Decriminalisation of religious vilification ‘most dangerous decision yet’, MP warns

Jason Azzopardi accuses government of ‘political atheism’, says atheists should be safeguarded from vilification

Opposition MP Jason Azzopardi addresses a speech in Parliament
Opposition MP Jason Azzopardi addresses a speech in Parliament

The government’s plans to decriminalize the vilification of religion amount could be its “most shortsighted and dangerous decision” yet, shadow Jason Azzopardi warned.

In a hard-hitting speech, he accused the government of “political atheism”, and of adopting policies of “forced secularisation”.

“There is trouble beyond our shores,” he said, recounting the deadly Paris attacks on November 13. “I sincerely hoped that the government had since realized that the time is not right to introduce this law, surrounded as we are by hotheads who don’t see reason.”

Indeed, he said that the current law must be made more harsh – so as to criminalise the vilification of other religions, as well as atheism.

“Atheists also have a right not to be subjected to vilification,” he said. “A truly progressive mentality would be to protect atheists from vilification as well.”

Azzopardi insisted that a person’s right to freedom of expression should stop at another person’s right not to see their religious beliefs vilified.

“Freedom of expression should not mean that people are free to insult the things that I hold dear – that is diabolical logic.” 

He showed the House a picture of a broken statue of the Virgin Mary when the Maltese Curia’s offices were ransacked during a demonstration in 1985 and a magazine cover of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo depicting a lewd picture of Mohammed with the words ‘The Koran is shit’

“Should this be acceptable?” he questioned.

Azzopardi also argued that the Bill could be unconstitutional, noting that the Roman Catholic faith is safeguarded in the Maltese Constitution.

He cited law faculty dean Kevin Aquilina as stating that the decriminalization of the protection of any state symbol – such as Roman Catholicism – would mean that other Constitutional symbols, such as the Maltese flag risk becoming valueless and a sham.

“It would mean that I can go before parliament and burn the Maltese flag with impunity,” he cited Aquilina as saying. “It would mean that I can spit and trample upon the George Cross and vilify the Roman Catholic religion with no consequence, as if none of these constitutional official state symbols had no meaning or value for the State of Malta.”

“This Bill has been drafted by a politically atheistic government with no moral values, that intends to force secularization on society,” he said. “It is progressively destroying the social cohesion and moral values that have been our hallmark and creating new unnecessary divisions.”

He also described as “insulting and illogical” the fact that, after the law passes, it will remain a crime to insult the President or the Prime Minister.

“In the name of the false god of atheistic liberalism, we will be able to vilify the Eternal Father that Christians hold sacred, the prophet Mohammed who is so blessed amongst Muslims, and the Star of David that means so much for Jews,” he said. “However, we will not be able to do anything similar to the President or the Prime Minister, not even during a public demonstration or a protest.

“Are some gods more equal than others?”

He also noted European Court of Human Rights decisions, including one in favour of the Austrian government in 1996 against a theatre institute that had put on a play that depicted God as an elderly, infirm, Jesus as a simpleton and the Virgin Mary as a wanton woman.

The court had ruled that it is the state’s responsibility to “ensure the peaceful enjoyment of the rights to the holders of those beliefs and doctrines”.

“In extreme cases, the effect of particular methods of opposing or denying religious beliefs can be such as to inhibit those who hold such beliefs from exercising their freedom to hold and express them” it read.

He noted that it is still a criminal offence to vilify in several European countries – including Denmark, Finland, Italy, Spain, Germany and Austria.

“Do those countries have a medieval mentality too?” he asked.

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