DUBLIN Ireland will change a law that provides prison sentences for the crime of "blasphemous libel" but cannot abolish it altogether without a referendum to change the constitution, the justice minister said on Friday.
Dermot Ahern said he would repeal a 1961 act under which blasphemous libel can lead to a jail term of seven years, but added a new law was needed instead due to a constitutional requirement to punish blasphemy.
"Those who argue that, where the constitution has ordained an offence, a minister should simply ignore it to suit his ideological positions, seems to me to be arguing for a clear constitutional provision to be wilfully ignored," Ahern wrote in an opinion piece for the Irish Times.
The traditionally Catholic country's Constitution Review Group said in a 1996 report the offence of blasphemy should be dropped from the constitution as it is ambiguous and potentially clashes with the freedom of speech and conscience.
But Ahern said a referendum would have to be held to change the Irish constitution and that would be a "costly diversion."
Britain last year abolished its law against blasphemy -- an offence prosecuted in many Muslim countries -- and Ahern's critics said he was taking a "retrograde" step by proposing a fine of up to 100,000 euros (89, 348 pounds) for the crime.
"We are faced with the creation of a new offence, the parameters and reach of which are altogether uncertain," the Irish Examiner newspaper wrote on Friday.
Under Ahern's proposals, blasphemous material would only be prosecutable if it is "grossly abusive or insulting in matters held sacred by a religion," causes actual outrage among adherents of that religion and there is intent to cause outrage.
"Such intent was not previously required," Ahern said.
The Constitution Review Group, which was set up by the government, said in its 1996 report it was not clear whether the constitutional reference to blasphemy applied only to the "Judaeo-Christian religion" or to other faiths as well.
"The retention of the present constitutional offence of blasphemy is not appropriate," the group concluded.
Cartoons of Prophet Mohammad published in a Danish newspaper sparked violent protests in several Islamic countries in 2006 by enraged Muslims who saw them as blasphemous.
At least 15 Danish papers and several foreign publications reprinted the caricatures, many as a show of solidarity to the threat against the freedom of speech.
(Reporting by Andras Gergely)