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DUBLIN (Reuters) - Once staunchly Catholic Ireland will hold a referendum to remove the crime of blasphemy from its constitution, an offense now punishable by a fine of up to 25,000 euros ($31,600) but which has probably not been prosecuted since the 19th century.
The Roman Catholic Church's public influence has been on the wane in Ireland since the 1980s, particularly after a string of child sex abuse scandals.
"Blasphemous matter" is deemed an offense under Ireland's 1937 constitution, written at a time when the Church still held a dominant role in society. Blasphemy could have led to a jail term of seven years before a change to the law five years ago that provided for fines instead.
"In practice, there have been no prosecutions under the 2009 Act and the last public prosecution for blasphemy in Ireland appears to have been brought in 1855," Aodhan O Riordain, junior minister with responsibility for Equality, told parliament on Thursday in announcing the referendum.
No date was announced for the referendum, which the previous government said would be a "costly diversion" when it amended the law on prison sentences five years ago.
In further signs of the Catholic Church's declining influence in Ireland, limited access to abortion was allowed for the first time last year, while a referendum on same-sex marriage will also be held in 2015.
Britain abolished its law against blasphemy in 2008.
The offense remains a crime, sometimes punishable by death, in various parts of the world and can provoke very strong emotions. Last week, a Pakistani policeman shot and wounded a British man with a history of mental illness in the jail where he is on death row for blasphemy.
Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Gareth Jones