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Europe: Case Of Swedish Pastor Convicted Of Hate Speech Tests Limits Of Freedom

A Swedish pastor convicted of hate speech for a sermon denouncing homosexuality is appealing his sentence of a month in prison. Aake Green told an appeals court in southern Sweden that all he did was enlighten people on what the Bible says. RFE/RL reports that the case has divided Swedes about where the balance lies between tolerance and free expression.

Prague, 21 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Aake Green is the first minister in Sweden to be convicted for the content of a sermon. The country's law forbidding hate speech against religious and ethnic groups is long-standing. The parliament, the Riksdag, added homosexuals as a protected class in 2002.

The 63-year-old Green, a Pentecostal minister, preached the offending sermon in 2003. In it, he said that what he called the "sexual abnormality" of gay people is like a cancer on society. He warned that Sweden risks a natural disaster because of its tolerance toward gays and lesbians and said AIDS has its roots in homosexuality.
Unlike Americans, who set free speech on a pedestal above all other rights, he says Europeans consider free speech as one right among many.

In court, prosecutors said Green's sermon amounted to the equivalent of a racist shouting the Nazi "Sieg Heil" and called for Green to serve six months in prison. They argued that to quote the Bible is allowed. But to pile up citations from the Bible and then to add one's own condemnation crosses the line.

Roul Akesson of the Christian group Network Europe led 200 people to the appeals court hearing on 21 January to support Green. Others outside the court demonstrated against him. Akesson tells RFE/RL that his group favors free expression but that it is not antigay: "We meet these people in many places, and we have good contact with them. We can talk about these things and also say to them what we believe in the Bible and they can say what they believe. We have no problem -- the Christians in Sweden -- we have no problem with homosexual people."

Akesson said the law, as applied in this case, prevents ministers from preaching the word of the Bible: "We can see that [Green] has the right to preach all the things from the Bible. And when this law is working, we have no [such] freedom. In Sweden, we have a real problem with this new law."

Green's lawyer said his client is protected by the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Green's appeal hearing attracted modest attention across Europe. In parts of the United States, it has aroused passions. A church in the U.S. state of Kansas, Westboro Baptist Church -- which is known for its outspoken opposition to homosexuals -- calls Green a "Christian martyr" on a website called "God Hates Fags."

Gerhard Robbers of the European Consortium for Church and State Research says the Green case illustrates the subtle distinctions in European attitudes toward regulating speech. Europeans defend free speech, he said, but are unlike Americans, who set free speech on a pedestal above all other rights. He says Europeans consider free speech as one right among many: "I would think that the Swedish case would be on the front line. It is probably not the average thinking to say that the preacher must not say [what he said in the sermon]. He may have well been able to say that in Germany. He may have well been able to say that in France. Sweden takes more interest -- let me say that -- in protecting certain minorities than other countries would do."

Robbers says Green clearly was free to preach that he believes the Bible condemns homosexuality. But, Robbers says, when his sermon continued with inflammatory language such as "cancer on society," Green arguably went too far: "My personal view is that I certainly strongly disagree with what the minister has said. But I think that he should have been able to say that without having been punished. But that's my personal view. That would not necessarily be the view of the law."

Robbers says Europeans are probably thinking of similar situations involving other religions and their leaders: "I think in the background of the case, in European minds, is that hate speeches by Muslim preachers would also give rise to legal prosecution, if you like."

Could these kinds of restrictions lead to suppression of other kinds of speech -- say, for example, the negative portrayal of the Jew Shylock in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice"? Robbers is skeptical: "Well, I wouldn't think so. No, I wouldn't think so. That's a piece of art. No, no, no. Certainly not."

A verdict in the case is expected next month. Green says he will take the case to the Supreme Court if need be.