Verdonk backs away from anti-blasphemy proposal

Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk is resisting Cabinet plans to tighten the law against blasphemy and religious insults. She claims the proposal will lead to a lower level of tolerance in the Netherlands and is primarily targeted at Muslims.

Christian Democrat CDA Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner broached the issue at a party congress in Utrecht on Saturday, saying that the government intended to widen the scope to penalise offensive and blasphemous statements.

Donner said people may not be allowed to offend others in regards their beliefs, asserting that blasphemy and the insulting of different groups in the Netherlands has now breached acceptable limits.

But he also added that he did not mean to imply that murdered filmmaker Theo van Gogh — who was known for his anti-Islamic statements and the film "Submission" which focused on domestic abuse in Muslim households — breached acceptable limits.

The joint proposal to widen the anti-blasphemy laws was drawn up by Donner and Liberal VVD Interior Minister Johan Remkes and was sent to the Dutch Parliament last week. The letter was also written on behalf of VVD Minister Verdonk, newspaper NRC reported Monday.

But Verdonk now appears to be having second thoughts. Speaking in the television programme Buitenhof Sunday, she said that freedom of expression should be given priority.

"I would like to point out that we have a Muslim community in the Netherlands that has a lower level of acceptance than the average Dutch person," she said.

Verdonk also said she did not believe that Donner meant that the Netherlands should have a lower tolerance level when it comes to criticising or attacking religion. She also claimed the proposal was targeted at the Muslim community, raising concern about accepting the religious sensitivities of the Muslim community as the general norm.

Verdonk said there were acceptable limits to offensive statements, but pointed out that Donner had not targeted gay hate and anti-women sermons. She said the minister wished to issue a signal from the "Christian Democrat corner".

Government coalition party Democrat D66 is also opposed to Donner's proposal, claiming that laws against blasphemy should be abolished, Dutch public news service NOS reported.

Labour PvdA MP Aleid Wolfsen welcomed Donner's proposal, labelling it "religiously neutral", while populist LPF MP Joost Eerdmans said the minister was had done a disservice to freedom of expression. He intends to raise the matter in parliament Tuesday.

Meanwhile, in response to recent attacks against mosques and churches in the Netherlands after the murder of Van Gogh earlier this month, Verdonk said "small groups" are responsible for the violence and that radicalism must be fought from both sides.