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Archaic blasphemy law faces last judgment

The fate of the archaic law of blasphemy will be sealed today when European judges decide whether British film censors broke the freedom of expression guarantee by banning the depiction of a nun embracing a crucified Christ.

Blasphemy law is so discredited that the Government has said it would not enforce it. But that did not stop it backing the British Board of Film Classification and its director James Ferman all the way to the Euro- pean Court of Human Rights, after Nigel Wingrove's video Visions of Ecstasy was refused a certificate almost seven years ago to the day.

Apart from quashing the ban on the Wingrove film, a ruling against the Government would lead to the abolition of an old law which excludes Roman Catholics, Methodists, Muslims, Jews or any religion other than Church of England - and does not apply at all in Scotland.

As high-profile productions like Madonna's Like a Prayer video and Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (not banned) have come and gone, Mr Wingrove has got on with the tortuous business of complaining to the Strasbourg authorities. He, and presumably the board and the Video Appeals Committee to whom he unsuccessfully appealed, never imagined that the future of the law of blasphemy might turn on the rejection of a 20-minute video by a then complete unknown.

In it, the deep love of Christ of St Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Carmelite nun, is represented by a series of sensual visions, including scenes where she licks his wounds and embraces him on the Cross. Mr Wingrove said: "It didn't enter my head that it could be blasphemous. I wasn't making a film about Christ. I was making a film about St Teresa." He garnered the support of some churchmen, and Fay Weldon, Marina Warner and Salman Rushdie, who appeared on his behalf in the Strasbourg proceedings. Ironically, his failure to recoup the costs of the film and thousands of pounds of legal costs, led to his current occupation as a distributor of repackaged erotic and horror movies from the Seventies.

Mary Whitehouse's prosecution of Gay News is the only successful case of blasphemy brought since 1922, and at the height of the controversy over the fatwa on Mr Rushdie over The Satanic Verses, John Patten, then a Home Office minister, told Muslims that blasphemy law was "inappropriate for dealing with matters of faith". But in relation to film and video, Mr Fermanand his colleagues have shown themselves willing to deal with such matters - minus the protection of a trial before a jury. The VAC almost never disagrees.

The ruling comes on the same day as the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, represents the Govern- ment in a visit to the Strasbourg court. He wants to impress on it the need for member states to be able to manage their own affairs in accord with national character, traditions, religious beliefs and moral standards - the so-called "margin of appreciation".

Two years ago the European Commission on Human Rights accepted arguments from Geoffrey Robertson QC, Mr Wingrove's counsel, that the ban on Visions of Ecstasy broke the free expression guarantee in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. But at about the same time, a majority of the full court ruled in a case involving an Austrian film that the "margin of appreciation" applied - denying viewers the opportunity to make up their minds themselves.