Blasphemy law is a law limiting the freedom of speech and expression relating to blasphemy, or irreverence toward holy personages, religious artifacts, customs, or beliefs. Blasphemy laws are sometimes used to protect the religious beliefs of a majority, while in other cases, they serve to offer protection of the religious beliefs of minorities.
Where blasphemy laws systematically target an identifiable section of the community with severe penalties that may include imprisonment or death they are a crime against humanity and those who enact or enforce such laws are liable for prosecution for such crimes in the International Criminal Court. See Article 7 (h) of the Rome Statute.
In addition to prohibitions against blasphemy or blasphemous libel, blasphemy laws include laws which give redress to those who feel insulted on account of their religion. These laws, which may forbid the vilification of religion, “religious insult”, defamation of religion, denigration of religion, offending religious feelings, contempt of religion, or use other similar language, are blasphemy laws. In some jurisdictions blasphemy laws include hate speech laws that extend beyond prohibiting the imminent incitement of hatred and violence.
In many countries either there are no laws against blasphemy, or long-established laws are no longer enforced. In the United States, for example, a prosecution for blasphemy would violate the Constitution according to the 1952 Supreme Court case Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson. The last person hanged for blasphemy in Great Britain was Thomas Aikenhead, aged 20, in Scotland in 1697. He was prosecuted for denying the veracity of the Old Testament and the legitimacy of Christ's miracles. The common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished in England and Wales in 2008 with the passage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act. Other countries to abolish or repeal blasphemy laws include France in 1881, Sweden in 1970, Norway with Acts in 2009 and 2015, the Netherlands in 2014, and Iceland in 2015.
In Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has recommended that countries enact laws that protect the freedom of expression.
United Nations General Comment 34 - Blasphemy laws are incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: In July, 2011, the UN Human Rights Committee released a 52-paragraph statement, General Comment 34 on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) 1976, concerning freedoms of opinion and expression. Paragraph 48 states:
- Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant, except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20, paragraph 2, of the Covenant. Such prohibitions must also comply with the strict requirements of article 19, paragraph 3, as well as such articles as 2, 5, 17, 18 and 26. Thus, for instance, it would be impermissible for any such laws to discriminate in favor of or against one or certain religions or belief systems, or their adherents over another, or religious believers over non-believers. Nor would it be permissible for such prohibitions to be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.
- 1 Afghanistan
- 2 Algeria
- 3 Australia
- 4 Austria
- 5 Bangladesh
- 6 Brazil
- 7 Canada
- 8 China
- 9 Denmark
- 10 Egypt
- 11 European initiatives
- 12 Finland
- 13 France
- 14 Germany
- 15 Greece
- 16 Iceland
- 17 India
- 18 Indonesia
- 19 Iran
- 20 Ireland
- 21 Israel
- 22 Italy
- 23 Jordan
- 24 Kuwait
- 25 Malaysia
- 26 Malta
- 27 Mauritania
- 28 Netherlands
- 29 New Zealand
- 30 Nigeria
- 31 Norway
- 32 Pakistan
- 33 Philippines
- 34 Poland
- 35 Qatar
- 36 Romania
- 37 Russia
- 38 Saudi Arabia
- 39 South Africa
- 40 Spain
- 41 Sudan
- 42 Switzerland
- 43 Turkey
- 44 United Arab Emirates
- 45 United Kingdom
- 46 United States
- 47 Yemen
- 48 See also
- 49 References
- 50 External links
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Although ninety-nine percent of Algeria's population is Sunni Muslim, and the Constitution declares that Islam is the state religion, Algeria uses retaliatory legislation rather than Sharia to combat blasphemy against Islam. The penalty for blasphemy can be up to 10 years of imprisonment and a fine.
The states, the territories, and the Commonwealth of Australia are not uniform in their treatment of blasphemy. Blasphemy is an offense in some jurisdictions but is not in others. The last attempted prosecution for blasphemy by the Crown occurred in the State of Victoria in 1919.
