This page features the following:
- United States Commission on International Religous Freedom (USCIRF)
- USCIRF – Policy Brief:
Prisoners of Belief – Individuals Jailed under Blasphemy Laws (2014)
- USCIRF – Statement on flogging of Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi January 2015
- USCIRF – RESPECTING RIGHTS?
Measuring the World’s Blasphemy Laws (2017)
- USCIRF – Nine annual reports from 2010-2018
Scroll down to see extracts from the reports with links to the full original reports.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) that monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad. USCIRF uses international standards to monitor religious freedom violations globally, and makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress. USCIRF Commissioners are appointed by the President and Congressional leaders of both political parties. Their work is supported by a professional, nonpartisan staff.
From the Policy Brief:
“Blasphemy laws inappropriately position governments as arbiters of truth or religious rightness, as they empower officials to enforce particular religious views against individuals, minorities, and dissenters. In practice, they have proven to be ripe for abuse and easily manipulated with false accusations.”
Read the USCIRF Statement on flogging of Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi January 2015
WHAT IS RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
Inherent in religious freedom is the right to believe or not believe as one’s conscience leads, and live out one’s beliefs openly, peacefully, and without fear. Freedom of religion or belief is an expansive right that includes the freedoms of thought, conscience, expression, association, and assembly. … religious freedom … is a core human right, … a vital element of national security, critical to ensuring a more peaceful, prosperous, and stable world.
INTRODUCTION BY USCIRF
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. People also have a right to speak out against what they consider blasphemy as long as they do not incite others to violence. These 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.
We have seen in our monitoring of religious freedom worldwide how blasphemy laws, in both theory and practice, harm individuals and societies. In commissioning the study found in the following pages, USCIRF sought to ascertain the prevalence of blasphemy laws worldwide and measure how the content of these laws adheres to basic principles of international law.
The findings are sobering indeed. According to the study:
- Blasphemy laws are astonishingly widespread. Seventy-one countries, spread out across many regions, maintain such statutes.
- Every one of these blasphemy statutes deviates from at least one internationally recognized human rights principle. Most of these laws fail to respect fully the human right of freedom of expression.
- All five nations with blasphemy laws that deviate the most from international human rights principles maintain an official state religion.
- Most blasphemy laws studied were vaguely worded, as many failed to specify intent as part of the violation. The vast majority carried unduly harsh penalties for violators.
- Most blasphemy laws were embedded in the criminal codes and 86 percent of states with blasphemy laws prescribed imprisonment for convicted offenders. Some blasphemy statutes even imposed the death penalty.
Clearly, blasphemy laws, in both conception and scope, remain problematic. We trust that this report will draw greater attention to the problem, provoke further discussion about the challenges and encourage constructive attempts to reform or repeal blasphemy measures.
- Blasphemy laws were found in 71 countries from all regions of the world. Regionally, 25.4 percent of the laws found are from countries in the Middle East and North Africa, 25.4 percent from Asia-Pacific, 22.5 percent from Europe, 15.5 percent from Sub-Saharan Africa, and 11.2 percent from the Americas.
- A majority—62 percent— … indicating that all blasphemy laws studied deviate from some—and most deviate from a significant number—of the international and human rights law principles examined.
- The data indicate that a majority of laws do not fully respect international standards of freedom of opinion and expression. …
- Most laws received the lowest scores, on average, for the indicator measuring the language of the laws’ adherence to the principle of Freedom of Religion or Belief. This finding of relative adherence may be unexpected, or even counter-intuitive, because, in many countries, individuals belonging to religious or belief minorities are disproportionately accused of—and punished for—blasphemy. One reason for this apparent contradiction is that only a detailed, precisely worded law explicitly reflecting its coercive capacity with regard to religion or belief will receive a high score on this indicator.
- An overwhelming majority of the laws analyzed were found in national penal codes, with many of these laws containing moderately to grossly disproportionate criminal punishments ranging from prison sentences to the death penalty.
- The most common punishment among blasphemy laws is imprisonment, with 86 percent of all states imposing a prison penalty (and a few laws imposing lashings, forced labor, and the death penalty).
