Bishop steps into row over religious hate crimes
NEW laws are needed to protect people from religious hate crimes because of a gap in existing legislation, the Anglican bishop of Portsmouth said today (June 17).
But the Rt Rev Kenneth Stevenson urged Parliament to proceed carefully because of the difficulty in framing laws to protect people of all faiths from religious persecution. He spoke after hearing details of a disturbing case in Portsmouth in which one Iraqi woman was attacked and intimidated by a mob of around 30 people - because of her Muslim faith.
The bishop served for 11 months on the House of Lords select committee on religious offences, which reported last week (June 10). It concluded that a separate offence of incitement to religious hatred - similar to the existing law on racial hatred - could be controversial and difficult to prosecute. But it said there should be some protection for faith groups and urged Parliament to debate the issue further.
He said today: "I understand that this 25-year-old woman was intimidated by a mob who smashed a window in her front door because she wore the hijab, the Muslim veil. As fellow religious people, we Christians would like to express our horror and disgust at such mindless acts of violence. We will certainly stand alongside our Muslim brothers and sisters in seeking to eradicate this kind of religious persecution.
"It's worth pointing out that this is an isolated incident - relationships between those of different faiths, communities and cultures within Portsmouth are generally good.
"It's also important to remember that the perpetrators of these acts have not yet been caught. It may still be possible to prosecute them under existing laws, such as the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act of 2001in which the penalties for basic crimes of harassment, violence or criminal damage are substantially increased if they are religiously aggravated. It would be wrong to say that existing British law has failed this woman - in fact, existing British law has not yet been tested in this case.
"However, after studying these issues for 11 months, I and my colleagues in the House of Lords were convinced that there was a gap in existing legislation. We listened to a variety of faith groups, groups representing ethnic minorities and humanist groups, but there was difficulty in achieving consensus on how a new law could be framed.
"How, for instance, could a new law make a distinction between crimes with a religious motivation and those with a racial or cultural motivation? In many cases, such hate crimes are motivated by a combination of all three. How could a law be framed in such a way that reflects the religious diversity of the country while at the same time allowing for freedom of expression?
"Our report should be debated by Parliament in the autumn. By then, Parliament will have begun to enact legislation to implement the European Council decision on combating racism and xenophobia, which may be a good opportunity to think again about these issues. We should proceed on this, but with care."