Britain limits EU religious hatred ban

Brussels, Belgium - Britain has narrowed the scope of a European Union-wide ban on incitement to religious hatred in a proposed anti-racism law, diplomats said on Tuesday.

The British move means EU justice ministers are likely to agree this week on anti-racism legislation that will be significantly watered down from original proposals put forward six years ago, the diplomats said.

The new legislation requires EU states to punish incitement to hatred against religion only if it is a pretext to incite hatred against a group or person because of national or ethnic origin, race or colour, a draft seen by Reuters shows.

One EU diplomat said this was a longstanding British demand, aimed at making sure that religion could be criticised as long as it was not done with racist intent.

"This framework decision targets racism and xenophobia specifically ... Religious hatred is therefore covered where it is both serious and racist or xenophobic," a British official said.

Diplomats stressed that countries could continue to punish hatred against religion more broadly even once the EU text is adopted, as tougher national rules would still be allowed.

EU justice ministers meeting on Thursday in Luxembourg will adopt the legislation provided they solve one last outstanding issue, diplomats said: whether and how to mention denial of crimes committed under Soviet communist rule.

Baltic EU states wanted the text to mention the possibility of prosecuting the "public condoning, denying or grossly trivialising crimes against humanity under the Stalin regime".

Estonia, like its Baltic neighbours Latvia and Lithuania, was incorporated into the Soviet Union by force in 1940 and subjected to five decades of repressive communist rule.

One EU official said other countries considered this had nothing to do with racism, but added that diplomats were confident a compromise would be found.

The EU has struggled for almost six years over proposals for an EU-wide anti-racism law which would include harmonised rules on punishing claims that the Holocaust of European Jews by Nazi Germany never took place, as well as racism in general.

But EU states failed to agree on a way to outlaw genocide denial, and diplomats said countries had agreed on a compromise that would allow them to retain their own legislation.