Icelandic Pirate Party abolishes blasphemy law

Iceland has decriminalised blasphemy after a campaign led by the country's unconventional Pirate Party following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January.

The bill, which was proposed in February, was voted through with an overwhelming majority yesterday. Just a single MP voted against it, with three others abstaining out of a total of 63 members in the Althing, the Icelandic parliament.

Seven European countries, including Germany and Greece, still have blasphemy laws or government policies which allow people to be prosecuted for offences against religion.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir, leader of the Pirate Party which as of May is the biggest political party in Iceland, called for the European Union to take up the issue.

"It would be an excellent subject for the European Parliament to discuss. Everybody was saying after Charlie Hebdo, 'I am Charlie Hebdo', which means 'I support freedom of expression'," she told Newsweek. "All these laws in Europe are laws to protect the Christian church in various forms."

Iceland's blasphemy law was instituted in 1940 and carried a three-month sentence for people who publicly derided or belittled the beliefs or practices of a lawful religion in the country.

When it was proposed in February, the bill was opposed by the Catholic Church in Iceland and other Christian groups. The Catholic Church said that the "unlimited and unrestricted freedom of expression" proposed by the law could result in "psychological abuse of individuals or groups".

One parish of the national church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland went further, saying that "Jyllandsposten and Charlie Hebdo should have thought twice before publishing material insulting Islam", referring to the Danish newspaper which stirred controversy by publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005.

The central Bishop's Office of the Church of Iceland, however, backed the bill to repeal the blasphemy law.

Almost three-quarters of Iceland's population are Lutheran Christians, with the remainder largely made up of smaller Christian denominations.

In 2009, an advisory body to the Council of Europe resolved that blasphemy constituted part of a person's freedom of expression and should not be illegal, while saying that inciting religious hatred should remain a criminal offence.

However, many European countries still criminalise blasphemy or offences against religion to a certain extent, although the laws are rarely invoked.

In Ireland, the publication or utterance of "blasphemous matter" can result in a maximum €25,000 fine. In January, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny cancelled a planned referendum on removing the offence of blasphemy from the Irish constitution, citing the fact that two other referendums are being held this year which he did not want to detract focus from.

In Greece, anyone who blasphemes against the Greek Orthodox church or any other religion, can face up to two years incarceration. Last year, a Greek man was sentenced to 10 months in prison after he created a Facebook page mocking a dead Orthodox monk. The prosecution campaign was led by Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party.

In March, Denmark announced during a session of the UN Human Rights Council that it was keeping its anti-blasphemy laws after conducting a review. The maximum penalty for blasphemy in Denmark is four months in prison accompanied by a fine.

In a 2012 report, the Pew Research Center found that 32 countries had laws penalising blasphemy. The researchers found that blasphemy laws are least common in sub-Saharan Africa, with only three out of 48 countries recognising it as a criminal offence.

Update - This article was updated to correct Ms Jónsdóttir's quote.