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Yle survey: Most MPs want to keep blasphemy law but majority of Finns Party, Greens favour change

The UN Human Rights Committee has repeatedly called on Finland to change the criminal provision on the sanctity of religion as it restricts freedom of expression.

Eduskuntatalo kylpi auringossa 30. kesäkuuta.
Many MPs in favour of making changes to Finland's law on the sanctity of religion believe that religious faith can be protected by general legislation. Image: Silja Viitala / Yle
Yle News

An Yle poll has found that a majority of Finnish MPs do not want to change Finland's law on the sanctity of religion, which includes the possibility of a six-month prison sentence for blasphemy.

However, the survey also found that MPs of the government coalition Green Party and opposition Finns Party were united in favour of making changes to the law, with their views based on the same issue: freedom of speech.

The UN Human Rights Committee has repeatedly called on Finland to change the "vague and broadly worded" criminal provision on the sanctity of religion, arguing that it restricts freedom of expression.

In a report (siirryt toiseen palveluun) published in April this year, the committee recommended that Finland considers making amendments to the current version of the law.

"The State party [Finland] should take necessary steps to decriminalise the breach of the sanctity of religion and protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion as well as freedom of expression in accordance with articles 18 and 19 of the Covenant," the report stated.

Yle's survey asked all 200 Members of Parliament whether the Criminal Code should repeal the clause on "breach of the sanctity of religion" which includes the provision on blasphemy. A total of 105 MPs responded, with more than half of the respondents saying that they are not in favour of changing the law.

MPs: Religious freedom protected by other legislation

Religion was considered by many MPs to already be adequately protected by the fact that people have the right to freedom of religion and conscience to exercise their own beliefs.

"The gods don't need the protection of the law. The article on the sanctity of religion is also problematic in terms of freedom of speech," Green Party MP Saara Hyrkkö said.

MP Jenna Simula (Finns) also cited freedom of speech as a reason for a change in the law, pointing out that there should be the right to freely criticise religions and views on life in Finland.

"As long as it does not actively cause harm at funerals or other similar religious occasions," Simula said.

There is already legislation in place to protect religious freedom, Bella Forsgrén (Green) said in response to the survey, adding that Finnish law also obliges people to treat others equally and respectfully with discrimination based on religious strictly prohibited.

Several MPs in favour of the law change were specifically of the opinion that religion could be safeguarded by more general legislation.

"I don't think religion and politics should be entwined," Sheikki Laakso (Finns) stated.

Justice Ministry: No plans to make changes

The responses to the Yle survey did not reveal a clear divide between the government and opposition parties on the topic, but instead found that MPs might have different or similar opinions regardless of party affiliation.

Many MPs mentioned the importance of freedom of speech and expression, but also argued they were not in favour of a change in the law, citing reasons such as the maintaining of peace within society.

"The dark years of European history remind us of what the demonisation of certain religions can lead to," Minister of European Affairs Tytti Tuppurainen (SDP) said.

"The current law acts more like a reminder to show respect for each other, even if we disagree," Christian Democrats chair Sari Essayah said, while Left Alliance MP Veronika Honkasalo stated that public ridicule of religion without intervention could lead to a threat to public order.

However, other MPs noted that freedom of speech and respect for the beliefs of others do not always live in harmony with each other, especially in the era of social media.

"It is precisely because of social media that it might be necessary to consider whether the law should be more clearly specified taking into account the current situation," Mia Laiho (NCP) said.

Story continues after the graphic.

Should the Criminal Code repeal the section on the violation of the sanctity of religion, which includes a ban on blasphemy?
The graphic shows how MPs responded to the Yle survey. Image: Ilkka Kemppinen/Yle

According to the MPs who responded to the survey, the second paragraph of the clause on the sanctity of religion brings its own challenge to the repeal of the law.

This section defines "making noise, acting threateningly or otherwise, disturbing worship, ecclesiastical proceedings, other similar religious proceedings or a funeral," as a punishable act.

"This should continue to be the case," Sari Multala (NCP) said.

The Ministry of Justice is not preparing an amendment to the law on the sanctity of religion, which means it is not likely to be amended in the near future. The clause has been used very rarely in court over the past 20 years, but when it has been used it was usually to deal with cases involving discriminatory speeches against Islam.

A seldom-used clause is less likely to come under pressure for change, which may explain why the majority of MPs who responded to Yle's survey do not feel there is a need to change it.

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