OPINION: by Babette FrancisNews Weekly
Free speech under attack in Victoria
, July 16, 2005
Under Victoria's controversial Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001, two Christian pastors have been convicted for allegedly vilifying Islam, and the Salvation Army has been taken to court by a jailed sex pervert and self-confessed male witch who felt vilified by the Alpha Christian course. Babette Francis examines what other consequences could flow from this legislation.An over-flow crowd attended a Victorian Christian Legal Society seminar, entitled "Religious tolerance laws: a challenge to our freedom of speech?", at Maddocks law firm, Melbourne, on June 2.
Speakers included Rev. Dr Mark Durie, an Anglican vicar and Melbourne University academic; Dr Ian Spry QC, editor of National Observer
; Dr David Mitchell, a human rights lawyer; and Prof. Augusto Zimmermann, a constitutional law specialist.
The speakers were especially critical of the sections dealing with religious vilification in Victoria's Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001
. They argued that these sections needed to be repealed because they were ambiguous and restricted discussion about religion.Vilification
As one speaker said, "the worse a particular religious practice may be, the more protection it gets under this Act, because it attracts criticism and a consequent charge of 'vilification'."
For example, the Hindu caste system is not tolerated by the Indian Government, but is still embedded in the culture. Does criticising it constitute "vilification" of Hinduism?
My deep concern is that Victoria's Racial and Religious Tolerance Act
restricts discussion about the situation of Christians in Muslim countries. I have personal knowledge of their plight because Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore, Pakistan, is my cousin.
The blasphemy law in Pakistan lends itself to abuse, according to the Justice and Peace Commission of Pakistan's Catholic bishops' conference. The bishops listed the names of 647 people who have been convicted for "blasphemy" and imprisoned for life since 1988. At least 20 convicted "blasphemers" have received the death penalty.
The blasphemy law is contained in sections B and C of article 295 of the Pakistani penal code. Section B refers to offences against the Koran, punishable with life imprisonment, and section C punishes with the death penalty or life imprisonment "anyone who insults the holy name of the prophet [Mohammad] in word, writing or deed or visible representation, including direct or indirect insinuations."
Pakistan's bishops stated the measure is "unjust and discriminatory", and that the law is used against personal enemies, as a way to get revenge, or as a means for Muslim fundamentalists to persecute Christians or anyone disagreeing with them.
The Church in Pakistan also criticised the superficial changes made by the Government last October that only affected the procedures of applying the law without touching the content.
Since 1988, higher courts have acquitted 102 convicted blasphemers. These cases, the courts observed, were filed to exploit the accused for religious, financial or personal reasons. Of 20 people murdered, 14 were Muslims and six were Christians. Among the individuals killed is retired Lahore High Court justice, Arif Hussain Bhatto, because he defended a person accused of blasphemy.
Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha has also called on the Pakistan Government to intervene on behalf of 40 Pakistani Christians who were arrested in April in Saudi Arabia, as they celebrated Mass in a private residence in the city of Riyadh.
Policemen who raided the premises found Christian books and audiovisual material. In Saudi Arabia, it is illegal to practise any religion other than Islam.
Archbishop Saldanha called the arrest "a serious example of religious discrimination and human rights violation", and urged the Saudi Government to "respect religious freedom".
According to Voice of the Martyrs spokesman, Todd Nettleton, Christians from less powerful countries face greater persecution. He says: "We've seen people from less powerful countries held in prison for long periods of time, and in one case sentenced to death."
It is not clear what might happen to those arrested as Saudi authorities have not made any public comment about the incident. Pakistani authorities have also been silent; there has been no word of condemnation for the action, or any expression of solidarity towards the victims.
Nor has the Islamic Council of Victoria, which took legal action under the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act
against two Christian pastors who analysed aspects of Islam, expressed any concern, so far as I am aware, about the plight of Christians in Muslim countries.
There is no doubt that Victoria's Racial and Religious Tolerance Act
inhibits free speech, and free discussion and debate on controversial religious issues.
Victorians should be free to discuss why many Muslim countries are so intolerant of other religions.
- Babette Francis is coordinator of Endeavour Forum Inc.