The Council of Europe now has 47 member states – and 53 countries, includ-
ing six outside Europe, are involved in the Venice Commission. The concept
of Europe that the Council of Europe and the Venice Commission are proud to
uphold and promote is based on the principle of inclusion in a context of diver-
sity. Indeed, we are convinced that diversity is, and must be, a source of mutual
enrichment fostering political, intercultural and interfaith dialogue.
We believe there is but one civilisation, with a cultural, religious and humanist
heritage rooted in common values and principles. This civilisation encompasses
a range of religious, social, political, historical and legal elements, which may
be so similar as to be indistinguishable, although that is not necessarily the case.
Our societies are evolving, intersecting and mingling as a result of modernisa-
tion and globalisation. Owing to the presence of cultures and religions other
than those that were clearly in the majority until quite recently, new models are
constantly being introduced, and new challenges thrown up. Fear of loss of iden-
tity and assimilation could – but must not – prompt us to take refuge in past trad-
itions, refusing to reappraise them in the light of new situations both now and in
the future. Rising to such challenges, rather than ignoring them, will make our
societies stronger and further their development. This calls, however, for discus-
sion and a willingness to learn and compromise.
The law is an excellent means of democratisation, as the Venice Commission,
whose full title is the European Commission for Democracy through Law, can
attest: democracies have to be subject to the rule of law and respect human
rights and fundamental freedoms. In the complex, multicultural society we now
live in, however, respecting human rights with the degree of sophistication to
which Europe is accustomed is not necessarily straightforward. These rights
overlap and sometimes clash. We are here for the very purpose of discussing
the clash between freedom of expression, particularly artistic expression, and
freedom of conscience and religion.
The preliminary point should be made that this is not a clash between categories
of people, but between the interests each individual may uphold at a given time.
The same person invoking his or her freedom of conscience today may tomor-
row invoke his or her freedom of expression. It is therefore in the interests of all
of us to arrive at a balanced solution to this clash.
1. Art and Sacred Beliefs: from Collision to Co-existence
Secretary of the Venice Commission
Blasphemy, insult and hatred
I also wish to point out that, in Europe, each and every one of us enjoys rights
and fundamental freedoms, and that states are duty-bound to guarantee them for
everyone under their jurisdiction, irrespective of citizenship, religion or culture.
Ignoring an individual’s rights on the pretext that he or she does not possess citi-
zenship of a European state is contrary to the European Convention on Human
Rights. Furthermore, any restriction on fundamental rights must be necessary in
a democratic society, which means an inclusive society built on the contributions
of each individual.
Freedom of expression is a key component of the democratic process. It is not
absolute, however; restrictions on it include defamatory libel and incitement to
violence and hatred, inter alia of a racial or religious nature.
We can and must restrict freedom of expression where this is necessary in a
democratic society, but cannot and must not make it subject to a duty of respect.
A newspaper article or work of literature or art cannot be prohibited solely on
the grounds that it shows irreverence towards an established order or a shared
belief, even one shared by the majority of the population. Certain statements
may shock some of the population, in which case they must be refuted, con-
demned and rejected. They must be countered by the means available within
a democratic society, such as debate and protest. On no account, however, is
there any excuse whatsoever for resorting to violence or threats against those
who utter them.
Legal proceedings can also be an effective way to combat intolerant and offen-
sive statements, such as those inciting hatred. According to the Venice Commis-
sion’s study of criminal legislation in this area, the latter is a criminal offence
in almost all Council of Europe member states. Existing legislation should be
applied comprehensively, properly and without discrimination. “Race” must not
be deemed more important than “religion” when it comes to punishing insults
or incitement to hatred. Nor must a religious group’s status unduly influence its
treatment when it is the perpetrator of an offence rather than the victim.
However, the Venice Commission has come to the conclusion that criminal pro-
visions afford only a partial solution to intolerance. It is of the view that, in a
democratic society, intolerance and prejudice are more effectively countered by
means of public debate.
Just like other groups within society, religious groups have to tolerate public
statements and debates critical of their activities, teachings and beliefs, provided
that such criticism does not consist of deliberate, gratuitous insults or incitement
to disturb public order or discriminate against followers of a particular religion.
National authorities must give due and proportionate consideration to religious
groups’ sensibilities when deciding whether or not to impose and enforce restric-
tions on freedom of expression. Modern societies must not be taken hostage
Conference on Art and Sacred Beliefs: from Collision to Co-existence
by such sensibilities, even if they are expressed in many parts of the world,
including locations other than that of the incident having aroused them.
