Verhältnis zwischen Meinungsfreiheit und der Achtung religiöser Gefühle

Contribution to the

Hearing of the Committee on Culture, Science and Education of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, 18 May 2006 in Paris- Religious point of view

Thank you very much for organising a hearing on freedom of expression and respect for religious beliefs and thank you very much for having invited the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) to contribute to this hearing.The publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish Jyllandsposten has caused deep and widespread feelings of offence and indignation within the Muslim community. Violent reactions around the world, including the death of Christians in Nigeria, have equally grieved, frightened and outraged. Fortunately, widespread attempts to calm tensions have taken place at all levels. Debates to clarify the balance between freedom of expression and the respect for religious beliefs are actually of high importance for the peace of the world.

The publication of the cartoons and the conflict following have largely been discussed in the German Protestant Church and the following legal, ethical and cultural issues were identified:

  1. Freedom of expression

    Freedom of expression and freedom of the press is the core of democracy and the basis of our legal system in the secular society. The understanding of freedom as the basis of our legal system is not negotiable. Acting in freedom must serve our common society.

    The reactions on the European side concerning the cartoon conflict are marked by a high estimation of the freedom of the press. While balancing freedom of expression with freedom of religion it has to be stated that there are limits to press freedom, which must be respected.

    Freedom of expression and freedom of the press even leave room for shocking, satire and provocation. But there should be no tolerance and understanding for provocation as such. Freedom of expression should not be misused to attack religious beliefs or to hurt feelings of other people.

  2. Respect of religious beliefs

    European culture has to gain back its sensibility for what is holy for other human beings. The fact that some Christians are less sensitive about the scorning of Christianity cannot be taken as the touch-stone for the respect of religious beliefs in general.

    But it should also be made perfectly clear that non-Muslims cannot be bound by the ban on pictures. While striving for respect for religious beliefs, the aim is not to impose any religious taboo on everybody in our diverse society.

    The chairperson of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Bishop Wolfgang Huber, explicitly wished to show respect for all who feel that their religious beliefs have been offended. But Christians and Muslims should be careful not to get used as prawns in a campaign.

  3. Violence

    Religious feelings should not be misused by way of threatening with violence or to use violence in the name of religion. Religion should not be misused to justify violence.

    The violent reactions to the cartoons of the Prophet showing him in the context of violence (with a bomb) are deeply regrettable and should not be condoned. If someone feels treated with lack of respect he should not react with disrespect or violence himself. Such a behaviour is entirely counterproductive to the building of mutual respect, trust and reconciliation.

  4. The role of the state in conflict situation

    The dispute about the Danish Cartoons was not a conflict between two religions. In Denmark it was an atheist journalist, a private person, who tried to fight for unlimited freedom of expression, neither being a representative of a Christian community nor the Danish state. It was a conflict between radical liberal ideals and religious sensibilities. Later, it developed an inter-religious dimension because revenge tragically caused the death of Christians in Nigeria. Throughout human history religion has often been misused to divide peoples rather than to unite them.

    Under the rule of law the conflict, which took place between two private parties, was first of all a matter for the courts. While recognizing the importance of dialogue among peoples, cultures and religions, it is under the rule of law still up to the states to foster tolerance and to guarantee peace. The respective national criminal codes, which put in concrete form freedom of religion, should consider an equal degree of protection of different religious beliefs. The Danish criminal code prohibits the mocking and scorning of the religious doctrines or acts of worship of any lawfully existing religious community. Whilst “religious doctrines and worship” are protected by the Danish criminal code, other religious areas as for example the depiction of Prophets are not included in the scope of the Danish criminal code. The German criminal Code focuses on the content of religious beliefs and the churches, their institutions and their rites and prohibits insulting them under the condition that public order is in danger.

    A synopsis of all criminal codes of the members of the European Council could be of interest and inspiration. This should lead to a calm and measured debate about the application of the respective normative criteria of the national criminal codes, which is of particular relevance to our multicultural societies.

    Religious education is also of importance in order to avoid stereotypes, which are a source of ignorance of other people and of their cultural and spiritual sensitivities. Specific forms of teaching should create awareness among peoples towards sensitivities of different communities, and urge all entities to show more respect to the diversity of cultures and refrain from the misuse of religious symbols, images and expressions.

    It is equally a contribution to the integration of migrants to improve reciprocal knowledge and mutual respect by way of intercultural, inter-religious and interfaith dialogue.

    Globalisation brings all nations and cultures together. We have to find a way to accept and respect differences of nations, cultures and religions. A precondition is an open and free society.

    The EKD is of the opinion that it is a moral obligation to foster a society which comprehends and respects the sensitivities of people worldwide.

Sabine v. Zanthier