Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Submission from the Maranatha Community

  We state clearly that the Maranatha Community condemns any form of verbal or physical violence, be it religiously or not religiously motivated. We maintain that the command love your neighbour, whatever his or her religious belief, is the fundamental principle of our community and the work in which we are involved in.

  We confirm that the current religious offences (notably blasphemy laws) should be maintained. In our submission, we would like to focus on the proposed new offence of "incitement to religious hatred", which we oppose strongly for the following reasons:

  1.  We anticipate the following problems with a new offence of incitement to religious hatred. This offence is difficult or impossible to define and could therefore lead to abuse, subsequently curtailing the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

    —  The definition of "religion" or "religious" is problematic. Even the representative of the Home Office's Race Equality Unit states in his verbal evidence to the Select Committee that the Home Office does not have a definition of "religious".

    —  If the definition of "religion" or "religious" is unclear, an offence incitement to religious hatred is extremely problematic, since this offence cannot be defined sufficiently clearly to allow for an intended appropriate use but also to prevent inappropriate use, ie potential abuse of this offence.

    —  We recognise that there is a balance to be struck between the fundamental human rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

    —  We are concerned, that this proposed offence might paradoxically curtail both freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

    —  We are concerned that the definition of incitement to hatred may be a very subjective one, for example a member of one religious community may claim that a statement, even regarding one of the basic beliefs of this religion, made by another religious community was meant to "incite religious hatred", even though it was not intended as such. The difference between intent to cause offence as opposed to actual offence being taken is difficult or impossible to ascertain in retrospect.

    —  We accept that the law may want to restrict speech that, given its immediate context, is likely to result in direct violence against others. However, this criterion is not always possible to establish.

    —  A Christian quoting from the Bible go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28; 19) might be accused of inciting religious hatred and be prosecuted, even though this was not his intention. The interpretation of such a statement, go and make disciples of all nations, will also depend on the context. For example, if stated by a lecturer in a University course on comparative religion, would this constitute incitement to religious hatred, making the lecturer or the university liable to prosecution? If the same statement go and make disciples of all nations were proclaimed at the end of a sermon by an enthusiastic preacher in front of a substantial and committed congregation, would this constitute incitement to religious hatred, making him or the church or his Bishop liable to prosecution? Finally, if a street evangelist preaches go and make disciples of all nations would this make him liable to prosecution in a predominantly non-Christian area but perhaps not in a predominantly Christian area, even though one could argue that a minority of non-Christians could still be offended?

    —  For this reason we are convinced that this new proposed offence is unworkable and are seriously concerned that this new offence could be abused and lead to miscarriages of justice in the same way as false accusations of rape have led to prosecution and prison sentences of innocent people in the past.

    —  We are therefore concerned that the introduction of a new offence of incitement to religious hatred could be used to silence almost any religious statement and lead to prosecutions of members of any religion simply for voicing their beliefs. We recognise that this is not the intention of the proposed legislation at this point in time, however we can envisage the situation arising in the future where this would occur.

  2.  We anticipate enormous practical difficulties with the implementation of such a new offence as incitement to religious hatred. This is likely to lead to injustice and may in fact considerably worsen relationships between different religious communities.

    —  We maintain that for the follower of one religion, any criticism, justified or not justified, of his religion by a member of another religion could be construed as incitement to religious hatred.

    —  If this case came to court, would the judge in order to appear to be "neutral" have to be member of a religious group not involved in this case? If there were a case where for example, Muslims could be offended by a statement by Christians or vice versa, would a Jewish judge be acceptable or would he be considered biased towards the Christians because the Christian Bible contains part of the Jewish Holy Scriptures? Or, would he be considered to be biased towards Muslims because of Anti-Semitism by some Christians? On the other hand, should a judge be an Atheist to be as neutral as possible? However it might be argued that then members of different religions might not feel understood by an Atheist judge and might not accept his judgment.

    —  Some members of certain religions, for example some Muslims, do not recognise a secular court ruling as valid and would only accept Islamic law and Islamic jurisdiction.

    —  We anticipate serious practical difficulties with this proposed offence of inciting religious hatred. For example, were the riots occurring last year in some northern cities about religion, Christians against Moslems, or about nationality, English against Pakistani, or about political opinion, British National Party against other parties, or about perceived or real social and economic injustices or a combination of all these factors?