It must be emphasised, however, that the exercise of free speech entails duties
and responsibilities, as stipulated in Article 10 of the European Convention on
Human Rights. Accordingly, we shall discuss the existence of an “ethic of respon-
sibility” for artists and the media, which is an avenue worth exploring. It may be
the case that not enough attention has hitherto been given to the need to improve
the communication skills of both the media and religious groups.
Finally, I would like to say a few words about the approach we have adopted for
this round-table conference. We believe it is possible to move on from confront-
ation to the co-existence of the right to artistic freedom and freedom of expression,
on the one hand, and the right to respect for one’s beliefs, on the other. We are
keen to identify ways of doing so, and are open to any practical, constructive
Today we have brought together representatives of very different cultures, reli-
gions, backgrounds and occupations. We have also invited our non-European
friends to talk about their experiences and share their opinions and their reactions
to our ideas.
If this round-table conference is to achieve the results sought by the Venice
Commission, however, our statements must not be dictated by our intellec-
tual comfort zones or the certainty of our own immunity to intolerance. It is
all too easy to assume that only other people are intolerant. Dialogue, espe-
cially intercultural dialogue, based on such a premise will never be successful.
Any discussion held under such conditions would be false, and this round-table
conference would be completely pointless.
As a lawyer, when dealing with cases of freedom of art and its limits, I feel
as awkward as an engineer would feel, if called to give solutions to practical
problems, having no tools, but merely abstract concepts in hand.
For there is no such thing as a generally accepted definition of the notion of
“art”. Therefore, every time one comes across a case that explores possible
restrictions on artistic creation, it does not suffice to claim that the latter is free
and hence protected; first one needs to clarify whether or not the work at issue
is indeed a work of art. In our legal systems, if the competent court is convinced
on this matter, it is highly likely that we reach a judgment in our favour. If not,
then, in all likelihood, the case is lost.
But which are the criteria that would allow us to claim that painting A is a work
of art, while painting B is not? If in relation to a Picasso or a David painting, the
name of the creator alone would be enough to convince, then the case might
be more complicated for a new artist. It is similarly the case when the question
is raised in relation to the work of a well-known artist who, however, happens
to be unknown to the bench. Will we rely on the judges’ aesthetics? Or should
we resort to experts’ opinions? And if we opt for the second option, who would
these experts be eventually?
These are some of the great dilemmas that a legist (in particular, a practising
lawyer) comes across when handling such cases. And it does not come as a
surprise that he or she might feel insecure.
However, I did not prefix the above examples just to gain the reader’s sympathy;
what I wished was to introduce the foundation upon which I will attempt to base
the reflections that follow. This foundation is not to be found in solid legal cer-
titude, but rather in the drifting sand of abstract notions. Thus, you should not
expect clear-cut solutions from this approach, but rather criteria, which, again,
might not always lead to the best outcome in all cases.
Religious beliefs are much stronger compared to other beliefs, equally signifi-
cant, but ones that do not concern equally intimate choices. Each person’s rela-
tion with the metaphysical is usually so complex and special that a relevant
offence of similar emotions might well cause a disproportionately severe shock
– so severe that it would be natural, not just for the victim, but further for every
2. Art and religious beliefs: the limits of liberalism
Nicos C. Alivizatos
Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Athens, Greece
Blasphemy, insult and hatred
sensitive person, not to tolerate such an offence. In brief, religious beliefs glo-
bally enjoy a higher level of protection – compared to that guaranteed for politi-
cal, philosophical, national or other relations between a person and a certain
group, faith or theory – because offences against religious beliefs affect the most
intimate part of a person’s inner world.
On the other hand, I have the impression – though I am not an expert – that
a constituent element of art, in general and of each particular work of art, is
that it refers or addresses itself to the general public, irrespective of political,
national, philosophical, religious, racial or other affiliations. This is probably
why the broader the public that is moved by a certain work of art (usually even
after the lapse of several years after its creation), the more significant the latter
Therefore, the special protection reserved for religious beliefs (on the one hand)
and the special protection reserved for art – on the basis of the universality or
breadth of the public, beyond geographic or other affiliations, to which a work
of art is addressed – (on the other hand) constitute the two pivots of the main
argument underlying my approach on the limits of liberalism in the field of art,
whenever a work of art “hurts” – directly or indirectly – the religious beliefs of
those to whom it is addressed.
For example, if there had been a movie based on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, it would not have been the same if that film had been broadcast in a
cinema in central Athens as opposed to a cinema in a town of purely Muslim
population in Thrace, such as Echinos. The same would be the case with a novel
that violently criticised Zionism: while it could be freely on sale in bookstores, it
would have been impermissible to distribute it outside a synagogue at the end
of a religious ritual. Lastly, a cover of a magazine featuring a cartoon of our late
Archbishop Christodoulos (one of those occasionally published by his critics)
would have been truly inconceivable as something to be handed out to those
attending his funeral.
