USCIRF slams new blasphemy law in Denmark

By Chris Eyte |
Burning of Quran under police protection in Norrebro, Copenhagen, Denmark in 2019.
Burning of Quran under police protection in Norrebro, Copenhagen, Denmark in 2019. | (Christian Daily International screenshot of video)

Denmark has changed its penal code to criminalize “inappropriate treatment(s)” of texts of high religious importance, thus introducing blasphemy legislation that the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) criticized as “the wrong approach.”

The amendment makes it illegal for any “inappropriate treatment of a text that has a significant religious importance to a recognized religious community, or an object, that appears to be such a text.” 

USCIRF Commissioner David Curry said religious books should be respected, but that altering the law in Denmark would cause problems in local religious communities. In many countries, such blasphemy legislation is misused to settle personal vendettas against religious minorities through false accusations or charges based on inadvertent mishandling of texts held sacred.   

“USCIRF condemns the burning of religious texts or other objects of religious importance – such as the Quran, the Bible, the Torah, the Vedas, and the Tripitaka (Pali Canon) – as deeply uncivil and disrespectful,” Curry said in a press statement. “Criminalizing blasphemy is the wrong approach and not effective in addressing either security concerns or the underlying hatred experienced by religious communities. This amendment will only serve to propagate harmful stereotypes that could worsen the situation of religious minorities in Denmark.”

Danish lawmakers made the change on Dec. 7, citing an increased terrorist threat following a spate of Quran burnings. The amendment, which was signed into law on Dec. 13, came after the government in 2017 had repealed a 100-year-old blasphemy provision in the Danish Penal Code.

USCIRF defines blasphemy as, “the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God or sacred things.” 

Laws opposing blasphemy punish expressions or acts deemed blasphemous, defamatory of religions, or contemptuous of religion or religious symbols, figures, or feelings, according to USCIRF. 

“Such laws are inconsistent with human rights law, which protects the rights of individuals, but not religious feelings, figures, or symbols from behavior or speech considered blasphemous,” the body states on its website.

USCIRF Commissioner Stephen Schneck called on Denmark to change its approach in dealing with freedom of belief.

“All too often, governments suppress human rights protected under international law in pursuit of national security concerns,” Schneck said in the press statement.

“Denmark, as a democracy, should not compromise fundamental rights to manage such aims. The Danish government must instead work with communities to address religiously-motivated hatred and intolerance and support freedom of religion or belief.”

During debate on the legislation, Member of Parliament Inger Stojberg criticized it as an undue restriction on freedom of speech, but Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen argued that citizens would still be free to criticize religion.

Those convicted under the legislation would face a fine or up to two years in jail.

The new law comes after USCIRF published its 2023 annual report highlighting religious freedom issues in Europe, which included Christian communities “facing rising prejudices.” The report cites listed 16 European countries with blasphemy laws that “in some cases enforced or sought to reinforce them.”

A Polish political party, United Poland, even tried to submit a parliamentary proposal to expand the country’s blasphemy law by “dropping a requirement that an individual actually take religious offense from another’s actions.”

The USCIRF report described hate speech laws in Europe as a “parallel legal challenge to religious freedom” along with blasphemy laws. 

“Such laws criminalize speech that does not amount to incitement to violence,” the report noted, “denying the right of individuals to peacefully and publicly share and express their religious beliefs – including beliefs that others in society may find offensive or controversial.”

The reported cited the case of prosecutors in Finland charging Member of Parliament Päivi Räsänen and Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Juhana Pohjola with hate speech for expressing Christian beliefs about LGBTQ+ issues in 2021.

A court dismissed the charges, and the prosecutor appealed, but Räsänen and Pohjola won the appeal in August 2023. Paul Coleman, executive director of ADF International, which coordinated Räsänen and Pohjola’s defense, said after the last hearing that the case appeared to pressure Räsänen to deny her religious belief.

“At the heart of the prosecutor’s examination of Räsänen was this: Would she recant her beliefs?” Coleman said. “The answer was no – she would not deny the teachings of her faith. The cross-examination bore all the resemblance of a ‘heresy’ trial of the Middle Ages; it was implied that Räsänen had ‘blasphemed’ against the dominant orthodoxies of the day.”