Australian pastors Danny Nalliah and Daniel Scot (Photo by Catch the Fire Ministries)

Two Christian pastors convicted under a “hate crimes” plan for “vilifying” Islam by quoting from the Quran during a seminar on jihad again are free to debate religious beliefs following a settlement of their long-running case, according to a report from Voice of the Martyrs.

The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal of Australia, the Islamic Council of Victoria and Catch the Fire Ministries have reached an agreement that citizens have the right to “robustly debate religion” and “criticize religious beliefs” within the limits of the law, the VOM report said.

Terms were not revealed, but VOM reported that the pastors have spent more than $500,000 over the years defending their right to present their views and insights about Islam.

The Islamic Council of Victoria had filed a complaint that resulted in convictions for Danny Nalliah and Daniel Scot – the first convictions in Australia under the nation’s religious vilification ban, the Victorian Religious and Racial Tolerance Act which took effect in 2002.

The complaint said Scot and Nalliah had “vilified Muslims” at a seminar on jihad on March 9, 2002. The pastors were lecturing on the differences between Christianity and Islam, and quoted information about Islam directly from the Quran.

The Australian law was imposed in order to prevent the denigration of people based on their race or religion, and similar laws also have been approved in Canada, where critics of the law say they include sexual orientation and forbid pastors from condemning homosexuality as a sin.

In the United States, a proposal pending in Congress would enhance penalties for crimes motivated by “hate,” a plan some Christians fear would be used to crack down on their ability to express their biblical perspective that homosexuality is immoral.

The Australian pastors’ appeals of their convictions were affirmed by the Victorian Supreme Court, which meant that they would have been tried on the charges again.

“The shocking thing about this law is that truth is not a defense,” said Todd Nettleton, a spokesman for The Voice of the Martyrs.

“In the eyes of the law, it’s not a matter of whether or not these two men told the truth – they did – but whether someone felt bad about what they said. This is such a subjective standard that the law almost invites misguided cases like this one,” he said.

Former ICV President Yasser Soliman said he hopes the religious communities can move forward.

“It’s most important for people in this day and age to be talking directly to each other rather than talking about each other,” he said.

“The problems with these kinds of laws are that there is often no clear definition of what is considered criminal hatred,” said Nalliah.

A statement released by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal said some terms of the agreement were confidential, but participants agreed to the following:

Notwithstanding their differing views about the merits of the complaint made by the ICV, each of the ICV, Catch The Fire Ministries, Pastor Scot and Pastor Nalliah affirm and recognize the following:

1) the dignity and worth of every human being, irrespective of their religious faith, or the absence of religious faith;

2) the rights of each other, their communities, and all persons, to adhere to and express their own religious beliefs and to conduct their lives consistently with those beliefs;

3) the rights of each other, their communities and all persons, within the limits provided for by law, to robustly debate religion, including the right to criticize the religious belief of another, in a free, open and democratic society;

4) the value of friendship, respect and co-operation between Christians, Muslims and all people of other faiths; and

5) the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act forms part of the law of Victoria to which the rights referred to in paragraph 3 above are subject.

Nalliah had refused to apologize.

“Right from the inception, we have said that this law is a foul law, this law is not a law that brings unity. It causes disunity and as far as we are concerned right from the beginning we have stated that we will not apologize. We will go to prison for standing for the truth and not sacrifice our freedom and freedom to speak,” he told VOM.

VOM is a non-profit, interdenominational ministry working worldwide to help Christians who are persecuted for their faith, and to educate the world about that persecution. Its headquarters are in Bartlesville, Okla., and it has 30 affiliated international offices.

It was launched by the late Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand, who started smuggling Russian Gospels into Russia in 1947, just months before Richard was abducted and imprisoned in Romania where he was tortured for his refusal to recant Christianity.

He eventually was released in 1964 and the next year he testified about the persecution of Christians before the U.S. Senate’s Internal Security Subcommittee, stripping to the waist to show the deep torture wound scars on his body.

The group that later was renamed The Voice of the Martyrs was organized in 1967, when his book, “Tortured for Christ,” was released.

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