All the above examples refer to the context, that is, the circumstances under
which it is legitimate for a work of art to be exposed. When these circumstances,
taken together with the work’s content, cease to pertain to the general public
and instead aim (often deliberately) at a distinct group, with the (obvious) inten-
tion to strike at the group members’ religious beliefs, I support the view that it is
legitimate for restrictions to the freedom of art to be introduced. In such cases, it
would not really be restrictions on the artist’s freedom to create, but on his/her
discretion to choose how to present a certain work to the public. In other words,
such a restriction would not affect the content of a work itself, but would consti-
tute a mere and only marginal restriction on the work’s free presentation and dis-
semination, using as a criterion the focalisation and individualisation that each
presentation and dissemination bear.
Conference on Art and Sacred Beliefs: from Collision to Co-existence
According to this criterion, since it seems there was not such intention to individu-
alise, I consider the judgments given by the European Court of Human Rights –
on the well-known cases of Otto Preminger v. Austria, in 1994, and Wingrove v. the UK, in 1996 – to be false. In the first case, because the Court overlooked
the fact that the broadcast of the particular movie did not take place in a central
venue, but in a small cinéfile cinema, with a clear forewarning to the public on
what it was about to watch; in the second case, because the contentious work
was not even going to be openly broadcast, but was only going to be distrib-
uted as a video. Therefore, in both cases, prospective spectators were aware of
the “risk” they were taking. Under these circumstances, the ban to broadcast the
work was not legitimate, since it surpassed the aim for which it was imposed.
Fortunately, on the occasion of – and this has to be stressed – a series of Turk-
ish cases, the Strasbourg Court shifted from its previous case law on the issue to
hold that a possible offence of religious beliefs caused by a work of art does not
justify restrictions on the author’s literary style and philosophical-religious views.
On the same ground, equally false was the interim prohibition imposed on
the screening of the film The Last Temptation by Martin Scorsese in Athens, in
1998; the confiscation of Mr Androulakis’s novel M v (M to the power of n) in
Thessaloniki, in 2000; the removal of a painting by Belgian artist Thierry de
Cordier during the Outlook exhibition in Athens, in 2003; the confiscation of
a comic book entitled Life of Jesus by Austrian cartoonist Gerhard Handerer,
also in 2003; and the removal of a video by E. Stephani from the Art Athina
exhibition, in 2007.
This is not the appropriate occasion to refer in detail to the circumstances and
peculiarities of each of the above incidents. What underlies all of them, though,
is that the enforcement of the above measures against the works was the result of
action taken by groups of fundamentalist Greek Orthodox, who were complain-
ing that the contentious works offended their religious beliefs. Luckily, in none of
the above cases were the restrictions imposed (against the artists, dealers and
others) confirmed in the main proceedings that followed the interim measures.
Let us go ahead now with implementing the individualisation criterion on the
incomparably more sensitive aspect, which is the content of the work of art itself:
is it legitimate for a religious leader to oppose a direct, and probably extrava-
gant, satire against him in a play or movie? Do the followers of a certain religion
have the same right? The above example does not focus on the restriction on the
way a work of art is presented (that is, the work’s context), but on its very con-
tent. Would not the endorsement of such restrictions be equal to an unacceptable
shrinkage of the freedom of artistic work?
Thus, we reach the core of the individualisation argument, since in such cases,
the restriction concerns the artist himself and not his/her manager. At this point,
two running distinctions can prove useful:
Blasphemy, insult and hatred
Firstly, there is a distinction between a person and a group that is a religious
community. With the exception of marginal and blatantly gross insults, I consider
that it is only when a specific individual’s religious beliefs are hurt by a work
of art that such restrictions could be found plausible – because, in such cases,
the pain caused can be intolerable. In contrast, it would be hard to imagine the
imposition of such restrictions when the artist does not offend individuals, but
rather a certain religious group in an impersonal way: “the Catholics are … the
Muslims are…”. Of course, the question raised is how individualisation should
be defined in each specific case.
At this point, it is important to clarify what is the specific object of the offence. In
particular, I consider that, along with other human beliefs and feelings, religious
beliefs are not that solid and cohesive, but instead encompass a gradation.
According to the distinction made by paragraph 1 of Article 9 of the European
Convention on Human Rights, a person’s freedom of conscience and religion
includes their inner world (intérieur) as well as that person’s right to change reli-
gion or beliefs at any time, without formalities and with no adverse implications
on him and his family.
A second level includes the person’s freedom, either alone or with others, in pub-
lic or in private, to manifest their religion or beliefs. Lastly, in the periphery of this
freedom, lies religious practice.
