The small number of European countries which still have blasphemy laws on their books – Malta is on the list – is about to become even smaller, as The Netherlands is set to abolish them down soon and Ireland may follow suit.
Just eight European countries have blasphemy laws: Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy and Poland round off the list.
But in The Netherlands, a blasphemy law dating back to 1932 was ignored when a court, which acquitted far-right politician Geert Wilders of inciting hatred against Muslims, ruled that he had every right to criticise Islam, even if his opinions were deemed offensive.
The liberal VVD party, which Prime Minister Mark Rutte belongs to, has favoured scrapping the law, a prospect that became more viable following general elections in September, which saw the party form a coalition with the Labour Party with the outside support of the Socialist Party. It had previously been in coalition with a conservative Christian party.
Last week, MPs confirmed that there was a parliamentary majority in favour of repealing the law, deeming it no longer relevant.
Ireland’s 1937 Constitution explicitly criminalizes blasphemy, which is punishable by a fine of up to €25,000 according to a law which was only issued in 2009.
But a year-long constitutional convention aiming to reform the Constitution was opened yesterday, and the removal of blasphemy laws is on its agenda. Any amendments, however, will have to be approved in a referendum.
In most cases, blasphemy laws in Europe are effectively dead-letter laws. In The Netherlands, for instance, the law that is set to be repealed has not been invoked in decades.
Malta, however, is one of the exceptions.
According to Article 342 of the Criminal Code, the minimum punishment for public blasphemy is a €11.65 fine: the maximum is a three-month jail term.
But blasphemy can also be a crime under Articles 163 and 164.
Article 164 states that “whosoever by words, gestures, written matter, whether printed or not, or pictures or by some other visible means, publicly vilifies the Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion... be liable to imprisonment for a term from one to six months”. Article 164, meanwhile, establishes that similar acts “against any cult tolerated by law” would only be liable to a jail term of one to three months, effectively discriminating between Catholicism and any other religion.
The provisions are still regularly invoked. In 2009, two men received suspended jail terms for the vilification of Catholicism: one for dressing up as Jesus for carnival, and the other for displaying visuals which included images of a naked woman and Pope John Paul II while DJing at a music festival.
It is safe to assume that most instances of public blasphemy in Malta go unprosecuted, but the charge is often levied, where applicable, against people facing other charges.