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Denmark tables legislation to ban burning of religious texts

15 September 2023

Alamy

Members of the Pakistani muslim community in Copenhagen, Denmark, hold a peaceful rally, in August, against the burning the Quran

Members of the Pakistani muslim community in Copenhagen, Denmark, hold a peaceful rally, in August, against the burning the Quran

THE centre-left government of Denmark has tabled legislation to ban the public burning of religious texts, after repeated torchings of the Qur’an by far-right groups provoked diplomatic protests and angry reactions across the Muslim world.

Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of Danish democracy, and freedom of self-expression a central value,” the Justice Minister, Peter Hummelgaard, said. “This draft law will make it punishable to burn the Qur’an or the Bible, for example, but will only apply to actions in a public place. . . I fundamentally believe there are more civilised ways to express one’s views than by burning things.”

The minister announced the move in the wake of dozens of incidents over recent years in Denmark and Sweden, in which far-right activists publicly set fire to the Qur’an, resulting in angry protests and counter-attacks on Christians.

Mr Hummelgaard said that the proposed law would extend an existing ban on burning foreign flags by prohibiting the “inappropriate treatment of objects of significant importance to a religious community”.

He added that penalties would include fines and two-year prison terms, but said that the “targeted intervention” would not impede freedom of expression, which had to remain “very broad in Denmark”.

Churches and human-rights groups have criticised recent Danish laws tightening state control over religious associations, and requiring clergy both to submit detailed accounts and to take courses in “understanding democracy and freedom”.

In May, the Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, and his Social-Democrat-led government abandoned a draft “Law on Sermons”, under which religious communities, including Denmark’s 270,000 Muslims, were obliged to make all public statements available in translation.

The law, tabled in 2021, had provoked vigorous criticism from religious leaders around Europe, besides warnings from the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Folkekirken, to which three-quarters of Denmark’s 5.8 million inhabitants traditionally belong, that it could trigger similar action against Danish congregations abroad.

Speaking in July, the Danish Foreign Minister, Lars Rasmussen, said that the proposed law against burning sacred texts would not include a “blasphemy clause”, and would still allow “room for criticism of religion”.

The new measure would not restrict “oral or written statements, including drawings”, he said, in a reference to anti-Muslim cartoons first published in Danish newspapers in 2006, which also provoked violent Muslim reactions.

In an open letter to the Frederiksen government, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, who chairs the European Jewish Association, said that book burnings were a “chilling reminder of Europe’s darkest days”, and Denmark’s “resolute action” had come as “a huge source of relief and comfort”, particularly to Jews and Muslims. “Where Denmark had led, others must now follow.

“We call on European countries, especially Sweden, to follow Denmark’s example and ban such flagrant abuses of constitutional rights and privileges by those who want to provoke, insult, and divide.”

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