In its efforts to prevent acts of religious hatred since the September 11 terror attacks, the British government is planning to introduce a law "of which the Taliban might be proud,"according to civil libertarian and lawyer John Mortimer.

Mortimer, who created the television character Rumpole of the Bailey, an exasperating but shrewd and lovable defence barrister, complained that the proposed law against incitement to religious hatred was "a disastrous attack on the freedom to debate one of the most important subjects of the world: religion."

To protect the Muslim community in the aftermath of the September attacks, the British home secretary, David Blunkett, announced that he planned to extend the law on incitement to include religious as well as racial hatred.

The maximum penalty for the offence, part of a package of emergency measures due to be introduced into Parliament before Christmas, will be seven years.

Blunkett said he was determined that "attention seekers and extremists" should not be able to use religion "to divide and fragment communities in our country in this difficult time."

His plans were welcomed by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the chief representative body for Muslims in the country.

MCB secretary general, Yousuf Bhailok, said that the changes were "steps in the right direction" and an "important development." He praised Blunkett's comment that "the biggest freedom of all is the freedom from hate."

Elsewhere, however, critics ranging from civil libertarians to professional comedians were fearful that jokes about religion would become criminalized.

Rowan Atkinson, famous for his hapless Mr. Bean character and his portrayal of an inept novice vicar in the hit film Four Weddings and a Funeral, said he was ...

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