(CNSNews.com) - A British lawmaker says reading excerpts from the Koran that advocate harsh treatment for Christians, Jews and unbelievers would violate a religious hatred bill currently before parliament.
"If this bill makes any sense at all, it must mean banning the reading, in public or private, of a great many passages of the Koran itself," Conservative MP Boris Johnson said.
And that, he added, was "absurd and paradoxical, given that the measure is intended to be a protection against Islamophobia."
The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill edged closer to becoming law Tuesday, after a House of Commons debate and second reading vote.
Lawmakers from both parties who oppose the bill backed a compromise amendment, which would have allowed prosecution only in cases where attacks on religious beliefs were seen to be masking a deeper motivation of inciting racial hatred. However, that amendment was tabled.
During the debate, Johnson read out various excerpts from the Koran regarding the treatment of non-Muslims, including sura 22:19, which read in translation: "As for the unbelievers, for them garments of fire shall be cut and there shall be poured over their heads boiling water whereby whatever is in their bowels and skins shall be dissolved and they will be punished with hooked iron rods."
Johnson said while the Koran was not "unique in its hostility to other creeds," he challenged a government minister to explain "why and how you think the repetition of those words in a public or a private place does not amount to an incitement to religious hatred of exactly the kind this bill is supposed to ban."
The proposed legislation, which has been introduced in a bid to protect Muslims, would apply to "words, behavior, written material, recordings or programs that are threatening, abusive or insulting [and] likely to stir up racial or religious hatred."
Convictions under the law could lead to a seven-year jail sentence.
Home Secretary Charles Clarke told lawmakers the bill was about "hatred and incitement to hatred," assuring them it would not be "stopping anybody telling jokes about religion, stopping anybody ridiculing religions or engaging in robust debate about religion."
It would protect "people, not faiths," he added and assured opponents that proposed amendments would be considered "constructively" in committee.
Critics say the bill in its present form is dangerous and vague, would threaten freedom of speech, and breed more hostility in British society.
This is the third time in as many years that Prime Minister Tony Blair's government is trying to push through the controversial measure.
A first attempt was withdrawn in 2002 because of fierce opposition in the upper House of Lords; a second failed earlier this year when the government removed the religious hatred clause from a broader piece of legislation it wanted to see passed into law before parliament dissolved for the general election in April.
This week, the government argued that while it did not believe there would be many prosecutions under any new laws, parliament needed to make it clear that "hatred, racism and extremism" would not be tolerated.
But Johnson said Islamophobia in Britain was "in danger of being exaggerated" and accused the government of serving its own political ends.
"If a religion is worth believing it ought to be strong enough, frankly, to withstand the most scurrilous and monstrous attacks and, if a religion is worth believing in, those assaults should diminish the critics and not the religion itself," he said.
Artists and writers have responded with skepticism to repeated government assurances that they would not face prosecution because only complaints approved by the attorney-general would go to court.
"Mr. Bean" actor Rowan Atkinson has voiced reservations that a politician "subject to the political agendas of the day" should hold such discretionary powers.
The government may see it as desirable at some point "to prosecute a few writers or journalists or playwrights in their desire to ingratiate themselves with a particular religious community," he said this week.
Christian groups and civil liberties campaigners have also expressed concerns about the bill.
The bill also aims to protect people defined by their lack of faith, such as atheists and humanists, as well as satanists, pagans and members of religious sects.
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.