- § 188 : Vilification of Religious Teachings
Bangladesh forbids blasphemy by a provision in its penal code that prohibits "hurting religious sentiments", and by other laws and policies that attack freedom of speech. In April 2013, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina rejected calls for new laws from radical Islamist groups, notably Hefajat-e Islam, demanding death penalty for people involved in blasphemy. She described Bangladesh as a "secular democracy, where every religion had a right to be practiced freely and fairly", and that "if anyone was found guilty of hurting the sentiments of the followers of any religion or its venerable figures, there was a law to deal with it".
Art. 208 of the penal code states that "publicly vilipending an act or object of religious worship" is a crime punishable with one month to a year of incarceration, or fine.
Blasphemous libel is a crime in Canada under section 296 of the Criminal Code R.S.C., 1985, c. C-46. Subsection (1) reads:
- "Every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years".
Subsection (3) reads:
- "No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject".
Over the summer of 2016, a petition to parliament asking that the blasphemous libel law be repealed was circulated by several Canadian humanist groups. The petition was scheduled to be presented after October 20, 2016, the deadline for collecting signatures. .
China banned a book titled "Xing Fengsu" ("Sexual Customs"), which had insulted Islam, and placed its authors under arrest in 1989, after protests in Lanzhou and Beijing by Chinese Hui Muslims, during which the Chinese police provided protection to the Hui Muslim protestors, and the Chinese government organized public burnings of the book. The Chinese government assisted them and gave into their demands because Hui do not have a separatist movement, unlike the Uyghurs, Hui Muslim protestors who violently rioted by vandalizing property during the protests against the book were let off by the Chinese government and went unpunished while Uyghur protestors were imprisoned.
In 2007, anticipating the coming "Year of the Pig" in the Chinese calendar, depictions of pigs were banned from CCTV "to avoid conflicts with ethnic minorities". This is believed to refer to China's population of 20 million Muslims (to whom pigs are considered "unclean").
In response to the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting Chinese state-run media attacked Charlie Hebdo for publishing the cartoons insulting Muhammad, with the state-run Xinhua advocated limiting freedom of speech, while another state-run newspaper Global Times said the attack was "payback" for what it characterised as Western colonialism and accusing Charlie Hebdo of trying to incite a clash of civilizations.
In Denmark, Paragraph 140 of the penal code is about blasphemy. In the 2000s, two convictions were made under this law. The related hate speech paragraph (266b) is also used, albeit more frequently. Abolition of the blasphemy clause has been proposed several times by members of the parliament, but has failed to gain majority. Moreover, 66% of Denmark's population supports the blasphemy law, which makes it illegal to "mock legal religions and faiths in Denmark".
In Egypt, insulting Islam and the islamic Prophet can and has resulted in the death penalty.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, which has been deliberating on the issue of blasphemy law, the resolution that blasphemy should not be a criminal offence, adopted on 29 June 2007 in the Recommendation 1805 (2007) on blasphemy, religious insults and hate speech against persons on grounds of their religion. This Recommendation set a number of guidelines for member states of the Council of Europe in view of Articles 10 (freedom of expression) and 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In place of blasphemy or in addition to blasphemy in some European countries is the crime of "religious insult", which is a subset of the crime of blasphemy. It is forbidden in Andorra, Cyprus, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Spain, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russian Federation, Slovakia, Switzerland, Turkey and Ukraine.
On 23 October 2008, the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe's advisory body on constitutional matters, issued a report about blasphemy, religious insult, and incitement to religious hatred. The report noted that, at the time in Europe, blasphemy was an offense only in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, and San Marino. In its conclusions, the report stated "it is neither necessary nor desirable to create an offense of religious insult" and "the offense of blasphemy should be abolished".
In Finland, section 10 of chapter 17 of the Criminal Code relate to blasphemy. The section is titled "Breach of the sanctity of religion", but the law text explicitly mentions "publicly blaspheming against God". Unsuccessful attempts were made to rescind the section in 1914, 1917, 1965, 1970, and 1998.
