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Dutch debate whether to scrap blasphemy law

Dutch courts have not prosecuted a blasphemy case since putting a novelist on trial in 1966 for a story about wanting to have sex with God, who had taken the form of a donkey.

Gerard Reve was acquitted, but more than 40 years after his landmark trial Parliament is still not ready to scrap the blasphemy law, which bars scorn against any religion.

In this country that cherishes freedom of expression, plans to repeal the 1932 law, which mandates a maximum sentence of three months in prison for a convicted "scornful blasphemer," have foundered in the latest round of party politics.

Blasphemy laws have taken on a somewhat sinister hue in liberal countries after what critics call their misuse in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran to persecute minorities or settle scores. Two prominent Pakistani politicians have been killed this year for their campaign to change blasphemy laws that make it a capital offense to insult Islam.

Yet governing parties gave up their hope to delete the law from Dutch jurisprudence in an apparent concession to a tiny fundamentalist Christian party, which emerged from elections this week holding the balance of power in the Senate, parliament's less-powerful upper chamber.

Boris van der Ham, one of three lawmakers who proposed dumping the blasphemy law, called it a "dead letter" and a legal anachronism that no longer belongs in the progressive Netherlands.

"We don't think religious opinion should have more protection than nonreligious opinion," he told The Associated Press.

But the strict Calvinist Political Reformed Party, or SGP, whose single senator now holds the key to success or failure for government legislation in the 75-seat Senate, thinks otherwise.

The party's leader, Kees van der Staaij, is one of a minority of people in this largely secular country of 16 million who publicly support the blasphemy law, which he calls "the legal expression of the conviction that some things are holy."

"The name of God is holy," the party says on its website. "Insulting God, as he is portrayed in the Bible, must be combatted. The ban on blasphemy should be maintained."

The SGP is sometimes seen as a throwback to days in the last century when the Netherlands was a deeply religious nation and political parties reflected the religious divide among Calvinists, Dutch Reform, and Catholics. The party was rebuked last year by the country's Supreme Court for refusing to let women hold leadership roles.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberal Party, which had supported scrapping the blasphemy law before the Senate elections, quietly dropped the issue as it sought to muster majority support. Unlike parliament's more powerful Second Chamber, the Senate does not formulate legislation but it has the power to veto bills.

Rutte's party denies it is pandering to the SGP and says it plans to unveil a new policy on freedom of expression later this year.

The last time lawmakers debated the dormant blasphemy law was in 2004. The then-governing Christian Democrats proposed reviving it in an effort to ease religious tensions in the tumultuous aftermath of the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an extremist Muslim who considered a Van Gogh film insulting to Islam. Rutte's party objected to the idea of bringing back blasphemy, and the proposal came to nothing.

Theologian Uwe Arnhold, writing in Tuesday's edition of national daily De Volkskrant, accused the SGP of double standards because its supporters oppose blasphemy legislation seen as being used to target Christians in Pakistan and other Muslim countries.

He said the party "strives for a theocratic state that looks more like Iran and Saudi Arabia than the freedom we in Western Europe are accustomed to."

Van der Ham says there are still frequent blasphemy complaints filed with Dutch police, but they are never acted on.

Even so, the country's highest-profile court case of recent years has focussed on allegedly hurtful comments made by maverick anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders about Islam.

Wilders is on trial in Amsterdam on charges of "making statements insulting to Muslims as a group," and inciting hatred against Muslims.

Wilders denies the charges and says his comments are part of legitimate political debate. If he is convicted, he could be sentenced to up to two years in prison or fined.