Greek government drops plan to criminalize blasphemy

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek officials Tuesday scrapped plans to criminalize blasphemy as a law-and-order debate intensified between the country's new conservative government and the left-wing opposition.

Justice Minister Costas Tsiaras said the proposal has been removed from draft legislation that's being debated in Parliament. It would have made blasphemy punishable by up to two years in prison.

The proposal had been widely criticized.

"Only fundamentalist countries in Asia and the Middle East have laws like that," said Spyros Lappas a left-wing lawmaker who is the lead representative of his party in the parliamentary debate. "God does not need protection from a public prosecutor."

But the majority Greek Orthodox Church had backed the amendment, arguing that it would help in "preserving the religious sentiment of the faithful."

Tsiaras said the proposed measures had been aimed at countering protests outside newly created migrant camps on the Greek mainland where authorities are concerned about escalating tensions in local communities as well as far-right groups. Tsiaras said authorities were worried about the potential of racially-motivated protests against Muslim camp-dwellers.

"This was not about some kind of a return to theocracy," Tsiaras said. "But since the issue has created such a debate, we did not want it to monopolize the issue of criminal justice reform."

Greek authorities are currently moving thousands of migrants and refugees from camps on islands near the coast of Turkey to the mainland — but have faced protests including road blockades and other attempts to divert buses transporting migrants to new facilities. In northern Greece on the weekend, protesters held a pork-and-wine barbeque outside the walls of one camp — an action aimed at highlighting differences between local residents and Muslim migrants.

The four-month old conservative government is also locked in a law-and-order spat with opposition parties after ordering police to clear squats in Athens and search university campus grounds that are normally off limits for suspected drug trafficking and groups of organized violent protesters.

Long-standing anti-blasphemy laws were scrapped in 2016 by the previous left-wing government.

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