The writer Hannu Salama was convicted of blasphemy for his 1964 novel Juhannustanssit. In 1969 Harro Koskinen was prosecuted and fined for works including his painting Pig Messiah, a crucified pig; the works were later displayed in museums. Jussi Halla-aho, who later became a Member of the Parliament of Finland, was fined for making connections between pedophilia and Islam in his 2008 blog text.
The definition of “blasphemy” was introduced into French law in the 13th century (after great debate among the French Moralists), based on the definition given by St. Thomas Aquinas: a sin of language, “a failure to declare one's faith”, thus representing an attack on the purity of religion. This justified punishment by law, which became fierce during the reign of Louis IX, who became obsessed in his fight against heretics, Jews and Muslims, with punishment consisting in mutilating the tongue and lips.
Acticles 10 and 11 of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen) eliminated the notion of blasphemy from French law, but continued to prohibit the use of abusive language or disturbance of the peace. Blasphemy once again became illegal during the Bourbon Restauration (1814), to be revoked again in the 1830s. It was definitively removed from French law by the Act of 29 July 1881 which instated freedom of the press. Nonetheless, “the incitement to commit crimes and offences” is still a violation (Art. 23), as is the vindication of crime against humanity, the incitement of hate or violence based on religion, nationality, ethnic group, race, sexual orientation or handicap (Art. 24), and slander or libel against any religious group, nationality, ethnic group, race, sexual orientation or handicap(Art. 32).
The Alsace-Moselle region is a specific exception, having inherited parts of an old German legal code that bans blasphemy against Christianity and Judaism, but not Islam.
In Germany, blasphemy is covered by Article 166 of the Strafgesetzbuch, the German criminal law. If a deed is capable of disturbing the public peace, blasphemy is actionable. The article reads as follows:
- § 166 Defamation of religious denominations, religious societies and World view associations
- (1) Whoever publicly or by dissemination of writings (§ 11 par. 3) defames, in a manner suitable to disturb the public peace, the substance of the religious or world view conviction of others, shall be fined or imprisoned for up to three years.
- (2) Whoever publicly or by dissemination of writings (§ 11 par. 3) defames, in a manner suitable to disturb the public peace, a church established in Germany or other religious society or world view association, or their institutions or customs, shall be punished likewise.
In 2006, the application of this article received much media attention when a Manfred van H. (also known as "Mahavo") was prosecuted for blasphemy for distributing rolls of toilet paper with the words "Koran, the Holy Koran" stamped on them. Beyond the sentence he also received death threats from Islamists and needed a police bodyguard. In February 2016 a man was fined 500 euro for displaying anti-Christian bumper stickers on his vehicle.
Articles 198, 199, and 201 of the Greek Penal Code create offences which involve blasphemy. Article 198 "Malicious Blasphemy" provides:
- 1. One who publicly and maliciously and by any means blasphemes God shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than two years.
- 2. Except for cases under paragraph 1, one who by blasphemy publicly manifests a lack of respect for the divinity shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than three months.
Article 199 "Blasphemy Concerning Religions" states: "One who publicly and maliciously and by any means blasphemes the Greek Orthodox Church or any other religion tolerable in Greece shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than two years".
Article 201 provides: "One who willfully removes a corpse, parts of a corpse or the ashes of the dead from those who have lawful custody thereof or one who commits an offense with respect to a corpse or acts blasphemously and improperly toward a grave, shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than two years".
Greece has not used its laws about blasphemy to protect any religion other than the Greek Orthodox Church, which is the state church of Greece. In December 2003, Greece prosecuted for blasphemy Gerhard Haderer, an Austrian, along with his Greek publisher and four booksellers. Haderer is the author of an illustrated, humorous book entitled The Life of Jesus. The prosecutor contended that the book’s depiction of Jesus as a hippie was blasphemous. On 13 April 2005, the Court of Appeal of Athens, reversed the judgment of the Court of First Instance, and acquitted Haderer.
