Opinion: Hot issue - Are religious groups justified in targeting named individuals?

Birmingham was recently the scene of protests by Sikhs against the author of a play, while Christian Voice last week published the addresses of BBC executives in protest against plans to air Jerry Springer: The Opera.

NO - HANNE STINSON, executive director, British Humanist Association

I respect everyone's right to their own beliefs, but freedom of speech includes the right to criticise and satirise any belief system, religious or not. If it is limited to that which isn't offensive, it's no freedom at all.

I've never understood why the religious feel that their gods need protection from mere mortals, but they have the right to protest, peacefully, if they find a play or TV programme offensive.

However, the violent demonstrations against Behzti and the threats that sent Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti into hiding because she portrayed issues that many Sikh women considered important are unacceptable.

Similarly, Christians can mount a peaceful protest about Jerry Springer: the Opera, but when fundamentalist organisations such as Christian Voice publish details of BBC executives and producers on their website, it's an invitation to its supporters to threaten people, and perhaps even incitement to violence. I believe that the law should protect people from incitement to hatred on grounds of their religious or non-religious beliefs, but we must remain free to ridicule and even to insult religious beliefs and practices. It would be a tragedy if religious extremists were allowed to threaten people into silence.

YES - JIM DOWSON, national coordinator, UK Life League

First, let's establish what's meant by 'individuals'. When Greenpeace names and shames the oil company fat cats who profit from polluting our wilderness, we applaud. When the Big Issue names and shames the slum landlords who become rich on the backs of their tenants, we applaud. When Amnesty International exposes the leaders who torture and discriminate against their people, we applaud.

But when Christian lobbyists target BBC executives, everyone cries foul, saying that these individuals' privacy has to be respected. Why? Whether you head up a multinational oil conglomerate or are a board member of the BBC, you're a legitimate target for lawful protest.

It's a shame, however, that in the wake of the protests against Jerry Springer: the Opera, the Mail on Sunday ran front-page stories of BBC executives receiving death threats and fleeing their homes. But on 11 January, the BBC director of television, Jana Bennett, dismissed those claims as false and overblown. Well done, Miss Bennett, but mud sticks - so well done the BBC spin doctors.

Christian groups should target those in a position of influence and individuals of influence should challenge Christian groups; that's what democracy is all about.

NO - PETER KERRIDGE, chief executive, Premier Christian Radio

We were shocked and appalled by the BBC's decision to screen Jerry Springer: The Opera. It contained, according to the corporation's own Radio Times magazine, more than 3,000 swear words. It depicted Jesus as a pathetic figure with an infantile complex, who "felt a bit gay", a portrayal that most Christians regarded as blasphemous.

And perhaps worst of all, the decision demonstrated that while it seems to be afraid of Islam, for example, the BBC is happy to mock, ignore and deeply hurt the followers of the faith that was once at the heart of its own foundation.

However, it doesn't follow that those hurt followers should then seek revenge on individuals. We, like the anything-but-pathetic Lord whom we follow, need to focus our energies on the wider institutions at fault. This case doesn't highlight the prejudices of one or two people high up in BBC2, who took the decision to air the programme. Rather, it reveals the entire corporation's shift to an anti-Christian position - one which is no longer neutral and is representative of prejudice.

If an estimated 45,000 pre-broadcast complaints can simply be dismissed, perhaps the time has come for the Government to force its public broadcaster to account.

NO - RICHARD STEEL, communication director, Church Mission Society

It can never be right to subject anyone to harassment or open them up to danger by publishing personal details, or indulging in violence, as some groups have done recently. It's not only wrong, it's also counterproductive, as people stop debating the rights and wrongs of the issue and concentrate on the style of the protest.

Religious groups do, however, have every right to protest about material they find offensive or that seems to deliberately denigrate their faith.

That's a right of everyone in a democracy such as ours and it would be very strange if those with strong religious beliefs were somehow excluded from this.

I have protested over certain things in the past, but only after careful research and through reasoned argument. I once persuaded the former Central TV to remove a sketch before broadcast. Part of the frustration that leads people with a faith, whether Christian, Sikh or any other, to cross the line of what's acceptable is the attitude of liberal critics who assume that religion is fair game. If there are serious issues that deserve criticism, then fair enough, but is gratuitous insult - such as Jesus dressed in a nappy - really worth defending in the name of art?

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