Attending Europe’s largest annual human rights and democracy conference, representatives of the European Humanist Federation (EHF) have highlighted the enduring presence of blasphemy laws on the statute books of many European nations, and appealed for an end to religiously-inspired restrictions on free speech.

Speaking at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Human Dimension Implementation meeting in Warsaw, Benoît Feyt of the Belgian secularist organisation Centre d’Action Laïque told delegates that "blasphemy" or "religious insult" remains an offence in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Spain, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Russia and Turkey. He then outlined a number of recent European blasphemy cases:

Just to give you a few examples, last year, in Greece, a young scientist was arrested and charged for blasphemy just for setting a Facebook page mocking a monk. In the same country, two actors were arrested because they took part in play considered as blasphemous. In Turkey, the famous musician, Fazil Say, was recently sentenced to 10-month of prison because of “insulting religious beliefs held by a section of the society” just because he tweeted a few lines of the poet Omar Khayyam. And I won’t even bother to mention what happened to the 'Pussy Riot' in Russia, a story I’m sure you all know as well as I do.

Feyt ended by calling on European states to uphold international conventions on free speech and freedom of religion by repealing their blasphemy laws:

Let me just remind you that freedom of expression is protected by all major international human rights instruments. The European Court of Human Rights, for instance, has stressed on many occasions that freedom of expression constitutes “one of the essential foundations of [a democratic] society”, and that “it is applicable also to ideas that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population”.

This is why the Belgian Centre d’Action Laïque and the European Humanist Federation ask the OSCE to urge its member states to remove blasphemy crime from their domestic laws.

The conference also heard from the EHF's Hans Christian Cars, who noted a study by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency which revealed that "almost half of all lesbian women, gay men, bi-sexual or transgender people were exposed to harassment or discrimination in Europe during the past year".

Referring to the recent passage in Russia of a law banning “the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations”, Cars suggested a link between anti-gay policies and the close relationship between Vladimir Putin's government and the Orthodox Church under Patriarch Kirill. In addition to calling on Putin to repeal the anti-gay legislation, Cars also called for the release of the two imprisoned members of Pussy Riot.

For more on the continuing use of blasphemy laws, both in Europe and across the globe, see our World of Blasphemy series, which profiles the way in which such laws are used in individual states.