Swedish gay hate priest launches appeal

A priest who was sentenced to one month in prison for making offensive remarks about gay people is appealing against the verdict, reigniting a debate that has pitted freedom of expression against the rights of minorities.

Åke Green, a pastor in the Pentacostalist church in Borgholm, was convicted last year under a controversial Swedish law that forbids agitation against certain minorities, including homosexuals. Green said in a sermon in 2003 that “sexual abnormality is a deep tumour that spreads across the whole body of society”, and claimed that homosexuality could lead to paedophilia.

At the original trial in Kalmar, the court ruled that Green’s speech amounted to a deep insult to homosexuals as a group, and that it was intended to incite hatred of gay people. The trial was the first to be held since Sweden’s laws on incitement to hatred of minority groups were extended in 2003 to cover homosexualtity.

The appeal has reawoken a debate on the merits of the law, with many religious groups claiming that their rights to free speech are being curtailed. Green’s supporters held a demonstration near the courthouse in Jönköping, which is the centre of Sweden’s Pentacostalist movement, on Tuesday.

Sydsvenska Dagbladet reported that Pentacostalist congregations in the town were praying for Sweden “to walk away from sin, and become a Christian country again.” Pastor Roine Swensson, from a congregation in Malmö, had traveled to Jönköping to follow the case. He agreed with the arguments expressed in Åke Green’s sermon.

“Homosexuality is an unwholsome inclination that is in direct conflict with the Bible. This is something that people should have the right to say,” he said.

The court has been inundated with letters from protestors, mostly supporting Green’s sermon. Leading figures in the Swedish evangelical churches supported Green’s case, although were critical of the type of language that he had used.

“His sermon was altogether too careless and sweeping in the way he expressed himself,” said Sten-Gunnar Hedin, official spokesman for the Swedish Pentacostalist movement. Stefan Gustavsson, head of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance, said that there was an important question of free speech at stake.

Green's case has attracted attention from across the world. An extremist American Christian movement, the Westboro Baptist Church, started a web campaign in his support entitled God Hates Sweden. Green has since distanced himself from the Westboro church.

It was not only churches that were coming out in favour of Green. In an article in Dagens Nyheter, the Swedish press ombudsman Olle Stenholm said that jailing Green would simply make him a martyr. Stenholm argued that the pastor should be released and be made to defend his beliefs “in a free and open debate.”

“Awkward, unpleasant views are precisely those that must be defended by the state,” he wrote. “Freedom of speech is not for the benefit of those in power; it is a basic human right that belongs to everybody.”

But Sören Andersson, chairman of RFSL, the Swedish gay rights movement, said that the case had nothing to do with freedom of expression, and that no special exceptions should be made for religious groups.

Andersson added that Green was a dangerous man, whose sermon had helped legitimize violence against gay people. He said that he was puzzled by the debate, and pointed out that the pastor had been convicted of the same crime as a number right-wing extremists.

“Why don’t they [Åke Green’s supporters] use the same argument to defend neo-Nazis?” he said. “Many of them have said the same things about gays and bisexuals, without getting support from newspapers, and withoug being referred to as ‘political prisoners’”.