Time for the EU to end its hypocritical stance on Blasphemy Laws

3 December 2014

The European Parliament has passed (November 27) an all-party resolution[1] condemning Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, criticizing in particular the punishments of maximum life imprisonment and the death penalty for the ‘crime’. The EHF applauds this resolution, but argues that criticizing severe punishments for blasphemy laws in Pakistan is only a half-measure, and that only a complete abolishment of blasphemy laws, in both the EU’s external partners and within EU member states themselves, will ensure that the human rights of religious minorities and non-believers are upheld.

The Parliamentary resolution correctly asserts that blasphemy laws run contrary to international human rights law including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[2], the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights[3], and the UN Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief. These declarations and covenants all assert an important principle of human rights law, namely; that human rights belong to individuals, not to communities, and that the freedom of speech granted to individuals must also encompass the rights of nonbelievers to express their non-belief, as well as their right to challenge religious beliefs, without fear of violence or persecution. However, in many countries around the world, apostates, non-believers, and religious minorities face persecution as their governments utilise blasphemy laws to stifle the freedom of speech expression for these groups, whilst at the same time putting their lives at risk.

The European Parliamentary resolution focused on Pakistan, which is one of the worst offending states when it comes to using blasphemy laws to contravene the human rights of minorities. The severity of Pakistani blasphemy laws came in for particular criticism, particularly sections 295 B and C of the Pakistani Penal Code, which specifically impose mandatory life sentences, and even the death penalty, for anyone found guilty of engaging in blasphemy or apostasy. Asia Bibi is one of the most high-profile cases to be tried under this blasphemy law, who in 2010 was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Muhammad. On October 16th 2014 the Pakistani Supreme Court upheld her conviction, a decision that was also resolutely condemned by the European Parliamentary resolution.

Criticism of such laws is important, not just because such laws can lead to inhumane criminal proceedings, but because blasphemy laws have also helped to legitimize discriminatory attitudes and persecution of all religious minorities and non-believers in Pakistan, leading to a repressive climate for minorities of all backgrounds. For instance, on November 5th 2014 a Christian couple were killed by vigilante mob simply because of a spurious allegation that the couple had damaged some pages of the Koran.

Whilst the focus of the resolution on religious minorities is laudable, the resolution however fails to explicitly mention the rights of non-believers in Pakistan. Specific sentences which fail to mention this group include:

  • “deep concern that the controversial blasphemy laws are open to misuse that can affect people of all faiths in Pakistan.”[4]
  • “Strongly condemns all acts of violence against religious communities, as well as all kinds of discrimination and intolerance on the grounds of religion and belief; stresses that the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is a fundamental human right; stresses, furthermore, that all Pakistanis, irrespective of their faith and religion, deserve equal respect, and promotion and protection of their human rights.”[5]

Both passages state that the rights of religious communities, indeed individuals of all faiths, should be protected. However the EHF notes that explicit references to the rights of non-believers, including those have left their faith are missing. In-fact, in the entire resolution there is not one single mention of ‘non-believers’ or ‘atheists’ at all. The inclusion of explicit references to the rights of these groups should be standard practice for the EU, and has precedence, considering the repeated references to the rights of 'non-believers' made throughout the EU’s Guidelines on the Freedom of Religion and Belief[6].

Whilst the resolution correctly calls for the protection of religious minorities and for the overturning of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, the EHF has repeatedly called attention to the continuing discrepancy between the EU’s willingness to condemn blasphemy laws abroad, and its unwillingness to criticize similar blasphemy laws within EU member states. An alarming number of EU members including Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Spain, France (Alsace Moselle), Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal and Slovakia still have laws relating to blasphemy, or to the similar offence of ‘religious insult’[7]. These laws are not just ancient, harmless laws however; they can produce very real attacks on the right to freedom of speech and expression in the modern-day, as demonstrated by the case of Filippos Loizos, who was given a 10-month suspended prison sentence by a Greek court in January of this year for writing supposedly ‘blasphemous’ comments on Facebook about a monk.

The EHF argues that blasphemy laws contradict the fundamental nature of democracy itself, as they restrict an individual’s right to express their opinion freely, and to express their non-belief. The EHF believes that the EU should take inspiration from the European Parliament’s resolution on Pakistan, with its strong stance on upholding the right to Freedom of Religion of Belief in its relations with external partners, to argue just as forcibly for the removal of blasphemy laws within the EU itself.

The continued existence of these laws within the EU undermine the credibility of the organisation’s position on blasphemy laws abroad, and only with the abolishment of these laws at home can the EU successfully preach the democratic European values of secularism and human rights to the world, without also preaching hypocrisy.

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[1] The full text of the resolution can be read here.

[2] Article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

[3] Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

[4] Parliamentary Resolution 2014/2969(RSP) (2014: 6)

[5] Parliamentary Resolution 2014/2969(RSP) (2014: 6)

[6] EU Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief (2013: 1-6)

[7] EHF Recommendations to the Italian Council Presidency (2014: 3)