Aust cases 1
Aust cases 2
This page considers blasphemy regimes in Europe.
It covers -
French legislation on blasphemy was expunged during the Revolution,
reinstated under the Restoration and again removed during
the late 1830s. There is no current law explicitly forbidding
blasphemy, with activists instead relying on enactments regarding
incitement of public unrest or offenses against morals.
Article 283 of the Penal Law for example prohibits exhibition
of a film contraires aux bonnes moeurs (ie contrary to good
morals). In 1988 several groups accordingly sought a ban on
Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ.
In rejecting that application the court noted that the right
to respect for beliefs should not interfere in an unjustified
manner with artistic creativity. The decision was upheld by
the Court of Appeal, which however ordered that all advertisements
for Scorsese's film should indicate that it was based on a
novel rather than the Gospel.
In 2005 the General Alliance against Racism & for the
Respect of French & Christian Identity was unsuccessful
in legal action against Liberation over a cartoon
of a naked Jesus wearing nothing but a condom. The Alliance
argued that newspaper had offended all Christians and "injured
their right to practice their religion". The court characterised
the portrayal as "crude" but said it did not contravene
In March 2007 a Paris court ruled that Philippe Val, editor-in-chief
of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, was innocent
of the charge of making "public insults against a group
of people because they belong to a religion" in relation
to a drawing that represented Muhammad wearing a turban with
a bomb. The court commented that "the drawing, taken
on its own, could be interpreted as shocking for followers
of this religion [Islam]" but had to be seen in the wider
context of the magazine examining the issue of religious fundamentalism.
Therefore, even if the cartoon was "shocking or hurtful
to Muslims, there was no deliberate intention to offend them".
Germany and Austria
Prior to 1933 Germany featured prosecutions of 'disturbers
of the peace' such as artist Georg Grosz (1893-1959) under
the 1871 national criminal code, which identified blasphemy
as crime with three year prison sentence. Artist Franz Herzfeld
(1862-1908), father of Wieland Herzfeld and John Heartfield,
was sentenced in 1895 to 12 months in prison.
The same moral panic during
that year saw playwright Oscar Panizza (1853-1921) imprisoned
in Bavaria for a year over his play Das Liebeskonzil.
Sadly, the European Court of Human Rights in 1993 upheld an
an Austrian court decision of 1986 banning a film based on
The current German federal regime emphasises protection of
public order, with some latitude in interpretation by lower
courts, and protection for artistic expression.
Updating of the federal penal code in 1969 saw deletion of
references to protection of God and His institutions, with
the offence of blasphemy being replaced by a broader offence
of disturbing the peace through ridicule of faiths (Bekenntnisse)
and ideological groups (Weltanschauungsvereinigungen). In
practice those faiths appear to be equivalent to Christian
denominations recognised under Germany's church tax scheme
and do not encompass Islam, Scientology or Hinduism.
Item 166 of the code concerns the ridicule of faiths, religious
societies and ideological groups -
Whoever publicly or by means of spreading written material
insults religious or world view in a manner that could reasonably
be deemed able to disturb the public peace, is to be punished
by up to three years in prison or a fine.
2) Whoever publicly or by means of spreading written material
ridicules a domestic church, religious society or ideological
group, its facilities or customs in a manner deemed able
to disturb the public peace, is to be punished similarly.
"manner and content" of that insult must be such
that an objective onlooker could reasonably assume that the
ridicule would disturb the peace of those who share the insulted
belief, with the offender intending (or being aware) that
the ridicule constituted an offence.
In practice prosecution has tended to involve stress and expense
for defendants but has not resulted in significant convictions.
In 1981 the Cologne Penal Court of Appeal in a case initiated
by Cardinal Meissner held that an abortion-rights caricature
"did not in all circumstances show hostility against
Christians" although parodying Mary and Joseph. Four
years later the Karlsruhe Court of Appeal ruled that a sarcastic
article which regarding the Last Supper was not an insult.
The Berlin Tageszeitung was acquitted in 1987 after
prosecution by the Roman Catholic bishop of Berlin for a satirical
article. A 1988 case in Bochum featured the broader ruling
that a leaflet, although insulting about the Vatican, was
unlikely to disturb the peace. More recent cases have involved
unsuccessful prosecution of parodies of Pope John Paul II.
In 2006 former prisoner 'Manfred van H' received a suspended
sentence of a year in prison and 300 hours of community service
after printing 'Koran, der Heilige Qur'än' on toilet
paper and distributing it to the media and mosques.