Greece complements its laws against blasphemy with laws against "religious insult". The laws forbid the creation, display or trade in work that "insults public sentiment" or that "offends people's religious sentiments". The right to redress for a religious insult has so far been restricted to Christians.
The Icelandic blasphemy law was repealed on July 2, 2015, after a strong push by the Icelandic Pirate Party. Formerly, blasphemy was forbidden with a fine or prison sentence up to three months. The constitution also mentions the state religion and religion in general.
Since Hinduism, India's dominant religion, being polytheistic and pantheistic, did not have the concept of blasphemy, such laws are absent in tradition. In practice, however, blasphemy is classified as hate speech and prosecuted. In 1860, British rule codified Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code which punishes as hate speech insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of any class of citizen with deliberate and malicious intention to outrage their religious feelings. These laws are applied to all religions including Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity and Islam.
Article 156(a) of Indonesia's Criminal Code forbids anyone from deliberately, in public, expressing feelings of hostility, hatred, or contempt against religions with the purpose of preventing others from adhering to any religion, and forbids anyone from disgracing a religion. The penalty for violating Article 156(a) is a maximum of five years of imprisonment.
An Islamic theocracy, Iran derives its law against blasphemy from Sharia. The law against blasphemy complements laws against criticizing the Islamic government, insulting Islam, and publishing materials that deviate from Islamic standards.
In Ireland, blasphemy is prohibited by the constitution and carries a maximum fine of €25,000. A controversial law was passed on 9 July 2009 and went into effect on 1 January 2010.
- Insult to religion
- 170. If a person destroys, damages or desecrates a place of worship or any object which is held sacred by a group of persons, with the intention of reviling their religion, or in the knowledge that they are liable to deem that act an insult to their religion, then the one is liable to three years imprisonment.
- Injury to religious sentiment
- 173. If a person does any of the following, then the one is liable to one year imprisonment:
- (1) One publishes a publication that is liable to crudely offend the religious faith or sentiment of others;
- (2) One voices in a public place and in the hearing of another person any word or sound that is liable to crudely offend the religious faith or sentiment of others.
The law is traced back to the British High Commission "The Abuse and Vilification (religious invective) Order No. 43 of 1929", enacted in efforts to suppress the 1929 Palestine riots. The order contained the language: "Any person who utters a word or sound in public or within earshot of any other person that may be or is intended to offend his religious sensitivities or faith can expect to be found guilty and eligible for a one-year jail sentence."
In Italy, under the article 724 of the Penal Code, blasphemy in public is considered as an "administrative offense" and punished with a fine ranging from 51 to 309 €. First introduced in 1930, blasphemy was decriminalized as per art.57, d.lgs. n.507 of December 30, 1999. As per Corte Costituzionale sentence n.440 of October 18, 1995, the law punishes only blasphemy against the "Deity".
Jordan's Penal Code prohibits anyone from blaspheming Islam, demeaning Islam or Muslim feelings, or insulting Prophet Mohammed. Violating the prohibitions makes the violator liable for imprisonment (up to three years) and a fine.
Malaysia prevents insult to religion and to the religious by education, by restrictions upon the broadcasting and publishing media, and by the legal system. Some states in the Malaysian federation operate Sharia courts to protect Islam, and, when Sharia is not applicable, the Malaysian Penal Code provides penalties for offenses against religion.
Instead of a law against blasphemy, Malta had laws against the vilification of religion, and against immorality. Enacted in 1933, Article 163 of Malta's Criminal Code prohibited vilification of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion, which is Malta's religion. Vilification of Malta's religion made the vilifier liable to imprisonment for a term from one to six months. By Article 164, vilification of any cult "tolerated by law" made the vilifier liable to imprisonment for a term from one to three months. Article 338(bb) imposes liability upon anyone who, "even though in a state of intoxication, publicly utters any obscene or indecent words, or makes obscene acts or gestures, or in any other manner not otherwise provided for in this Code, offends against public morality, propriety or decency". Article 342 provides:
- In respect of the contravention under article 338(bb), where the act consists in uttering blasphemous words or expressions, the minimum punishment to be awarded shall in no case be less than a fine (amenda) of eleven euro and sixty-five cents (11.65) and the maximum punishment may be imprisonment for a term of three months . . . .
