Germany

Politician's Blasphemy Plan Gets Cool Reception

Bavaria's conservative premier Stoiber recently proposed tightening Germany's blasphemy laws. But the country's churches and Muslim community remain skeptical.

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MTV cartoon series "Popetown" incurred the wrath of Catholics in Germany recently

In an interview with the mass-selling Bild daily, Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber said last week he planned to bring up the topic of blasphemy during a planned integration summit with Chancellor Angela Merkel in July.

"Not everything that's holy should be allowed to be trampled on," Stoiber said.

Germany's anti-blasphemy law dating back to 1871 considers blasphemy to be an offence only if it "disrupts public peace."

That's not good enough, says Stoiber, who is premier of the staunchly-catholic state of Bavaria and also head of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU).

Calling the provision "completely dead and non-effective," Stoiber is demanding that all forms of blasphemy -- regardless of religion -- be made a criminal offense. The CSU head is calling for tougher consequences for those who deliberately insult the religious feelings of other people, including a three-year prison sentence in severe cases.

Stoiber geht nach Berlin

Stoiber has revived a touchy debate in Germany

Stoiber pointed to the widespread protests against the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in a European newspaper earlier this year as a dire example of what religious insults could lead to.

His proposal also comes on the back of a Munich court's decision in April to override protests by the city's Roman Catholic archdiocese and allow MTV's German division to air a cartoon series depicting the pope as an infantile, pogo- stick-loving maniac.

The Bavarian premier claims he has the backing of Germany's churches for his latest proposal.

Religious institutions give cool reception

Though the German Catholic Bishops' conference declined to comment on Stoiber's idea, the Lutheran Church has reacted coolly.

Germany's Lutheran Church said it's doubtful whether changing the country's penal code is the right thing to do.

"The question is whether meting out punishment really leads to a change of heart," said Petra Bahr, the commissioner for culture at Germany's Lutheran Church. "We believe that respect for religious symbols can be better achieved through religious instruction."

Bahr added that the state wasn't in a position to "decide what's blasphemous and what isn't."

Verbrennung der dänischen Flagge

The Mohammed caricatures sparked angry protest in the Muslim world

Referring to the Muslim protests against the Mohammed caricatures, Bahr said: "It's true that we still have a lot to learn about what is sacred for Muslims in the same way as they need to learn about what's sacred for Christians."

Political motives?

But Germany's 7.5-million strong Muslim community isn't enamored with Stoiber's suggestion, either.

Despite voices earlier this year angrily demanding stronger provisions on blasphemy within Europe, some believe that Stoiber -- who vehemently argued in favor of press freedom at the time -- is merely motivated by political compulsions.

"When I, as a Muslim, see how Stoiber reacted to the Mohammed cartoons and see how he's now changed his mind and is calling for the law to be tightened, it rings very hollow with me," said Burhan Kesici, vice president of the conservative Islamic Federation in Berlin. "We think this is just a political move, calculated to keep certain circles in Bavaria happy and so we're not supporting it."

Similar to "religious police"

Apart from the emotionally-laden aspect of the debate, others point out that Stoiber's suggestion wouldn't work at a practical and legal level either.

"If we were to change the definition of the blasphemy offense in the way proposed and remove the requirement that it disturb the peace, then we'd have a scenario where even some coarse pub talk could become a criminal offense," said Bernd Heinrich, an expert on criminal law at Berlin's Humboldt University.

Eine Illustration aus dem Cartoon-Band Das Leben des Jesus

An illustration of Jesus by the Austrian cartoonist and satirist Gerhard Haderer

German daily Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung wrote that if the state did follow Stoiber's proposal, then prosecutors would have their hands full.

"Countless films, videos and song scripts could be taken to court and the investigations would resemble what we in describe elsewhere as the religious police," the paper said.

Anti-constitutional

Experts also point out that most cases of blasphemy in Germany are largely played out in public debate and critical discussions rather than ending up in courts.

"If the penal code were to state that critical reporting on religion is banned then that would clearly be anti-constitutional," Heinrich added.

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