A year ago I issued a call on the Irish Government to hold a referendum with a view to amending the constitution, so as to allow Ireland to repeal our blasphemy law. I was not the first to call for such constitutional change; indeed the cause has long had the support of the main churches, religious and humanist groups in Ireland.
The Irish people will have the opportunity to decide the matter 0n 26 October. In taking the serious step of changing our constitution, it is important that citizens give the matter due consideration and seek to act in the national interest, the common good.
The tenets of any particular religion or belief system do not need to be defended by the State. The role of the State is rather to guarantee the freedom of religious practice for every individual and group, in line with our international obligations at EU and UN level. Irish laws adequately protect this fundamental freedom without any recourse to the concept of blasphemy, which is essentially a theological notion.
So for me, the stronger arguments for changing the blasphemy provisions relate to the international sphere. As Vice President of the European Parliament responsible for conducting the institution’s dialogue with churches, religious and non-confessional organisations, I have met with religious leaders from around the EU and the world. The problem of blasphemy laws is sometimes raised in these discussions.
The EU has a Common Foreign and Security Policy, a High Representative to conduct this policy on behalf of the EU Member States, and an External Action Service to underpin the work, including through a network of about 140 EU Delegations around the world. I recently had the opportunity to address these EU Ambassadors, gathered in Brussels for their annual meetings with HQ, and used the occasion to exchange with them on the EU’s role in freedom of religion or belief.
EU diplomats are mandated to promote the same fundamental human rights that our citizens enjoy in our own Member States, whether we are negotiating with them on trade, development assistance, or they are seeking EU membership. The EU engages in a regular series of Human Rights Dialogues with these so-called “third countries”. In order to be credible in this dialogue, the EU must demonstrate to our partners that the human rights we seek to promote abroad are fully protected at home. We must deal with countries where people are persecuted for their religious beliefs or their lack of them. In the worst cases, this persecution can mean beatings, prison and even death sentences.
When states persecute their own citizens in this way, the legal basis for doing so is frequently a law criminalising blasphemy. While many of these countries are Muslim majority and have Sharia Law, it would be wrong to reduce the issue to one of “extreme Islamists” as referred to by Colum Kenny. Indeed, such an approach risks “conflating all Muslims in a prejudiced stereotype”, to use his phrase.
Only this week in the European Parliament, MEP colleagues from our Human Rights Committee heard testimony from a representative of the Indian Christian community about the increasing persecution of religious minorities in that country. Many Indian states have passed laws on “hurting the religious sentiment of the people”. These laws are not applied to Hindus but only those who are deemed to have blasphemed Hinduism, essentially targeting Muslims, Christians and atheists.
The Indian pastor asked the EU to intervene as he says the Indian Government does care about its international reputation. The EU has the tools for defending religious freedom around the world; but we must be consistent with our domestic legal frameworks. The EU has adopted a series of policy instruments including EU Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB). The European Parliament has consistently called upon foreign governments to decriminalise blasphemy and vigorously works against the use of the death penalty, physical punishment or imprisonment as penalties for blasphemy.
The EU also cooperates with other democracies to promote FoRB in international fora such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and various UN bodies and agencies, as well as when working with groupings such as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
I have worked with the OIC and met with their Ambassador to the EU to discuss some of these issues. While Colm Kenny correctly states that the OIC has called for states to foster “a domestic environment of religious tolerance, peace and respect” and to “criminalise incitement to violence based on religion or belief”, the EU has resisted moves by the OIC to have the UN adopt resolutions calling for criminalisation of blasphemy.
A clear distinction needs to be drawn between inciting violence against religious minorities which cannot be tolerated, and showing disrespect for a set of religious beliefs. There is certainly a worrying trend within some OIC states to move away from a concept of religious freedom of individuals, towards a concept of “defaming religion”. Blasphemy laws bolster this dangerous approach; and when liberal democracies have such laws on our books they weaken our case for promoting a human-rights-based approach to religion or belief.
Time and again, I have been told by those who work in the EU human rights field, that their work is somewhat undermined by the existence of blasphemy laws on the books of EU Member States, albeit effectively dormant as in the case of Ireland. The OSCE last year reported that 12 EU members “can be considered to have criminal blasphemy laws or religious insult laws on the statute books”. One of those countries, Denmark, removed its blasphemy law last year. Now it is the turn of Ireland to take such a step; and then advocate that the remaining EU Member States follow suit.
An EU without a single blasphemy law on the books would be in a much stronger moral position to advocate religious freedom worldwide. In two separate hearings that I hosted in the European Parliament over the past year, we were presented with worrying evidence of growing restrictions being placed on FoRB in many countries. Cases of discrimination, harassment and even persecution were detailed both by religious groups and humanist organisations.
The head of the International Humanist and Ethical Union presented me with their annual Freedom of Thought report which documents some very disturbing cases of state violence against people who had renounced their faith or identified as atheist, frequently prosecuted under “anti-blasphemy” laws. The annual report of Aid to the Church in Need reported on atrocities committed against Christians and other minorities on the basis of the climate of hate generated in societies where such laws operate.
The EU Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Jan Figel – a post created two years ago at the urging of the European Parliament – informed us that 79% of the world’s population live in countries which restrict religious freedom, or where there is a high level of social hostility towards religious minorities or non-believers. According to the Pew Research Center in Washington, the country which measured the highest level of social hostility to religious minorities in 2016, stoked on by Hindu nationalism, was India.
At the same time, in my contacts with authorities and religious leaders from third countries, I seek to reassure them that the separation of religion and state in the European tradition does not mean that states disrespect religion. They are often surprised to learn that the EU has its own official dialogue with churches and religions, founded in the Treaties. Indeed, the treaty wording makes it clear that the EU recognises the specific identity of these groups and values their contribution to society.
Religion still plays a significant role in the lives many Irish people and this is a fact that should lead public authorities to treat religious practice with respect. Earlier this month I invited the Pew Research Center to the European Parliament to present the findings of their survey of almost 25,000 adults in Western Europe. Pew found that although the region has become one of the world’s most secular, most persons surveyed still consider themselves Christian. For Ireland, the figure was 80%, with 34% of the total identifying themselves as church-attending.
So, the referendum on 26 October is not about removing part of our identity. Eight in ten Irish people surveyed are comfortable to identify themselves as Christians. Irish people of all faiths and none have some of the strongest legal protections in the world for their freedom of faith, belief and conscience. Our laws will still protect believers against discrimination or incitement to violence or hatred. Our constitution will still recognise the natural rights of parents to decide on the moral and spiritual upbringing of their children, will still guarantee the rights of religious denominations to run their own communities, schools, places of worship and manage their own private property.
What will change if Irish people decide to remove the blasphemy clause is Ireland’s standing abroad. Our constitution and laws will then reflect the strong commitment of Irish people to human rights, and our deeply-held belief in the dignity of each person to choose their religion or belief. This alignment of our laws with our values will allow Ireland to give leadership in the EU and beyond on the ever-more-important issue of defending Freedom of Religion or Belief worldwide.