I reckon that an imaginary diagram, which consists of three homocentric circles,
can be helpful to classify offences to the religious beliefs of a certain person as
more or less tolerable. The closer the offence gets to the freedom’s core, that is,
to the freedom of religious consciousness, the less tolerable it should be.
For example, a work of art that questions the sincerity of a religious leader’s
beliefs or a specific believer’s faith should be less bearable than another that
simply criticises the way the same leader or person manifests their beliefs. Even
greater tolerance should be shown towards critics of everyday religious prac-
tices, such as use of the Muslims’ scarf, the fast, the cross.
The above approach – in particular, the focalisation and individualisation cri-
terion – provides, I would like to believe, an indicator for that exceptional point
where freedom of art reaches its limits, because the pain that this freedom may
cause to a specific person could be disproportionate. This criterion has the privi-
lege that it can be applied both to the way a work of art is presented, that is,
the circumstances, and to the work’s content. Its application might not be always
easy; however, it facilitates the ad hoc deliberation that aims to reach a sound
solution in each particular case.
This is a place infused with art and history, to which Alfred de Musset paid the
greatest possible homage by writing, in his Premières Poésies:
O Greece! Of arts, idolatry, the land,
Of my insensate vows the country grand.
Whether by deliberate choice or happy coincidence, we are here in this “land
of arts” to discuss the complex, sensitive theme of Art and Sacred Beliefs: from
Collision to Co-existence, in relation to both the various fields on which it touches,
particularly those pertaining to cultures, civilisations, human rights and beliefs,
and the tensions it provokes in a world that is increasingly prey to intolerance
and violence as forms of expression. However, our theme is also an appeal to
humanity, in its rich plurality and diversity, to take up the challenge of confront-
ation and win the gamble of co-existence, yet without undermining the sacro-
sanct principle of freedom.
This is a difficult challenge, since it is a matter of balancing freedom with the
sacred beliefs of every human being, and safeguarding freedom of expression,
which feeds artistic creativity, while respecting other people’s sacred beliefs: in
short, arriving at an enduring, continually renewed equilibrium between art and
religion. In a world built on plurality and diversity, human beings’ co-existence
is conditional upon a lasting balance between the two fundamental values of
freedom and respect for sacred beliefs, both of which are at once demanding
Freedom is a universal human value. Let us listen to the words of the French poet
and author Alfred de Musset, on whom I shall once again call. With his usual
magical mastery of language, he describes it as follows:
Wealth is less than life, life less than love,
love less than liberty! Yes, liberty!
The word must have some meaning, since
these past five thousand years peoples have been
intoxicated by its utterance.
I have no intention of going back over what has already been said about free-
dom of expression and freedom of belief, or the limitations of the law as a
solution to blasphemy and other insults to people’s sacred beliefs via images,
writings or painting. The aims of my contribution are modest. With a view to
3. An ethics of responsibility for artists
President of the Constitutional Council of Algeria
Blasphemy, insult and hatred
taking forward the debate on the existence of an ethic of responsibility for
artists, I shall give my esteemed audience a few historical examples of such an
ethic, which is crucial if human beings are to co-exist, as they can and must.
This co-existence is vital for the future of humanity; it can be achieved, as long
as human beings, all human beings, are prepared to enter into calm, frank and
sincere dialogue, so that they can all get to know one another, understand what
causes hurt to others, accept one another and learn to live together in spite of
For surely human beings anywhere and everywhere have no choice but to live
alongside one another, to accept one another, to tolerate one another and even
to endure one another, in spite of their differences, if confrontation is to be
While it is now difficult to dispute the existence of universal values forming the
“hard core” of the human being, it is equally difficult to deny the existence of
values and cultures by which individuals and peoples identify and distinguish
themselves. As an expression of the universal and distinctive aspects of these
values and cultures, art can help to bring people together and ward off the spec-
tre of confrontation.
As an aesthetic form, art’s ultimate goal is to arouse emotions and sensations,
to strike a chord, to attract positive aesthetic judgments, to elicit sensitivity and
to enchant. Poets, for example, who possess the “art of combining words, tones
and rhythms to evoke images and suggest sensations and emotions”, according
to an encyclopaedia definition, are themselves imbued with emotion and sensi-
tivity. As Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), the renowned Muslim theologian
and intellectual, said in this connection:
He who enchants not the springtime
And its flowers,
Who cradles not the lute and its strings,
Has a morbid nature
For which he has no cure.
In their relations with others, poets – as creators of dreams – cannot attract nega-
tive judgments without betraying their own sensibilities or tarnishing the dreams
they procure for others, and hence their very