- Blasphemy laws are vaguely worded, and few specify or limit the forum in which blasphemy can occur for purposes of punishment. Only one-third (33 percent) of criminal laws studied specify intent, or mens rea, as an element of the crime.
- Each of the top five countries with the highest scoring laws has an official state religion. Although state religions can exist without necessarily resulting in discrimination against other belief groups, the coders did note a pattern where higher scoring (less adherent) laws are found in states where a state religion exists.
- The countries with the lowest scores, and thereby adhering more closely to international law principles, have blasphemy laws that neither discriminate among different belief groups nor protect a state religion through punitive measures. The five countries with the lowest scoring laws received 0 points under Discrimination Against Groups and State Religion Protections, with agreement among all three coders.
- Conversely, the laws that discriminate among different belief groups have the highest scores, are the most human rights noncompliant, and, thus, are at higher risk for abuse. The countries with the five highest scoring laws received 10 out of 10 possible points on the indicators measuring Discrimination Against Groups and State Religion Protections.
- The indicators receiving the highest average number of points are: Freedom of Expression, Vagueness of the Law, and Speech and Forum Limitations. This indicates that all blasphemy and related laws analyzed:
(1) deviate from international free speech standards in some way;
(2) have vague formulations and are difficult to interpret narrowly; and
(3) have limitations that are seldom narrowly defined.
- Given that blasphemy laws are vague and therefore difficult to measure, we recognize that the indicators tend to underestimate the laws’ deviations from international law principles and therefore also underestimate the risk of abuse of these laws in practice.
- Speech and Forum Limitations, the indicator concerned with the degree to which a blasphemy law limits the forum, either public or private, in which a person can express or display his/her opinions or beliefs and control written or spoken words, was a high-scoring indicator across almost all countries. Of the 71 countries, 64 countries, or 90 percent, had laws that received an average of 5.5 points or higher out of 10 points for this indicator, suggesting that the laws have few forum and types of speech limitations.
- Although they are often enforced in abusive ways, blasphemy laws are also on the books in regions with low levels of enforcement, such as the Caribbean and Europe, which signals potential for reform or even repeal.
PART I. BACKGROUND: LAWS PROHIBITING BLASPHEMY
“Blasphemy is defined as the act of expressing contempt or a lack of reverence for God or sacred things.” For the purposes of this study, laws prohibiting blasphemy (“blasphemy laws”) include provisions that sanction insulting or defaming religion and seek to punish individuals for allegedly offending, insulting, or denigrating religious doctrines, deities, symbols or “the sacred,” or for wounding or insulting religious feelings. Blasphemy laws are located throughout the states’ legal texts, including constitutions, criminal codes, and media laws, among others.
This study compiles and examines blasphemy laws currently on the books in 71 countries from each region of the world. Most of the blasphemy laws examined in this study criminalize in national penal codes the expression of opinions deemed “blasphemous” or counter to majority views or religious belief systems.
The Annual Reports of the USCIRF detail the abuse of blasphemy laws by various countries and consider that all such laws are incompatible with Religious Freedom and should be repealed.
The 2015 report provides information on Countries of Particular Concern (CPC). Tier 1: Burma, Central African Republic, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Tier 2 ( countries, where the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government, are serious and are characterized by at least one of the elements of the “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” standard, but do not fully meet the CPC standard): Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, and Turkey. Also monitored during 2015 were: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cyprus, Kyrgyzstan, and Sri Lanka. Other countries monitored were: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cyprus, Kyrgyzstan, and Sri Lanka.
The 2016 Annual Report identifies the following countries as countries of particular concern. Tier 1 Countries: Burma, Central African Republic, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. Tier 2 Countries: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, and Turkey. Also monitored were: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, the Horn of Africa, Kyrgystan, and Western Europe.
For more details on the abuse of blasphemy law and freedom of religion, or abuse in particular countries, search these documents for the word blasphemy or for the particular country.
Annual Reports from 2003 to the present are available from the USCIRF here. Links to annual reports from 2010 and extracts from these reports follow.
From the 2011 Annual Report:
Religious freedom won another victory in March  when the UN Human Rights Council rebuffed a drive for an international blasphemy law, instead adopting a resolution against religious intolerance that excluded the infamous “defamation-of-religions” language of prior years.
