Campaign to get rid of NI blasphemy laws

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Human hands open palm up worship.Image source, Getty Images
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Campaigners say Northern Ireland's blasphemy laws are outdated

A campaign has been launched to get rid of Northern Ireland's "ancient" blasphemy laws.

The organisation, Northern Ireland Humanists, said the existing legislation, which makes "blasphemous libel" a crime, is outdated.

It also said the law sends the wrong message to the rest of the world.

Though rarely if ever used, campaigners have said it encourages nations like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to maintain stricter blasphemy laws.

Critics, however, have said the NI blasphemy laws enshrine respect for religion and any move to change that would send the wrong signal.

"It is appalling that we still have blasphemy laws in Northern Ireland," said Iain Deboys, chairman of Northern Ireland Humanists.

"These laws are used by some of the world's most horrific regimes to justify the killings of people for exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression."

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Rev David McIlveen said the law is "to do with respect"

He said the laws, which date back to 1888 and 1819, "have no place in a democratic society like ours that values both freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of expression".

Blasphemy laws were repealed in England and Wales in 2008.

The Republic of Ireland removed references to blasphemy from its constitution last year, shortly after the actor Stephen Fry was investigated over remarks made during an RTÉ television interview with broadcaster Gay Byrne.

A similar campaign has been launched in Scotland to repeal its blasphemy laws.

New Zealand and Canada have also recently scrapped them.

However, retired Free Presbyterian minister, the Reverend David McIlveen, said the law is "to do with respect".

"I believe that the current law on blasphemy should be maintained [because it] acknowledges that people should accept those who believe in the existence of a true and living God," he said.

Mr Deboys said retaining blasphemy laws, like those in Northern Ireland, "even if they are not often used, legitimises their use in countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia where people face the death penalty".

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Stephen Fry was investigated over remarks made during an RTE television interview

However, Mr McIveen said making comparisons between Pakistan and Northern Ireland was "unacceptable".

Northern Ireland Humanists is asking voters to write to their MLAs to encourage them to appeal the current legislation.

Sinn Féin supported the changes to the Republic's constitution.

The DUP MP Jim Shannon, who chairs a parliamentary group on international freedom of religious belief, has also been critical of blasphemy laws elsewhere in the world.

Neither party has publically responded to the new campaign.