In 2008, criminal procedures were initiated against 621 people for blaspheming in public.
In July 2016, the parliament of Malta repealed articles 163 and 164 of the criminal code, the country's blasphemy laws. .
The crime of apostasy is defined in section IV (entitled Act of Indecency toward Islam) of the Mauritanian Penal Code, established under the order of July 9, 1983. Article 306, paragraph 1 of the criminal code indicates, "Every Muslim guilty of the crime of apostasy, either by word or by action of apparent or obvious, will be invited to repent within three days." 
The Netherlands prohibited blasphemy by a provision in its penal code from the 1930s up until December 2013. Article 147 punished (by up to three months in jail or a fine of the second category (i.e. up to €3,800)) anyone who publicly, orally or in writing or depiction, offends religious feelings by scornful blasphemy. Furthermore, article 429bis prohibited displaying blasphemous material at places visible from the public road. The law came into being in the 1930s after the Communist Party called for Christmas to be dropped from the list of state holidays. The last successful conviction under Article 147 took place in the early 1960s when a student newspaper was fined 100 guilders for satirizing the New Testament. The law against blasphemy complements laws against racial discrimination and incitement to violence.
In 1966, the Public Prosecution Service prosecuted Gerard Reve under Article 147. In his novel Nader tot U ("Nearer to Thee"), Reve describes the narrator's sexual intercourse with God, who is incarnated in a donkey. The court of first instance convicted Reve. He appealed. In April 1968, an appeal court quashed the conviction.
In November 2008, Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin expressed the country’s coalition government's intent to repeal Article 147. He said the government would strengthen the legislation against discrimination to prohibit any insult to any group of people. In May 2009, the government decided to leave the law as it is. The decision followed a high court ruling in which a man who had put up a poster that read "stop the tumour that is Islam" was found not guilty of insulting a group of people on the grounds of their religion. The decision not to abolish the ban on blasphemy was partly motivated to ensure the support of the orthodox Christian SGP for the minority government in the senate. After a general election in 2012, a new coalition government was formed and a majority of parliament pledged to support a proposal to repeal the blasphemy law.
In November 2012, parliament decided to overturn the blasphemy laws. It would pass with support from the VVD, but the fundamentalist Christian group SGP were strongly opposed to the measure. According to the SGP, the decision to lift the ban on blasphemy is a “painful loss of a moral anchor and a symptom of a spiritual crisis”.
On February 1, 2014, the law on blasphemy was officially abolished.
In New Zealand, Section 123 of the Crimes Act 1961 allows for imprisonment up to one year for anyone who publishes any "blasphemous libel". However, these cases are only prosecuted at the discretion of the concurrent New Zealand Attorney-General, who usually cites overriding free speech objections so as not to pursue such a case. To date the only prosecution for blasphemous libel in New Zealand has been the case of John Glover, publisher of The Maoriland Worker (a newspaper), in 1922. Glover was acquitted.
In 2009, the Norwegian Parliament voted to remove the dormant law against blasphemy (§ 142 in the penal code). It was, however, removed from the penal code of 2005, which has not yet been taken into use in the Norwegian judicial system (due to technical problems). The penal code of 1902, which is still active, still contains a (dormant) law against blasphemy.
The famous writer and social activist Arnulf Øverland was the last to be tried by this law, in 1933, after giving a speech named "Kristendommen – den tiende landeplage" ("Christianity – the tenth plague"), but was acquitted. The last person sentenced for blasphemy in Norway was Arnfred Olsen in 1912, and he had to pay a fine of 10 Norwegian krone.
- §295. Injuring or defiling place of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class.
- §295-A. Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting Its religion or religious beliefs.
- §295-B. Defiling, etc., of Holy Qur'an.
- §295-C. Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet.