Prosecution has been more active in Austria, arguably reflecting
that nation's conservative courts (evident in defamation cases).
Articles 188 and 189 of the criminal code are similar to the
German penal code in prohibiting insult that will undermine
public order. The legislation does not appear to have been
applied to what one jurist characterised as "minority
faiths". Recent litigation includes the 1986 decision
by a court to ban production of a film based on Panizza's
the Netherlands and Belgium
Article 147 of the Netherlands Penal Code - reportedly introduced
in 1932 to curb a communist newspaper that advocated banning
Christmas - identifies "scornful" blasphemy as a
criminal offence. The offence is restricted to expression
regarding the Christian deity and does not extend to Christian
saints and other revered religious figures or non-Christian
There is an expectation that the person making the expression
must have had a "scornful" (smalend) intention:
although it might be objectively foreseeable that people would
be aggrieved there is no offence if the expression was without
That intent requirement was confirmed in the last major blasphemy
case in the Netherlands, regarding Nader tot U [Nearer
to Thee], a novel in which Gerard van het Reve (1924-2006)
depicted God as a donkey and then further outraged the faithful
by discussing intercourse with the beast. Reve was acquitted
in 1968 after the prosecution failed to prove that his intent
was to be scornful.
The Foundation for Dutch Roman Catholics reportedly initiated
but did not proceed with legal action against the Dutch Animal
Rights Organisation in 2002 over a "Merry Christmas -
don't be wild about it!" poster that featured the Virgin
Mary holding a bleeding rabbit, reflecting the appearance
of baked rabbit on Dutch menus as a Christmas Dinner treat.
Duthch film maker and aging enfant terrible Theo van Gogh
was murdered in 2004 after a succession of anti-Islamic statements
in works such as his 2003 book Allah weet het beter
(Allah Knows Best) and 2004 short film Submission,
the latter featuring images of
Qur'anic verses unfavourable to women projected onto the semi-naked
bodies of actresses. He had attracted attention both for religious
vilification (eg characterising adherents of Islam as geiteneuker)
and for allegedly blasphemous treatment of Muhammad, Allah
and the Qur'an.
Fred Halliday commented in 2008 that
decent society, whatever its supposed discursive exceptionalism,
should have prohibited [van Gogh's vilification] and, were
it made, to punish the perpetrator. Theo van Gogh should
not have been murdered. He should, however, have been arrested
and compelled to issue an apology. Had this occurred, Dutch
society would have demonstrated its ability, cultural traumas
or not, to meet its moral obligations towards immigrants.
And, probably, Theo van Gogh would still be alive today.
does not criminalise blasphemy as such. Article 144 of the
Penal Code identifies a restricted offence of religious insult,
involving those who offend the objects of religion in places
of religious worship or at public religious celebrations.
That protection is inapplicable to offences outside the context
of a religious celebration or a place of worship.
However, other parts of the Code have been applied to works
defaming religion or that offend public morals (eg articles
383-386). The Court of Appeal of Ghent ruled in 1988 that
artists had violated Article 383 by displaying 14 large Stations
of the Cross - including the usual gimmick of a tumescent
Christ - in the heart of Ghent.
The Court noted that public display in the historic centre
meant that a large public would inevitably encounter the paintings
without consent. If viewing was consensual the offense to
morals would be less serious and courts of appeal in Mons
and Brussels during the 1990s accordingly refused to ban particular
works. The Mons Court of Appeal noted that although a majority
of individuals may find certain images offensive other adults
should be permitted to view them if they have expressed their
willingness to do so.
Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland
Prohibition of blasphemy under Section 140 of the Danish
Penal Code has not been used since 1938.
The code also features an offence of expressions that threaten,
deride or degrade on the grounds of race, colour, national
or ethnic origin, belief or sexual orientation. However, that
provision does not appear to have been used against statements
offensive to religion, with works by artist Jens Jørgen
Thorsen (including the inevitable tumescent Jesus) recently
gaining attention but no time in the joint.
The Danish government commented in 2006 that satirical depictions
of the Prophet Muhammad in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper
were protected as free speech; civil action by critics of
the depictions was unsuccessful.
