Hungary's parliament passed a law this week banning statements and publications that incite ethnic or religious hatred. The move has been welcomed by groups that have been targeted in Hungary and elsewhere, and is also being closely watched by other European countries that have seen an increase in hate crimes in recent years.

Under the new law, a person who publicly incites hatred toward any nation, or national, ethnic, racial or religious group, is considered to have committed a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.

In addition someone who "publicly insults the dignity of a person because of his or her national, racial, ethnic or religious affiliation" could be found guilty of a misdemeanor and sentenced to up to two years of imprisonment.

Surveys show that anti-Jewish assaults and incidents in much of Europe are at their highest level since World War II.

Some Jews link these developments to old prejudices mixing with anger at Israeli policies. They also worry about Europe's growing Muslim population, which stands at 17 million.

Attacks on other groups are also on the rise, particularly the Roma, or gypsies.

European Union and U.S. officials have expressed concern about the trend, especially in former Communist countries where nationalism was suppressed for decades.

Racial and religious hatred is a sensitive issue in Hungary because it was a close ally of Nazi Germany in World War II. At least 600,000 Hungarian Jews were massacred during that period, and many thousands of Roma, as well as members of other groups the Nazis did not like.

Hungary's debate over hate speech and freedom of expression heated up last month after an appeals court overturned an 18-month prison sentence given to a man who called for the segregation of Jews.

Reformed Church Pastor Lorant Hegedus is a former vice-president of the far right Hungarian-Justice and Life Party. In an article, he urged Hungarians to "segregate Jews before they segregate you."

More recently a prominent lawyer representing racist skinheads in a trial asked the presiding judge whether she was Jewish. And in Budapest, a soccer team owned by a Jewish businessman sometimes hears rival fans chant, "The train is leaving for Auschwitz."

The Roma have also come under pressure. In the Hungarian town of Szeged, a court reduced the compensation awarded to two Roma brothers who served 15 months in jail for a murder they did not commit.

The court ruled last month that the brothers were entitled to less money because they were, "persons...more primitive than the average."

The Foreign Relations Director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary has welcomed the new law against hate speech. The official, Erno Lazarovits, a Holocaust survivor, told VOA the move is particularly important as Hungary prepares to join the European Union next May.

"I hope that in the practice it will be executed like it has to be," he said. "That people who are enlarging such neo-nazi, anti-semitism feelings will not only be told "do not do that in the future, but that they will be put in jail."

Mr. Lazarovits expressed disappointment that the law was enacted by a slim majority of just four votes in parliament.

He says it shows the country is sharply divided on this issues, with even some of the government's coalition partners joining the opposition in voting against the legislation.