- §296. Disturbing religious assembly.
- §297. Trespassing on burial places, etc.
- §298. Uttering words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings.
- §298-A. Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of holy personages.
- §298-B. Misuse of epithets, descriptions and titles, etc., reserved for certain holy personages or places.
- §298-C. Person of Qadiani group, etc., calling himself a Muslim or preaching or propagating his faith:
There is a death penalty for blasphemy in Pakistan. Those prosecuted are usually minorities such as Ahmadiyya and Christians but it seems that they are also increasingly Muslims. Persons accused of blasphemy as well as police, lawyers, and judges have been subject to harassment, threats, attacks, and murders when blasphemy is the issue.
In November 2008, Pakistan's government appointed Shahbaz Bhatti as Federal Minister for Minorities and gave him cabinet rank. Bhatti had promised that the Asif Ali Zardari government would review Pakistan's blasphemy laws. Pakistan has been an active supporter of the campaign by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to create global laws against blasphemy. Minister Bhatti was shot dead on 2 March 2011 in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. On March 19, 2014, Pakistani English-language newspaper, The Nation, conducted a poll of its readers that showed 68% of Pakistanis believe the blasphemy law should be repealed.
"Crimes against religious worship" are stated under section four of the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines. Under article 132 and 133 respectively "interruption of religious worship" and "offending the religious feelings" are punishable by law. "Interruption of religious worship" is defined as "preventing or disturbing the ceremonies or manifestations of any religion" and "offending the religious feelings" is defined as "performing acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful" in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony.
Penalties range from imprisonment of four months and a day to six months; crimes that involve violence or threats can carry a penalty of up to six years in jail.
The Philippines is the only Christian nation that outlaws irreligion.
While Poland's penal code makes no reference to any sort of blasphemy law, it states that "Whoever offends religious feelings of other people by publicly insulting an object of religious cult or a place for public holding of religious ceremonies, is subject to a fine, restriction of liberty or loss of liberty for up to 2 years". The article has been used by pro-Church politicians and activists on numerous occasions, whenever they felt their religious feelings had been offended in some way. Opponents of the article maintain that it seriously limits the freedom of speech and effectively prevents any kind of debate on the Church's widespread influence on social, sexual and political life of Poland.
The penalty for committing blasphemy in Qatar is a jail sentence of up to 7 years. Additionally, the law stipulates a 1-year prison sentence or QR1,000 fine for defamation of Islam by producing or promoting defamatory imagery.
Religious criticism on websites is censored in Qatar. The censorship office of the Qatar General Broadcasting and Television Corporation monitors imported foreign broadcasting for sensitive religious content.
As of 2015, Romania does not have any blasphemy laws in force. According to Romanian law, "cults, religious associations and religious groups [...] must not infringe upon [...] fundamental human rights and liberties", which, according to the Constitution of Romania, include freedom of conscience and freedom of expression.
Currently, Russian lawmakers are considering a bill proposing prison sentences for desecration. The State Duma will investigate "the situation of sacrilegious acts against Church property and propose amendments to the Russian Penal Code" in their 2012 Autumn Session. The Union of Orthodox Citizens and MP of United Russia agreed with the proposal, the latter stating: "We really should make some amendments to the Penal Code in order to cool down these outcasts who have nothing else to do in their lives other than commit such offenses."
Bill was accepted 11 June 2013. Аccording to art.148 of Russian Criminal Code 1 it is declared a federal crime to conduct "public actions, clearly defying the society and committed with express purpose of insulting religious beliefs". Part 2 of the same article places a stricter punishments for the aforementioned actions, when coupled with desecration of holy symbols and (or) religious texts.
Islam is Saudi Arabia's state religion. The country's monarchy follows Sunni Islam. The country's laws are an amalgam of rules from Sharia, royal edicts, and fatawa from the Council of Senior Religious Scholars. Those laws prescribe penalties up to the death penalty for blasphemy.
