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'Irish blasphemy laws are a mild inconvenience. In other parts of the world, they're a matter of life or death'

As Vice-President responsible for the European Parliament’s dialogue with churches, religions and non-confessional organisations, I am increasingly being called upon to work on the crucial issue of freedom of religion or belief, writes Mairead McGuinness.

Mairead McGuinness MEP

A FEW WEEKS ago, I had the honour of welcoming a young Sudanese woman, Meriam Ibrahim, to the European Parliament to speak at a conference I hosted to launch an annual report on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Meriam is an extraordinary woman who was sentenced to death and served two years in a Sudanese prison, giving birth to her second child there. Her crime? Marrying a Christian man, considered apostasy against Islam under Sudanese law.

Movingly, Meriam told MEPs that she was a lucky woman as she was freed and able to start a new life in exile in the US. She urged us to concentrate on the countless women still in prison with death sentences hanging over them for similar “crimes”.

Condemned to death for blasphemy

One such woman is Asia Bibi, languishing in a Pakistani jail since 2010, having been condemned to death for blasphemy. Following a dispute with some Muslim women in her village, they accused Asia, a Christian, of insulting the Prophet Mohammed. Appeals from the European Parliament and other bodies have fallen on deaf ears.

In Pakistan politicians who dare to speak out against that country’s blasphemy laws become the subject of fatwas themselves; even to discuss repealing the law has been deemed blasphemy by the religious authorities.

Two such politicians – the Governor of the Punjab, Salmaaan Taseer, and the Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti – were assassinated in 2011. Both men sought to defend Asia Bibi.

In May this year an Indonesian court imposed a two-year prison sentence on Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as Ahok), the outgoing governor of Jakarta under the Islamic country’s draconian blasphemy laws. Ahok’s “crime” was to have cited the Koran during an election speech, as he sought to persuade Indonesians that there was nothing in Islam to prevent them voting for him, a Christian.

As the false accusations provoked violent Muslim demonstrations against him, he was also convicted of “incitement to violence”. Ahok’s sentence is “light” compared to what can be handed down in other countries.

Efforts to defend religious freedom

At another European Parliament conference on freedom of religion or belief, a speaker from the EU’s External Action Service told us of their efforts to defend religious freedom – a core European value enshrined in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. It was an opportunity to review the implementation of the EU’s Guidelines on Freedom of Religion and Belief, adopted by Foreign Affairs Ministers of the 28 member states three years ago.

It is worth citing from the Guidelines the justification for EU action on religious freedom:

As a universal human right, freedom of religion or belief safeguards respect for diversity. Its free exercise directly contributes to democracy, development, rule of law, peace and stability.

All of these values listed are essential elements to our modern European societies. It is only natural that we should seek to promote them in other parts of the world.

The problem is when Europeans criticise the abusive blasphemy or apostasy laws in countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, Sudan or a host of others, the local authorities frequently accuse us of hypocrisy. A very real difficulty referred to by diplomats, NGOs and human rights advocates at our conference, is that too many Western countries have their own blasphemy laws.

A study published in March this year by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found that 20 participating states of this club of developed countries “can be considered to have criminal blasphemy laws or religious insult laws on the statute books”. The 20 include 12 EU member states, among which are Ireland, but also countries such as Denmark and Finland.

Irish blasphemy law

The recent Stephen Fry case in Ireland drew public attention to the Irish blasphemy law, introduced as recently as 2009 as a result of an earlier Supreme Court ruling. The underlying difficulty is the wording in Bunreacht na h-Éireann which provides that:

The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.

As long as this wording remains in our Constitution, the Oireachtas will need to keep a law on the Irish statute books to give legal effect and clarity to what is constituted by blasphemy. This in turn runs the risk of vexatious cases being brought which ultimately limit freedom of speech and expression by their very shadow.

The obvious answer is to hold a referendum to amend the Constitution, which in turn will allow the law to be repealed. All of the main political parties, and all of the main churches in Ireland are in favour of such a change. Such a constitutional amendment is long overdue and would improve that part of the Constitution which in fact addresses citizen’s freedom of expression and conviction.

Religion remains an important facet of Irish life and central to the identity of very many Irish people. Their freedom to openly practice their faith must always be legally protected and should be respected. However, there are adequate ways to do this under other laws, such as those against incitement to violence or hatred, anti-discrimination provisions, property laws etc.

But beyond Ireland, where no citizen has actually been prosecuted since the introduction of the 2009 law, removing blasphemy from our statute books would increase our moral authority to push for such laws to be repealed worldwide. As Vice-President responsible for the European Parliament’s dialogue with churches, religions and non-confessional organisations, I am increasingly being called upon to work on the crucial issue of freedom of religion or belief.

Blasphemy laws in Ireland or other EU countries may be a mild inconvenience from time to time. In other parts of the world, they can be a matter of life or death. Ireland should set an example by undertaking this necessary reform and then we should urge our EU partners to follow suit. This is a good opportunity for Ireland to show leadership on a fundamental human rights issue.

Mairead McGuinness MEP is First Vice-President of the European Parliament with responsibility for the European Parliament’s dialogue with churches, religions and non-confessional organisations.

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About the author:

Mairead McGuinness  / MEP

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