Friday, June 29, 2007

Blasphemy in Europe

From a geographical viewpoint, Europe is a vaguely-defined entity, but the political body called the European Union is perfectly clear. It is composed at present of 27 member nations whose union is concretized by various institutions: above all, the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, and the European Parliament.

Many people are confused by the fact that another organization, called the Council of Europe, has nothing to do with any of the above-mentioned entities. The CE [Council of Europe], whose seat is in Strasbourg (France), is much older than the EU [European Union], since it was founded in 1949 by the Treaty of London. Today, the CE has far more members (47, including Turkey, Russia and many former Communist states) than the EU.

An important institution of the CE is its Parliamentary Assembly, referred to as the PACE. Today, the summer session of the PACE made two interesting recommendations concerning religion, which I summarize roughly as follows:

When they conflict, human rights must ultimately take precedence over religious principles. States should welcome and respect religions, in all their plurality, as a form of ethical, moral, ideological and spiritual expression by citizens, and should protect individuals’ freedom to worship. But there should also be a clear separation of church and state.

— Religious groups must tolerate criticism and debate about their activities, provided it does not amount to gratuitous insult. On the other hand, hate speech—inciting discrimination or violence against people of a particular religion—should be penalized. Meanwhile, blasphemy laws—which often result from the dominant position of one particular religion—should be reviewed. In particular, blasphemy should not be considered as a penal infraction.

The explicit use of the term "blasphemy" in the second recommendation is particularly interesting. This recommendation has probably been inspired by recent conflicts concerning allegedly blasphemous references to the prophet Muhammad in political cartoons.

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