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Europe's Blasphemy Laws

DW staff / AFP (win)February 7, 2006

Some Muslim leaders have urged Europe to use blasphemy laws against newspapers that publish cartoons containing representations of the Prophet Mohammed. Here's a look at the differing laws in European countries.

Art involving crucifixes has been prosecuted in some European countriesImage: Bilderbox

In Bangladesh, Minister for Industry Matiur Rahman Nizami was quoted in the press as telling the European Union that if Christianity and Jesus Christ were protected by blasphemy laws, then there was no justification for those laws not being used to protect the rights of Muslims.

In Lebanon. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the radical Hezbollah movement, on Friday called on European parliaments to pass laws "prohibiting the media from attacking God and the prophets."

Here's a brief overview of laws on blasphemy and incitation to religious hatred in European countries:

Denmark, where the Mohammed cartoons were first published, has a law providing for fines and up to four months in jail for anyone who "publicly offends or insults a religion that is recognized in the country."

However a court case brought against the paper that printed the Danish cartoons by 11 Muslim groups last October was thrown out, with the judges considering that the issue of freedom of expression was more important than the ban on blasphemy.

Norway has a public order law dating from the 1930s which in principle outlaws blasphemy on pain of up to six months in jail. But it is never used.

Salman Rushdie in Köln
Salman RushdieImage: AP

In Britain there is an old, little-used law against blasphemy, and a new law that outlaws incitation to religious hatred. However the former explicitly applies only to the Anglican Church, as Muslim leaders discovered when they tried to use it against the writer Salman Rushdie for his novel "The Satanic Verses", published in 2000. The terms of reference of the new law on religious hatred have been kept deliberately narrow, to take in only acts or words explicitly aimed at sparking violence.

Germany has an anti-blasphemy law dating from 1871, but it has been little used in recent decades. It was however successfully used in 1994 to ban a musical comedy that ridiculed the Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception by portraying crucified pigs.

France outlawed blasphemy at the time of its revolution in the late 18th century; the law has never been reinstated.

Neither Spain nor Portugal have anti-blasphemy laws, although both have little-used legislation on religious hatred.

Italy has a law against "outrage to a religion," which has recently been used against the journalist Oriana Fallaci over her outspoken statements and writings on Islam. That case, which adds a charge of "incitation to inter-religious hatred," is still pending.

The Netherlands has a law proscribing what is called "scornful blasphemy," and providing for up three months in jail and a fine of 70 euros ($85) The last major case brought under the law was in 1968 against a writer who wrote a poem about having sex with God. The case was eventually thrown out of court.

Eine Illustration aus dem Cartoon-Band Das Leben des Jesus
Austrian cartoonist Gerhard Haderer's depictions of Jesus have been criticizedImage: AP

Austrian law prohibits the ridiculing of a religion, on pain of up to six months in jail. But no attempt was made to use it last year when a book of cartoons was published depicting the Christian prophet Jesus as a marijuana-smoking hippie.

Poland, an overwhelmingly Catholic country, has a legal provision against publicly offending a person's religious feelings, with up to two years in prison. Artist Dorota Nieznalska, is currently being sued under the law for a sculpture in which male genitals were shown attached to a Christian crucifix.