Blasphemy laws focus of US State Department’s religious freedom report

Religious freedom report
Members of the Pakistan Christian Democratic alliance march during a protest in Lahore in December in support of Aasiya Noreen, more widely known as Asia Bibi, a Christian mother sentenced to death under blasphemy laws. (PHOTO: Arif Ali / AFP / Getty Images)
A brief overview of the US State Department’s 2015 International Religious Freedom Report

Originally published in World Watch Monitor

The following are a selection of news stories covered over the past three months that highlight the extent of the suppression of religious freedom:
Algerian Christian gets maximum sentence for ‘blasphemy’
Chinese students barred from attending university unless they leave house churches
Eight Christians face trial for distributing bibles in Nepal
Muslim mob torches Christian homes as punishment for wanting to build church
China: Three Christians arrested for possessing religious materials
Nigerian Christians told to ‘buckle up’ after preacher hacked to death
Nigeria: Pastor’s wife killed after blasphemy accusation
Attack inside French church shocks West, but not Christians in Africa
Boko Haram to focus on bombing Christian churches — terrorist leader

The US State Department on August 10 released its 2015 International Religious Freedom Report. Required by US law, the report contains an assessment of the conditions supporting, or suppressing, freedom of religion or belief in nearly 200 countries, excluding the United States.

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The annual document influences American diplomacy and assistance programs around the world, and is the basis for the secretary of state’s yearly list of “countries of particular concern.”

Countries on that list are subject to diplomatic sanctions. According to the state department, nearly a quarter of the world’s countries, comprising three-quarters of the world’s population, have “serious restrictions on religious freedom, whether caused by government policies or the hostile acts of individuals, organisations, or societal groups.”

Click here for web version of report

What’s new in the 2015 report

The impact of anti-blasphemy laws

  • “I want to highlight this year the chilling, sometimes deadly effect of blasphemy and apostasy laws in many places of the world, as well as laws that purport to protect religious sentiments from defamation. Roughly a quarter of the world’s countries have blasphemy laws, and more than one in 10 have laws or policies penalising apostasy, and the existence of these laws has been used by governments in too many cases to intimidate, repress religious minorities, and governments have too often failed to take appropriate steps to prevent societal violence sparked by accusations of blasphemy and apostasy. And when these claims turn out to be blatantly false accusations made to pursue other agendas, governments will often fail to act to hold perpetrators accountable. These government failures weaken trust in the rule of law, creating an atmosphere of impunity for those who would resort to violence or make false claims of blasphemy.”  Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein, August 10

The emergence of non-state actors

  • “[I]t used to be that our annual reports focused almost exclusively on the actions of states. But we’ve also seen certain non-state actors – including terrorist organisations like Daesh [the English representation of the Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State], al-Qaida, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram – posing a major threat to religious freedom. There is, after all, no more egregious form of discrimination than separating out the followers of one religion from another – whether in a village, on a bus, in a classroom – with the intent of murdering or enslaving the members of a particular group.”  Antony J. Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State, August 10

Click here to watch the August 10 press briefing

Report highlights

Blasphemy laws empower mob violence

  • “All residents of countries where laws or social norms encourage the death penalty for blasphemy are vulnerable to attacks …. This is particularly true for those who have less power and are more vulnerable in those societies, like women, religious minorities, and the poor. False accusations, often lodged in pursuit of personal vendettas or for the personal gain of the accuser, are not uncommon. Mob violence as a result of such accusations is disturbingly common. In addition to the danger of mob violence engendered by blasphemy accusations, courts in many countries continued to hand down harsh sentences for blasphemy and apostasy, which were used to severely curtail the religious freedom of their residents.”

Brutal violence causes ‘mass migration’

  • “Non-state actors such as Da’esh and Boko Haram continued to rank amongst the most egregious abusers of religious freedom in the world.
  • “…Da’esh continued to pursue a brutal strategy of what [US Secretary of State John] Kerry judged to constitute genocide against Yezidis, Christians, Shia, and other vulnerable groups in the territory it controlled.
  • “…Boko Haram claimed responsibility for scores of attacks on churches and mosques, often killing worshippers during religious services or immediately afterward.
  • “…[In Syria], the government reportedly targeted places of worship, resulting in damage and destruction of numerous churches and mosques. Non-state actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organisations by the United States, such as Da’esh (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), and the Al-Nusra Front, targeted Shia, Alawites, Christians and other religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis.
  • “…The result in the Levant, South Asia and northern Nigeria was continued mass migration of vulnerable communities out of areas controlled and threatened by violent extremism.”

Governments tighten regulation of religion

  • “Around the world, governments continued to tighten their regulatory grip on religious groups.
  • “…Researchers Roger Finke and Dane Mataic of Penn State University found that the number of countries that require some sort of registration has increased significantly over the last two decades, to nearly 90% of all countries.
  • “…[T]he percentage of countries that required submission of religious doctrine for approval prior to registration increased from 13 to 18%.
  • “…Finke and Mataic found a strong link between increasing registration requirements and an overall deterioration in the status of religious freedom in many countries.”

A view from the outside
“In the past years, the state department’s report often used to focus mainly on states and its machineries. However, this year, the report particularly recognised that non-state actors like the so-called Islamic State and Boko Haram are ‘amongst the most egregious abusers of freedom of religion in the world.’ In its classical understanding of human rights, states are the duty bearers. This is a good development in a sense that non-state actors are also called out.”

“Even though the report recognises the existence of societal discrimination of religious minorities in some countries, it does not comprehensively address the squeeze (non-violent pressure) aspect of freedom of religion.” Yonas Dembele, persecution analyst, Open Doors International

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