Section 142 of the Norwegian Penal Code provides
for punishment for any person who
insults or in an offensive manner shows contempt for any
religious creed ...or for the doctrines or worship of any
religious community lawfully existing here.
provision has not been applied by the courts since the acquittal
of poet Arnulf Øverland (1889-1968) in 1936 after a
lecture titled 'Christianity - the tenth plague'. Islamic
community leaders initiated a suit against the publisher of
The Satanic Verses but did not proceed, supposedly
in recognition that success was unlikely.
In Sweden a general crime of blasphemy was
abolished in 1949, with abolition of a narrower offence of
religious insult in 1970. It had been used in prosecution
of a range of offenders, for example fin-de-siecle socialist
Hjalmar Branting (1860-1925), imprisoned in 1888. Branting
was instrumental in establishment of the Social Democratic
Party during the following year, was its first Member of Parliament
from 1896, Prime Minister from 1920 and recipient of the Nobel
Peace Prize in 1921.
Finland retains a general offense of blasphemy
under chapter 17 of its penal code. The last major prosecutions
were in 1966 - with conviction of Hannu Salama for his 1964
novel Juhannustanssit - and 1969 over the 'Pig Messiah'
painting by artist Harro Koskinen.
The novel, which went through several printings during the
course of litigation in the Helsinki Municipal Court and the
Court of Appeals, was suppressed - a copy was supposedly publicly
burnt - before being rereleased in a censored version in 1966.
Salama was briefly imprisoned but pardoned by President Kekkonen
in 1968; the director of the publishing company was fined
and both were ordered to "surrender all economic benefit
derived from the crime". The novel was republished in
its original form in 1990, having been translated into Swedish,
Norwegian, German, Danish and Polish.
Provisions against blasphemy were updated in 1999 and have
been periodically used since that time to supplement other
law. In 2005, for example, the Tampere District Court fined
a man under telecommunications and blasphemy law for recurrently
'bombing' a religious chat
room with messages, including some of a blasphemous character
(eg associating religious practices in a pejorative manner
with sexual activities). The offender was additionally ordered
to compensate the chatroom operator and had his computer confiscated.
Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece
In Spain the crime of blasphemy (reinstated
in the 1930s after overthrow of the Republic) was abolished
as part of post-Franco reforms in 1988. Portugal's legislation
was changed in the 1990s.
Spain's Constitutional Court has however ruled that freedom
of expression under Article 20 of the Constitution is circumscribed
by restrictions for the protection of the "rights of
others" - interpreted as an identified individual directly
affected by an offensive expression - or other constitutionally
protected interests. Commentators have suggested that obscenity
or another broad offence to morals, particularly expression
sighted by minors on a non-restricted basis (eg on public
view rather than to consumers choosing to visit a gallery
or a cinema) would provide a mechanism for restricting blasphemous
As with Portugal there appears to be no major no case law
regarding offenses against the Roman Catholic church, other
Christian communities or other religious faiths.
Articles 402 through 406 of the Italian criminal
code, reflecting the 1920s concordat with the Vatican, prohibit
"offence to religion", including offence to religion
during a satirical or other performance, even where the offending
performance was objectively aimed at arousing laughter or
amusement. A recent prosecution involved the 2000 film Totò
che visse due volte.
There is uncertainty whether Italian laws against insult to
religion - and the application of the legislation - relate
only to Roman Catholicism. Prosecutions over the past thirty
years - and administrative action such as hacking by Italian
police of an anti-Vatican site in 2005 - appear to have been
bundled with restrictions on obscenity as offences against
public morals. Article 724 of the criminal code covers the
minor offence of "words insulting to religion" (bestemmia).
Greece's blasphemy regime allows prosecution
for creation, display or trade in work that "insults
public sentiment" or "offends people's religious
sentiments", with offence being restricted to Christian
Recent instances have included the prosecution of leading
curator Christos Ioakimidis, highlighted on the preceding
page of this profile, and conviction in absentia of Austrian
author Gerhard Haderer for depicting Christ as a hippy in
his comic book The Life of Jesus. Haderer was given
a six months suspended sentence in 2005.
A less dire fate was met by Martin Kippenberger
(1953-1997) regarding his 1990 sculpture of a bright green
frog on a crucifix, initially titled Was ist der Unterschied
zwischen Casanova und Jesus: Der Gesichtsausdruck beim Nageln
(What is the difference between Casanova and Jesus: the
facial expression when being nailed), and Maurizio Cattelan
who depicted a crucified woman with her back turned to the
(US and Canada)