Blasphemy is a common law offence in South Africa, defined as "unlawfully, intentionally and publicly acting contemptuously towards God." Several legal writers have suggested that the illegality of blasphemy has become unconstitutional as a result of the adoption in 1994 of the Bill of Rights, which includes the right to freedom of expression. It has also been suggested that it is unconstitutional because the criminal prohibition only applies to blasphemy against Christianity, and therefore discriminates on the basis of religion.
Blasphemy prosecutions have been rare since the start of the twentieth century, to the point that writers in the early part of the century suggested that the crime had been abrogated through disuse. However, in 1934 a newspaper editor was convicted of blasphemy for publishing a story in which a nun has a vision of a sexual relationship with Jesus Christ, and the validity of the conviction was affirmed by the Appellate Division. In 1962 Harold Rubin was prosecuted for a painting depicting Christ naked on the cross along with inversions of Biblical sayings, but he was acquitted. In 1968 the editor of Varsity was prosecuted for publishing a report of a symposium on the topic "Is God Dead?", which quoted statements that "We must write God off entirely" and "[God] is beginning to stink". He was convicted, but at sentencing received only a caution and discharge.
The Equality Act of 2000 forbids hate speech, which is defined as "words based on one or more of the prohibited grounds, against any person, that could reasonably be construed to demonstrate a clear intention to: (a) be hurtful; (b) be harmful or to incite harm; (c) promote or propagate hatred." The "prohibited grounds" include religion, and thus some blasphemous speech falls within the scope of hate speech. The prohibition of hate speech is, however, not a criminal prohibition, and only civil penalties would result.
The article 525 of the penal law in Spain considers "vilification" of religious "feelings", "dogmas", "beliefs" or "rituals". This extension to "dogmas" and "beliefs" makes it very close to a blasphemy law in practice, depending on the interpretation of the judge.
Sunni Islam is the state religion of Sudan. Before South Sudan received independence, about seventy percent of the country's population was Muslim. The next largest group—about twenty-five percent of the population—was animist.
Section 125 of the Sudanese Criminal Act prohibits "insulting religion, inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs". The section includes as penalties: imprisonment, a fine, and a maximum of forty lashes. In November 2007, the section gave rise to the Sudanese teddy bear blasphemy case. In December 2007, the section was used against two Egyptian booksellers. They were sentenced to six months in prison because they sold a book that the court deemed an insult to Aisha, one of Prophet Mohammed's wives.
In May 2005, the authorities arrested Mohammed Taha Mohammed Ahmed, and charged him with violating section 125. Ahmed was the editor-in-chief of a daily newspaper Al-Wifaq. The paper had published an article about a 500-year-old Islamic manuscript which says the real name of Mohammed’s father was not Abdallah but Abdel Lat, or Slave of Lat, an idol of the pre-Islamic era. A court fined Al-Wifaq eight million Sudanese pounds—the paper was shut down for three months—but acquitted Ahmed. Ahmed was found decapitated in September 2006.
- public and malicious insult or mockery of religious convictions of others
- malicious desecration objects of religious veneration
- malicious prevention, disruption or public mockery of an act of worship
- malicious desecration of a place or object that is intended for a religious ceremony or an act of worship
Article 216 of the Turkish Penal Code ("Provoking people to be rancorous and hostile") criminalizes blasphemy and religious insult, as well as hate speech. The article, which is in the fifth section of the Turkish Penal Code ("Offenses Against Public Peace") is as follows:
- Article 216. – Provoking people to be rancorous and hostile
- (1) Any person who openly provokes a group of people belonging to different social class, religion, race, sect, or coming from another origin, to be rancorous or hostile against another group, is punished with imprisonment from one year to three years in case of such act causes risk from the aspect of public safety.
- (2) Any person who openly humiliates another person just because he belongs to different social class, religion, race, sect, or comes from another origin, is punished with imprisonment from six months to one year.
- (3) Any person who openly disrespects the religious belief of a group is punished with imprisonment from six months to one year if such act causes potential risk for public peace.
