Government plans renewed bid to tackle religious hatred

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The Government is to launch a renewed attempt to make inciting religious hatred a criminal offence, David Blunkett will confirm today.

The Government is to launch a renewed attempt to make inciting religious hatred a criminal offence, David Blunkett will confirm today.

The Home Secretary will highlight new moves to tackle religious and political extremists.

The new offence was likely to be closely modelled on the existing crime of inciting racial hatred which carries a maximum penalty of seven years' imprisonment.

Making it a crime to incite religious hatred could help protect minority religions from attack by right-wing groups.

But it could also be deployed against fundamentalist Islamists, as well as other extremists, who preach against Christian society.

Mr Blunkett was expected to say the move would "help tackle the extremists who use religion to stir up hatred in our society, including religious extremists who preach hate against other religions".

He was expected to announce that the Government will be introducing the new offence "as soon as possible".

The Government first tried to bring in the offence in 2001 as part of a package of emergency measures in the weeks following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

But it was dropped in the face of strong opposition in the House of Lords.

This time ministers hope to win Parliamentary backing, a Home Office spokeswoman said.

The Home Secretary was expected to say that extremists must be "faced down" in order to promote a positive and inclusive sense of British identity.

He will say that political and religious extremists have no mandate to represent the communities they claim to represent and that all Britons have a responsibility to challenge the myths and stereotypes they use.

Incitement to racial hatred is already an offence under the Public Order Act 1986, defined as using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent or likelihood to stir up racial hatred.

This existing offence covers inflammatory comments made in public or in the media, as well as the distribution of printed material.

The maximum penalty was raised from two to seven years in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.

In his speech in central London this morning the Home Secretary will also say there is enormous strength in our diversity as a nation.

He will add that people need to be reassured that the move would not be about assimilation into a common culture, and that the Government does not support a "single identity".

Mr Blunkett will point out that 8% of the population describe themselves as from an minority ethnic background and that many have made an enormous contribution in all areas of Britain's national life.

Ministers were working to ensure that people's opportunities are not restricted by their race, culture or religious beliefs, he will add.

But the Islamic Human Rights Commission raised concerns that religious minorities could find themselves the targets of prosecutions under the proposed legislation, rather than enjoying additional protection from it.

Those charged under the existing laws against incitement to racial hatred have been disproportionately drawn from black and ethnic minority groups, pointed out chairman Massoud Shadjareh.

He warned that, if Mr Blunkett's proposals became law, legal battles could be expected over future rows between religious groups such as that sparked by the portrayal of Jews in Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ.

Mr Shadjareh said: "We are very concerned that this legislation could infringe freedom of speech and will be used against religious minorities, rather than protecting them, just like the only other legislation we have got which is similar to it.

"The first prosecution for incitement to racial hatred was against black activist Michael X, and subsequently those found guilty have largely been from the black and ethnic minority communities, when the legislation was supposed to have been brought in to protect them.

"In the light of the well-recognised institutional Islamophobic society that we have at the moment, this legislation could very well be used against Muslim communities, rather than protecting them."

The Labour peer Lord Desai said there were a "lot of difficulties" with Mr Blunkett's plans.

"We will get in a real muddle if we take religion as a basis for prosecution rather than race," he said on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

He predicted the plans would "have a very, very difficult time" in the Lords.