We may be living in what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (and many others) have called a secular age, but that doesn’t mean governments around the world have stopped trying to control the religious behaviour of their citizens. According to an article published this summer by the Pew Research Center, an American think-tank, laws against blasphemy and apostasy not only exist in many countries, but are often still enforced.
(Blasphemy is a show of contempt to God or the sacred; apostasy is the abandonment of one’s religious belief—for atheism, for example, or for another religion.)
According to Pew’s reckoning, as of 2014, blasphemy was outlawed in 51 countries; of these, 36 continued to enforce their anti-blasphemy laws. Laws against apostasy existed in 25 countries, 22 of which continued to enforce them.
Such laws were particularly common in the Middle East and North Africa, Pew research associate Katayoun Kishi says; about 70% of countries in this part of the world had anti-apostasy laws, and 90% had anti-blasphemy laws. Still, she points out, such laws exist in many other parts of the world also. According to the Pew Center study on which the article was based, anti-blasphemy laws are still enforced in Greece, Poland and Russia. Blasphemy and apostasy are prosecuted in India and also Nigeria, home to large populations of Muslims and Christians, including many Anglicans. Countries that have anti-blasphemy laws on the books, even though the laws are no longer enforced, include Denmark, Ireland, Italy and a smattering of Caribbean countries.
The article notes that although the U.S. does not have federal anti-blasphemy laws, several individual states do. But the U.S. constitution would “almost certainly” prevent such laws from being enforced, it says.
One country that does not appear in the article at all is Canada—and yet it has an anti-blasphemy law. Section 296 of the Criminal Code prohibits an activity called “blasphemous libel,” and specifies that anyone found guilty of this offence is liable to up to two years’ imprisonment.
Contacted about Pew’s apparent omission, Kishi responded that Canada seemed not to have been included in its study because its blasphemy law was not mentioned in any of the 17 sources the study drew on. Probably these sources didn’t mention the law because it is used so rarely, she added.
Countries that had a law, rule or policy on blasphemy at some level of government in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. Not included on the map is Canada. Source: Pew Research Center
In recent years, a number of voices in Canada have been calling for the repeal of the law. In January 2015, not long after the shootings at the office of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, leaders of two Canadian secularist groups – the Centre for Inquiry and Humanist Canada – announced they would begin lobbying the Department of Justice to repeal the law. On June 22, 2016, these groups, together with the BC Humanist Association, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and other organizations, launched an online petition, sponsored by Ali Ehsassi, Liberal MP for Willowdale, Ont. Online petitions can be tabled in the House of Commons if they get 500 or more signatures in 120 days.
As of press time, the petition to repeal Canada’s blasphemy law, which expires Oct. 20, had garnered 6,542 signatures.
In a 2015 opinion piece, Derek From, staff lawyer with the Canadian Constitution Foundation, a Calgary-based charity, criticized the law as both hypocritical and potentially dangerous.
The law, From says, was essentially copied in Canada and other Commonwealth countries from an original British version. In Britain and many of these countries, he says, the law has been repealed. It remains on the books in Canada even though it has not been used to successfully prosecute anyone since 1935 (when it resulted in the conviction of an Anglican priest).
Historically, courts have interpreted the law as intended not to protect the person—God—who is allegedly being libeled, From says.
“If you’re saying something bad about God, a court really isn’t the forum for God to invoke his rights and seek redress,” he says dryly.
Instead, judges have taken the purpose of the law as the protection of society from the conflict that might result from speech that offends people’s religious beliefs.
In the 1935 case, for example, the Rev. Victor Rahard, of Montreal’s Church of the Redeemer, was charged with blasphemous libel after putting up a poster outside the church condemning the mass and other Roman Catholic practices. “Judas sold Christ for a large sum of money; the Roman priests sell Him every day and even three times,” the poster reads, as quoted in the judge’s decision. “Judas repented and threw his money away; the Roman priests do not repent and keep the money. Now what do you think of the papist religion?”
In his ruling, the judge cited case law arguing that the purpose of the statute was to protect the peace of the community—which, he argued, was threatened by Rahard’s poster.
“I maintain that these terms are offensive and injurious to the Roman Catholics and of such a nature that they may lead to a disturbance of the public peace,” he wrote, and found Rahard guilty.
Rahard’s 1935 trial was not the last time charges were laid under Canada’s blasphemous libel law—and not the only time an Anglican priest was involved. In 1979, a charge was laid against a cinema in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., after a local Anglican priest, the Rev. Michael Eldred, complained about its screening of the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, which takes a satirical look at the life of Christ. Ontario’s attorney general stepped in to stay the charge, however.
If the law were used today to prosecute someone, From says, it would probably be struck down as unconstitutional, because the importance of protecting freedom of speech would be judged greater than the need to protect the public peace in this context. Still, From says he’s concerned that courts might not always see things this way. It’s not a “flight of fancy,” he says, to imagine it at some point being used to criminally prosecute Canadians making cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, for example.
“All it takes is one generation who have different social views and different prejudices than the generation that we’re living in right now,” he says. “They might see the need to constrain speech. My personal view is that we need to get rid of this…This is a tool that could be very authoritarian and very detrimental to the health of a free society.”
Protests and riots, many of them violent, erupted in many countries around the world after a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in 2005.
The world’s blasphemy laws have been a subject of concern among member churches of the Anglican Communion. In a unanimous vote in 1998, the Lambeth Conference of bishops condemned sections of the blasphemy laws of Pakistan and called for the release of “all prisoners unjustly accused” under them. Blasphemy can carry a death sentence in Pakistan, although the state has not yet carried out a death sentence for the crime.?
More recently, members of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) have been campaigning for the release of Asia Bibi, a Christian Pakistani who has been on death row in Pakistan since 2010 after being accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed. At its meeting in Lusaka, Zambia this spring, the ACC passed a resolution urging Pakistan to re-open the case and acquit her. This September, Shunila Ruth, an ACC member for Pakistan, said the global Anglican body needed to step up its efforts to press Pakistan to free Bibi and reconsider its blasphemy laws.
A final appeal of Bibi’s conviction is was to be heard by Pakistan’s supreme court Thursday, Oct. 20, but the hearing was adjourned after one of the judges claimed a possible conflict of interest in the case.