International religious freedom

Blasphemy and Apostasy Laws

All around the world, people accused of blasphemy and apostasy are suffering for their faith or lack thereof. Asia Bibi, the Christian woman convicted on spurious charges of blasphemy in 2010, spent 10 years in prison in Pakistan before being acquitted and being spirited out of the country to freedom. Her case garnered much attention as Salman Taseer, the Muslim governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, was assassinated by his bodyguard in 2011 because he expressed sympathy for Bibi and called for reform of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law. 

But what exactly is blasphemy? While precisely what counts as blasphemy may differ according to different religions, it always involves some act of showing contempt or lack of reverence with respect to a deity or something considered sacred. Certain faith communities may apply the concept of blasphemy to other faiths, considering them “evil” and their very existence an offense. In some cases, accusations of blasphemy have spurred mobs to burn religious minority communities, to kidnap and murder bloggers who wrote posts that were deemed critical of their religion, and to attack activists who criticized their destruction of places of worship. 

In 2022, the Pew Research Center found that 79 countries out of 198 they studied have laws banning blasphemy. According to Pew, 90 percent of countries in the Middle East and North Africa have blasphemy laws as well as 34% of countries in the Asia/Pacific region, 31% of European countries, 34% of Latin American countries, and 38% of Sub-Saharan African countries.  

The Pew report shows there are blasphemy laws in all regions of the world and in many religions. Surprisingly, countries like the Bahamas, Brazil, El Salvador, Greece, Israel, Italy, the Philippines, Russia, and Thailand all have blasphemy laws. And religious adherents of many faiths are vulnerable. For example, a Sri Lankan playwright’s work was deemed blasphemous by a Buddhist monk. In India, a comedian was booked in 2021 for “hurting religious sentiments” by making derogatory comments about Hindu deities, while later that year, a group of Hindu nationalist leaders called for a genocide against Muslims. In a number of Muslim-majority countries, including Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan, the practice of Ahmadi or Shiite Islam is considered blasphemous.  

Penalties for blasphemy vary considerably, ranging from fines to prison sentences to executions. Seven countries have the death penalty for blasphemy – Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Mauritania, and Saudi Arabia. in Nigeria, in March 2020 a Sufi Muslim singer, Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, was charged with blasphemy and his house burned by a mob because a song he wrote that others viewed as insulting to the Prophet Muhammad circulated on social media. Without legal representation, he was convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging by a local Sharia judge – he remains in prison.  

But in some instances, someone charged with blasphemy does not even get a trial.  In 2022, a Christian university student in Nigeria, Deborah Samuel, was stoned, beaten, and burned to death by her Muslim classmates who accused her of blasphemy because she credited Jesus with helping her pass her exams.  

Holding a high-level position does not make you immune to a charge of blasphemy as the then governor of Jakarta, Ahok Purnama (a Christian of Chinese ancestry), found when he was sentenced to two years in jail for questioning a verse from the Quran used by conservative Muslims to urge Muslims to only vote for candidates who are Muslim. A more recent example of how easily a blasphemy charge can lead to mob violence is a February 2024 incident in Pakistan where a woman wearing a dress printed with Arabic calligraphy was attacked by a mob who thought these were verses from the Quran – police had to rescue her.  

Blasphemy laws are related to apostasy laws which make it a criminal offense to change one’s religion, thus denying the possibility or acceptance of one’s right to convert to another faith or to have no faith at all. According to the Pew study, twenty-two countries have apostasy laws, 13 of them in the Middle East/North Africa, seven in the Asia Pacific region, and two in Sub-Saharan Africa.   

As is the case with blasphemy laws, the penalty for apostasy can vary depending on the country. In some cases, a conviction of apostasy can mean a fine; in others it can be a death sentence.  

In Algeria, conversion from Islam means that a person would be unable to receive an inheritance. In 2007, Mohammad Abbad said his conversion to Christianity forced him to leave Jordan, as under strict Islamic law any Muslim who deserts Islam is forcibly divorced, deprived of parental and inheritance rights, and subject to execution if unrepentant.  In Malaysia, a woman, brought up as a Muslim who became a Christian was unable to marry her Christian boyfriend as, according to Shariah law, she could not change her religion on her identity card. In 2017, a 38 year-old Muslim woman who had converted to Christianity and was helping refugees in Germany was stabbed and killed for being an apostate. In Iran, a Christian convert was arrested in 2013 for her involvement with house churches and served a four-year sentence for “threatening national security.”  

Both blasphemy and apostasy laws in essence criminalize what should be a person’s ability to choose their own religion, a moral choice that should be an inherent part of an individual’s human nature and the foundation of basic human rights. These laws exacerbate religious tensions and can lead to violence that is often treated with impunity under the law. They can be used to silence political opposition or to gain economic advantage as well as instill a climate of fear to compel conformity.  

In 2009, in an address to the United Nations, Msgr. Celestino Migliore, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN, said, “Blasphemy laws have too easily become opportunities for extremists to persecute those who freely choose to follow the belief system of a different faith tradition. Such laws have been used to foster injustice, sectarian violence and violence between religions. Governments must address the root causes of religious intolerance and repeal such laws that serve as instruments of abuse.” For all these reasons, as Catholics, we should support the repeal of these blasphemy and apostasy laws.   

Last updated: May 2024

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