British House Passes Religious Hatred Bill

The House of Commons in the UK has approved the proposed controversial Religious Hatred Bill through the third reading on Monday. Some 1,000 churches in Britain across denominational lines, who have handed in a petition to Downing Street to urge the Prime Minister Tony Blair to halt the proposal, have been greatly disappointed by the latest developments.

The proposed Religious Hatred Bill seeks to ban incitement of religious hatred to protect people from being victimized for their "beliefs", in light of a growing multi-faith community in the UK. The law applies to comments made in public or in the media, as well as through written material.

Opponents of the Bill, who are mostly evangelical Christians, are concerned that it may hamper freedom of speech with its vague definition of "inciting religious hatred". It could be even misused by extreme religious groups to ban opinions that they find offensive.

The argument is even more sensitive as this moment after last Thursday’s deadly terrorist attacks on the London transport system. Muslims are very often being "stereotyped" and related to terrorism. The terrorist attacks last week in London have renewed the attention on this misunderstanding, which has resulted in growing hatred between different faith groups.

Prior to the Monday’s 301-229 vote, which paves a way for the bill to enter the statute book, the Public Affairs Department of the Evangelical Alliance UK (EAUK) complained that the government has been trying to push forward the bill forcefully despite strong opposition from many different groups.

In its magazine's June Edition, it reported, "This will now be the third time in four years the government has tried to force this controversial measure through a reluctant Parliament."

On Monday, over 100 leaders of evangelical African and Caribbean churches in Britain rallied against the Bill at Westminster, saying it could affect their ability to share the Christian gospel with non-Christians. Rally organisers said up to 5,000 black church members would attend the lobby.

The general manager of the African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance (ACEA), Katei Kirby said they had no objections in principle to anything which protected people's right to choose their faith and express their faith. But the proposed legislation might affect churches' ability to "share the gospel", she said to BBC news.

"At the moment, for example, we might do door-to-door stuff, leafleting or run seminars or events and invite people who are not Christians already to hear the Christian faith explained. Under this new law we risk seven years imprisonment if we do that if somebody takes offence," she continued.

In addition, a petition statement signed by representatives of more than 1,000 individual churches across the country - including Anglican, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian faiths - handed to Downing Street yesterday.

It warns that "The mere quoting of texts from both the Koran and the Bible could be captured and criminalised by this law." It adds, "Extremists have shown themselves willing to use malicious prosecution to further their purposes and this law would present such prosecution opportunities against all religious communities."

The bill now goes to the House of Lords where it is again expected to face tough objections.