    —  Similarly, in a confrontation occurring between supporters of two football teams with different denominational support, eg Glasgow Rangers versus Celtic, it is not clear whether the fight was about football, eg Rangers against Celtic or has a religious dimension, eg Protestant against Catholics, a nationalistic dimension, Scotland against Ireland or a combination of all three or none of the above, for example some football hooligans just fancying a fight?

    —  While we accept that these examples may appear to be peripheral to the debate about this proposal, they do in fact highlight that what might be considered as "religious hatred" is rarely "only" religious and other factors such as identity, ethnic groupings, perceived or real past injustices etc may play an important and perhaps even dominant role.

  3.  We maintain that the introduction of such a new offence is not only problematic, but also unnecessary within the current legislative framework.

    —  We maintain that the motivation behind a crime may be extremely difficult to establish, for example it may not be possible to establish whether the main motivation was racial or religious hatred. However, physical harm done or damage to property, is comparatively easy to establish and can be dealt with under criminal law. This is possible without resorting to a newly created offence of inciting religious hatred.

    —  We are convinced that the current law is in principle adequate to deal with actual offences committed causing for example bodily harm through physical attack, damage to property, desecration of cemeteries, but also incitement to violence.

  4.  The introduction of a new offence of incitement to religious hatred could make it difficult or even impossible to report to the relevant authorities criminal activity including human rights abuses if these are connected partially or solely to religious and perhaps ethnic conflicts. The person reporting might even be afraid of being prosecuted for inciting religious hatred. Even official authorities such as the Police could be deemed to be responsible for inciting religious hatred simply by investigating such cases.

    —  We are concerned that the introduction of a new offence incitement to religious hatred might prevent criminal activity and human rights abuses being reported where there is a religious dimension to the crime or the human rights abuses. This may even be relevant if the human rights abuses occur in another country outside the UK.

    —  However, there already is reluctance by some UK authorities to investigate and prosecute criminal offences if committed by ethnic and religious groups if this was felt to place further strain on already tense relations between different ethnic and religious communities. It would be conceivable that even the Police investigating crimes committed by a certain religious and ethnic group might be accused of inciting religious hatred and perhaps even prosecuted only for investigating criminal behaviour. We therefore recognise the grave danger that this new offence might offer protection from investigation and prosecution to criminals belonging to certain religious and ethnic groups, especially if these are ethnic or religious minority groups.

    —  This issue is also relevant if there are human rights abuses abroad: If in another country there exists, as confirmed by independent observers, human rights abuses by ethnic and religious group A against a different ethnic group B which also has a different religion, then representatives of religious group B in the UK might not feel to be able to speak out against the human rights abuses abroad because this could be construed as incitement to religious hatred in the UK and be prosecuted.

  5.  We recognise that the Government appears to be determined to introduce into law a new offence of incitement to religious hatred. Were this offence ever to be introduced, great care would have to be taken to avoid the prohibition of expression of fundamental or core beliefs of the different religions, and to allow non-violent and non-coercive propagation of faith. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights needs to be observed.

    —  We maintain that, should this new offence be introduced, there would have to be a safeguard allowing religious groups to be able to state their fundamental beliefs and quote from their holy book(s) without this being regarded as incitement to religious hatred leading to prosecution. For example, Christians should be able to cite the Bible and state their core beliefs, such as Jesus is the Son of God, even though other religions may disagree. Conversely, Muslims should be allowed to state their fundamental beliefs, such as there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the Prophet of God and quote the Qur'an, even though other religions may disagree. Equally, Humanists should be allowed to deny the existence of God.

    —  The fundamental freedom of speech which we have enjoyed in the UK allows the open expression of differing opinions, even though others may strongly disagree with the opinion voiced. However, freedom of speech should not be curtailed because differing opinions exist.

    —  We recognise that the world views of different religions are in many respects incompatible, therefore differences of opinion will inevitably remain. We are not convinced that the legal system should try to resolve these differences, provided that no human rights violations have occurred as a consequence of differing religious opinions.

    —  We also maintain that adherents of different religions should continue to be allowed to propagate their faith, provided this is done without coercion or without threat of violence or actual use of violence. To prohibit propagation of faith would amount to the prohibition of very fundamental parts of the belief system held by many religions and would be considered almost equal to prohibition of this religion.

    —  It is extremely important that Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations General Assembly, 1948) should be upheld without compromise: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

18 July 2002

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