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Challenge to 'backward' blasphemy law

The Government has been immediately challenged to carry out a prosecution under the new blasphemy law which came into operation on Friday and which has been widely criticised outside the State and described as "wretched, backward and uncivilised".

The blasphemy law, part of the Government's new legislation on libel, carries a fine of up to €25,000 for anyone who publishes or "utters" material that is considered to be blasphemous.

On its introduction, the law was immediately challenged by the group Blasphemy Ireland, which published 25 quotations from figures, varying from the singer Bjork to Conor Cruise O'Brien.

The atheist academic Professor Richard Dawkins described the legislation as "wretched, backward and uncivilised" and said that it had introduced a Middle-Ages concept back into Irish law.

The convenor of the blasphemy.ie website, Michael Nugent, said: "This new law is both silly and dangerous. It is silly because medieval religious laws have no place in a modern secular republic, where the criminal law should protect people and not ideas. And it is dangerous because it incentivises religious outrage, and because Islamic states, led by Pakistan, are already using the wording of this Irish law to promote new blasphemy laws at UN level."

Mr Nugent now faces possible prosecution and having his home searched under the terms of the new Defamation Act which came into operation on January 1.

The new law makes it an offence to publish or "utter" material deemed "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted".

Mr Nugent called on Fianna Fail and the Green Party to withdraw the blasphemy section of the new act.

"You would think that after all the scandals the Catholic Church endured in 2009 the introduction of a blasphemy law would be the last thing that the Irish state would be considering in terms of defending religion and its place in society.

"We ask Fianna Fail and the Green Party to repeal their anachronistic blasphemy law, as part of the revision of the Defamation Act that is included within the act. We ask them to hold a referendum to remove the reference to blasphemy from the Irish Constitution."

The Defamation Act contains significant changes to Ireland's libel laws. A libel claim must be made within one year of publication as opposed to the current period of six years. Also, judges can now brief juries on comparative compensation awards.

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