One of the best known cases of a Christian encountering a nation’s “blasphemy law” is Pakistan’s Asia Bibi. Caught up in a minor spat with a Muslim neighbor, Bibi was alleged to have uttered an insult against the Prophet Muhammad and sentenced to death. The 46-year-old mother is still in prison.
That may be an extreme example, but it may come as a surprise to many that blasphemy laws exist not only in predominantly Muslim nations such as Pakistan. Canada has a blasphemy law as well, though it is seldom enforced, and 22.5% of the world’s blasphemy laws are found in Europe.
Such facts are detailed in a new report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which analyzed the world’s blasphemy laws in comparison to international law principles. According to USCIRF, the 11 worst offenders are Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Qatar, Egypt, Italy, Algeria, Comoros, Malta and Libya.
Although Malta made the list, the Mediterranean island nation repealed its law after USCIRF completed its analysis and before the report’s publication.
“Freedom of religion or belief implies that people have the right to embrace a full range of thoughts and beliefs, including those that others might deem blasphemous; freedom of expression implies that they have the right to speak or write about them publicly,” the report says. “People also have a right to speak out against what they consider blasphemy as long as they do not incite others to violence. ese rights are guaranteed in international documents to which most countries have agreed, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
Blasphemy laws, in both theory and practice, harm individuals and societies, USCIRF contends.
Seventy-one countries have blasphemy laws, and every one deviates from at least one internationally recognized human rights principle, the report found. “Most of these laws fail to respect fully the human right of freedom of expression,” it said.
“Most blasphemy laws studied were vaguely worded, as many failed to specify intent as part of the violation,” the document said. “The vast majority carried unduly harsh penalties for violators.”
“Advocates for blasphemy laws may argue that they are needed in order to protect religious freedom, but these laws do no such thing,” commented USCIRF Chairman Daniel Mark. “Blasphemy laws are wrong in principle, and they often invite abuse and lead to assaults, murders, and mob attacks. Wherever they exist, they should be repealed.”