Religious groups form united front in opposition to euthanasia

Churches and faith groups from across the religious spectrum have been united by their opposition to a paragraph in the draft penal code, currently under discussion in the Czech parliament. Under the new code, euthanasia would no longer by treated as murder, but a special offence punishable by a maximum of six years in prison. The state's softening stance towards mercy killing has set alarm bells ringing among the religious community, as Rob Cameron reports.

The draft penal code is being described as a revolution in Czech criminal law, but it's the paragraph which reduces sentences for euthanasia which is becoming the most controversial. Last week representatives of religious groups across the Czech Republic released a joint statement condemning the amendment, arguing that helping someone to die amounted to killing. Among the religious leaders who signed it was Karel Sidon, the country's chief rabbi.

"Jews have their own experience of euthanasia from the Nazi period. People were killed simply because they weren't seen as suitable for the development of society. It began with the sick, and ended with six million victims of the Holocaust."

The draft code has been approved by the lower house, but must still be approved by the Senate and signed by President Vaclav Klaus. Mr Klaus is also unhappy with the bill, because it fails to set a minimum sentence for euthanasia. This opens up the possibility that those who assist in mercy killing might escape punishment altogether.

The president is known for his sensitivity to public opinion when signing laws, but on this most sensitive of issues he has little to go on. Polls show the Czech public are divided 50-50 when it comes to euthanasia. Rabbi Karel Sidon, however, says people with religious beliefs - whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim - have clear views on mercy killing.

"The general attitude to euthanasia - and it's the attitude of a large part of society as well as those who proposed this bill - is quite different from the view held by religious people, whatever their faith. They believe that death is an integral part of life."

Opinion polls on euthanasia might be inconclusive. What is clear, however, is that the draft code can expect a stormy debate when it reaches the upper house. And President Klaus will have to think hard before approving it.