United Arab Emirates
The United Arab Emirates discourage blasphemy by controlling what is published and distributed, by using Sharia punishments against Muslims, and by using judge-made penalties against non-Muslims.
Blasphemy laws in the United Kingdom were specific to blasphemy against Christianity. The last attempted prosecution under these laws was in 2007 when the fundamentalist group Christian Voice sought a private prosecution against the BBC over its broadcasting of the show Jerry Springer: The Opera (which includes a scene depicting Jesus, dressed as a baby, professing to be "a bit gay"). The charges were rejected by the City of Westminster magistrates court. Christian Voice applied to have this ruling overturned by the High Court, but the application was rejected. The court found that the common law blasphemy offences specifically did not apply to stage productions (s. 2(4) of the Theatres Act 1968) and broadcasts (s. 6 of the Broadcasting Act 1990).
The last successful blasphemy prosecution (also a private prosecution) was Whitehouse v. Lemon in 1977, when Denis Lemon, the editor of Gay News, was found guilty. His newspaper had published James Kirkup's poem "The Love that Dares to Speak its Name", which allegedly vilified Christ and his life. Lemon was fined £500 and given a suspended sentence of nine months imprisonment. It had been "touch and go", said the judge, whether he would actually send Lemon to jail. In 2002, a deliberate and well-publicised public repeat reading of the poem took place on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square, but failed to lead to any prosecution.
The last person in Britain to be imprisoned for blasphemy was John William Gott on 9 December 1921. He had three previous convictions for blasphemy when he was prosecuted for publishing two pamphlets which satirised the biblical story of Jesus entering Jerusalem (Matthew 21:2–7), comparing Jesus to a circus clown. He was sentenced to nine months' hard labour.
In 1985, the Law Commission (England and Wales) published a report, Criminal Law: Offences against Religious and Public Worship, that concluded that the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel should be abolished without replacement. On 5 March 2008, an amendment was passed to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 which abolished the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel in England and Wales. (Common law is abolished, not repealed.) The Act received royal assent on 8 May 2008, and the relevant section came into force on 8 July 2008.
The 1989 film Visions of Ecstasy was the only film ever banned in the UK for blasphemy. Following the 2008 repeal of the blasphemy law, the film was eventually classified by the BBFC for release as 18-rated in 2012.
A prosecution for blasphemy in the United States would be a violation of the U.S. Constitution and no blasphemy laws exist at the federal level. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . . ."
Because of the First Amendment's protection of free speech and religious exercise from federal interference, and the Supreme Court's extension of those protections against state regulation, the United States and its constituent state governments may not prosecute blasphemous speech or religious insults and may not allow civil actions on those grounds. In Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that New York could not enforce a censorship law against filmmakers whose films contained "sacrilegious" content. The opinion of the Court, by Justice Clark, stated that:
"From the standpoint of freedom of speech and the press, it is enough to point out that the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them which is sufficient to justify prior restraints upon the expression of those views. It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures."
It should be noted, however, that the United States and some individual state jurisdictions provide for stronger criminal penalties for crimes when committed against a person because of that person's religious affiliation. For instance, Section 3A1.1 of the 2009 United States Sentencing Guidelines states that: "If the finder of fact at trial or, in the case of a plea of guilty or nolo contendere, the court at sentencing determines beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intentionally selected any victim or any property as the object of the offense of conviction because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation of any person," the sentencing court is required to increase the standard sentencing range.
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Accusations of blasphemy in Yemen are often aimed at religious minorities, intellectuals and artists, reporters, human rights defenders, and opponents of the ruling party. Vigilantism or abuse by the authorities can kill an accused or force them into exile. The accused in Yemen is subject to Islamic law (Sharia). Sharia, according to some interpretations, prescribes death as the proper punishment for blasphemy.
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A different argument for the retention of the offence of blasphemy (and for its extension to the protection of all religions in the UK [the offence protected only the majority religion]) has been offered by Parekh: a majority religion does not need the protection offered by an offence of blasphemy, but minority religions do because of their vulnerability in the face of the majority.
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