In many countries, religious freedom flourishes and people can freely practice their religion or beliefs.
But a shocking one-quarter of the world’s 200 nations have laws that put people in prison or to death for blasphemy: saying or doing something considered disrespectful to God, religious artifacts, customs or beliefs.
- In Afghanistan, a teacher’s assistant was beaten to death by a mob outside a shrine in Kabul after being falsely accused of burning the Quran.
- In India, 500 Hindu villagers targeted a small Christian community after its members refused to renounce Christianity, threatening them with expulsion from the village.
- In Indonesia, a court sentenced members of a small religious community to prison for spreading teachings counter to Islam, the majority religion.
Thousands of miles apart, these incidents have one common cause: accusations of blasphemy that lead to prison or death. Apostasy — the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief — can likewise lead to stiff punishment.
The International Religious Freedom Report for 2015 sheds light on the ways religious freedom is suppressed by blasphemy laws in 24 percent of the world’s countries. While the other 76 percent contains many countries in which religious freedom flourishes, a large majority of the world’s people live in places where practicing one’s religion in a way that conflicts with the majority religion can lead to persecution.
“We’re really urging countries that have [blashphemy laws] on the books to create a trend by ending them,” said David Saperstein, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. This past year Iceland struck down a longstanding, but unenforced, blasphemy law. Britain did the same in 2008.
In countries where blasphemy laws are enforced, a blasphemy accusation can lead to arrest, causing a disruption in the accused’s personal and professional life. Saperstein gave an example: “Someone involved with a contentious business deal accuses one of the parties of blasphemy, because they know they’ll be punished no matter what happens, whether it happens legally or by the immense disruption to their life and the danger that’s posed by such accusations.”
— Ambassador Sam Brownback (@IRF_Ambassador) August 24, 2016
Often accusations of blasphemy bring about mob violence, as in the case of the woman in Afghanistan. In that case, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani immediately condemned the murder and participants in the attack were tried and convicted. This kind of strong response, Saperstein said, is necessary “to end the atmosphere of impunity that makes people feel they can do that and they’ll never be punished.”
In his remarks accompanying the report, Saperstein noted promising instances such as the Muslim leaders in Lahore, Pakistan, who placed themselves between a mob and Pakistani Christians accused of blasphemy. Such instances, as well as the resilience of religious people he’s met, give him hope.
“I’ve been to 25 countries, [and] many of them have serious restrictions on religious freedom,” Saperstein said. “And yet the churches, the pagodas, the mosques are bursting with people and young families. The determination of people to live out their religious lives, even when they face threats of discrimination or persecution, is truly inspiring.”