from the predominantly Catholic country's constitution. On October 31, Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, of all charges. The landmark ruling triggered protests in several Pakistani cities by hardliners who support the country’s strict blasphemy laws.

Blasphemy is broadly defined as the act of speaking in a way that shows irreverence for God or something sacred. Some religions consider blasphemy to be a religious crime. Blasphemy laws are most common in majority Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as some parts of Southeast Asia.

Blasphemy legislation tends to escape the spotlight in many Western countries until specific, high-profile cases spark news headlines or international rights campaigns. It still carries the death penalty in countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. However, blasphemy does exist as a punishable crime in many other countries around the world, including a dozen countries in Europe. Punishment ranges from fines to prison sentences.

France outlawed blasphemy at the time of the French revolution in the late 18th century, according to articles 10 and 11 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Following the 1814 Bourbon Restoration, notions of “religious insult” were reintroduced until it was definitely removed in the 1881 Press Freedom Law. Blasphemy has never been reinstated since. However blasphemy remained a statute law in the eastern region of Alsace-Moselle. The little-used provision made the news in 2014, when a French Islamist group attempted to use it to sue the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. This legal loophole was only repealed by the French Senate in October 2016.

Blasphemous toilet paper

Germany’s blasphemy laws have been reasonably dormant. However, in 2006, they received much media attention when Manfred van H. was prosecuted for defamation for distributing rolls of toilet paper with the words "Koran, the Holy Koran" stamped on them. And, in 2016, Albert Voss, a former physics teacher and avowed atheist, was convicted of blasphemy after he daubed the rear window of his car with anti-Christian slogans. He was fined €500.

Neither Spain nor Portugal have anti-blasphemy laws, although both have legislation on religious hatred that is rarely used. The United Kingdom has a unique situation: blasphemy was abolished as an offence in England and Wales in 2008, but it remains in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In Greece, a blogger who created a Facebook page poking fun at a revered Greek Orthodox monk was sentenced to 10 months in prison in 2012 after being found guilty of blasphemy. Thousands of Greeks took to social media sites to protest the arrest of Filippos Loizos, 28, who used a play on words to portray Father Paisios as a traditional pasta-based dish. Loizos’s sentence was later overthrown on appeal.

Indeed, Greek courts are not averse to using the blasphemy law in the case of satirists – and not necessarily only Greek ones. In 2005, Austrian cartoonist Gerhard Haderer's depiction of Christ as a naked pot-smoking surfer provoked a six-month suspended sentence for the artist in absentia. Haderer apparently did not even know that his book, “The Life of Jesus", had been published in Greece until he received the court summons. He too was later acquitted on appeal.

Should art be beyond the law?

Art is often the cause of blasphemy court cases in Italy, where the current law punishes public offences to religion. In 2006, author Oriana Fallaci was accused of defaming Islam in her book, “The Strength of Reason”, one of a trilogy she published since the September 11 attacks on the US. In the book, Fallaci was alleged to have made 18 blasphemous statements, including referring to Islam as "a pool that never purifies". She was charged with violating a law that forbids defamatory statements about a religion acknowledged by the Italian state. The trial never concluded as Fallaci died from breast cancer during its proceedings.

In Denmark in 2017, a man who posted a video of himself burning the Koran on Facebook only narrowly avoided trial when politicians abolished a centuries-old blasphemy law.

Poland, an overwhelmingly Catholic country, has a legal provision against publicly offending a person's religious feelings rather than a distinct blasphemy law. This carries the potential of up to two years in prison. In 2002, artist Dorota Nieznalska was sued under the law for a sculpture in which male genitals were shown attached to a Christian crucifix. After a hugely divisive trial, she received a sentence of six months community service. But there was such international protest that her sentence was successfully appealed.

The Turkish Penal Code criminalises blasphemy and religious insult, as well as hate speech. In April 2013, world-renowned pianist Fazil Say was given a 10-month suspended sentence for religious defamation in connection with a series of Twitter posts, including one declaring himself an atheist and another quoting 12th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam poking fun of the Islamic vision of paradise. After a lengthy battle in the courts, Say was finally acquitted in September 2016.

In Ireland, prior to the October 26 decision to repeal the legislation, the last successful blasphemy case dates back to 1703. A Unitarian pastor and author Thomas Emlyn was convicted of blasphemy for his book that argued Jesus Christ was not the equal of God the Father. The book provoked huge outrage and Emlyn was fined £1,000, which was a very significant amount at the time, and one year’s imprisonment.

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