Germany set out its plans to tackle xenophobia in its program for the EU Presidency, which it took over on January 1. It said it would try to harmonize EU penalties for disseminating racist and xenophobic ideas.
Chancellor Angela Merkel touched on briefly the subject today in a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where she outlined her country's priorities for the next six months.
"Europe must never [have] the slightest understanding for intolerance," she said. "Europe must never have the slightest understanding for violence from right-wing and left-wing extremism, for violence in the name of religion."Freedom To Offend
German officials say they are worried about a jump in right-wing violence at home, and say far-right extremists are increasingly linking up across European borders.
"Just because the Nazi Party misappropriated the symbol [shouldn't] mean
it can't be used for religious purposes the way it has been for the
last 5,000-7,000 years."
So they're proposing a Europe-wide ban on denying the Holocaust of Europe's Jews during World War II, which is already a crime in under half the EU's 27 member states, most of them in Central Europe.
Others, like Britain and Sweden, have laws that put greater emphasis on freedom of speech.
So it's no surprise such plans are controversial. But it's the proposed ban on the use of the swastika symbol that is causing the most upset so far.
In Europe, the swastika has become inextricably linked to the Nazis who massacred 6 million Jews during the war. But it's an ancient symbol that appears, with some variations, in several different cultures and religions. Notable among them is Hinduism, the world's third-largest religion.Swastika More Than Nazi Symbol
Ramesh Kallidai says that for Hindus, the swastika is a symbol of peace or good luck that's used widely at weddings, religious ceremonies, or to decorate houses.
Kallidai, who heads the Hindu Forum of Britain, says Europe's politicians should focus not on the swastika itself, but on the context in which it is used.
"What we need to understand is that the same symbol can be used both ways. Very much like, for instance, the Ku Klux Klan had burning crosses to spread hatred in America away back in the last century," Kallidai says. "That did not result in a call for people to say, 'Let us ban the use of crosses across churches.' Similarly, just because the Nazi Party misappropriated the symbol [shouldn't] mean it can't be used for religious purposes the way it has been for the last 5,000-7,000 years."
Kallidai's forum is organizing a campaign with other Hindu groups in continental Europe.
They're hoping Germany's plan will fail, as a similar one did two ago when Luxembourg floated the same idea.
But German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries said earlier this month that the German proposal was more likely to succeed, because Italy, which blocked the Luxembourg plan, now has a new government that is more supportive of the initiative.
Hindus will be waiting to see what other EU countries think of the plan -- and whether they can expect some form of exemption.
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