Blasphemy laws … encourage vigilante attacks on perceived violators, this problem of impunity has shown no sign of subsiding over the past year, and, in many places, it has worsened considerably. Blasphemy laws, which not only violate religious freedom directly, but indirectly by energizing extremists who threaten the freedoms of all.
From the 212 Annual Report:
Over the past decade, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) sponsored annual resolutions focused on “combating defamation of religions” in the UN General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council. These sought – in violation of the individual rights to freedom of religion and expression – to establish a global blasphemy law. Years of effort by USCIRF, the State Department, members of Congress, and NGOs helped bring about a marked decrease in the support for these flawed resolutions between 2008 and 2010. As a result, in 2011 both UN bodies instead adopted consensus resolutions on “combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief”. The new resolutions properly focus on protecting individuals from discrimination or violence, instead of protecting religions from criticism; protect the adherents of all religions or beliefs, instead of privileging one religion; and do not call for legal restrictions on peaceful expression, but rather for positive measures, such as education and outreach. In fact, the new resolutions call for criminalization only in the case of incitement to imminent violence, which is the U.S. First Amendment standard.
USCIRF welcomes this new approach, and commends the efforts that led to these new formulations. Nonetheless, USCIRF remains concerned that the OIC has not abandoned its global anti-blasphemy efforts. OIC member states continue to have and enforce repressive domestic blasphemy laws that result in gross human rights abuses, and the OIC continues to refer publicly to the defamation concept, including in statements regarding the ―Istanbul Process, a series of international meetings launched in 2011 to discuss the implementation of the new resolutions. As part of this effort, in mid-December, the State Department convened in Washington, DC, the first Istanbul Process meeting, bringing together law enforcement experts and practitioners from approximately 30 countries and international organizations, to focus on implementation of two areas of the resolution: 1) promoting effective government strategies to engage members of religious minorities and training government officials on religious and cultural awareness; and 2) enforcing laws that prevent discrimination on the basis of religion or belief.
From the 2013 Annual Report:
Many countries around the world have laws that punish expression deemed blasphemous, defamatory, or insulting to religion or religious symbols, figures, or feelings. These laws are incompatible with international human rights standards, as they protect beliefs over individuals. In addition, they often result in violations of the freedoms of speech and religion, or at least a chilling of these rights, as they empower governments, majorities, and extremists to enforce particular religious views against individuals, minorities, and dissenters. Though often justified as needed to promote religious harmony, these laws in fact have the opposite effect, exacerbating religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence.
The existence and enforcement of these [blasphemy] laws contradict consensus UN resolutions recognizing that religious intolerance is best fought through positive measures, such as education, outreach, and counter speech, and that criminalization is only appropriate for incitement to imminent violence.25 They also contradict the views of the UN Human Rights Committee, which has stated that “[p]rohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the [International] Covenant [on Civil and Political Rights],” 26 as well as the conclusions of an international group of experts convened by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Those experts recently recommended that “[s]tates that have blasphemy laws should repeal the[m] as such laws have a stifling impact on the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief and healthy dialogue and debate about religion.”27
Several of the countries USCIRF reported on in the 2013 Annual Report have these types of laws and are enforcing them. The most egregious example is Pakistan, where, as discussed in this report’s Pakistan chapter, USCIRF knows of 17 individuals currently on death row on blasphemy convictions and 20 serving life sentences, and where individuals have been murdered in vigilante violence associated with blasphemy allegations. Specific cases of religious blasphemy, defamation, or insult also are reported in the chapters on Egypt, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia. In some of these countries, such as Egypt, the number of blasphemy-type cases in this reporting period increased from previous years. In addition, as discussed in the relevant chapters, during this reporting period both Russia and the Kurdistan region of Iraq considered enacting new laws of this type.
From the 2014 Annual Report:
Socially, wherever religious freedom is abused, peace and security may become ever more elusive. And this has a direct bearing not only on the well-being of those societies, but on the security of the United States and the overall stability of the world. In his 2009 Cairo speech, President Obama put it this way: “Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together.”
Promoting the kind of tolerance that gives rise to religious freedom is critical in these societies.
In addition, for at least three reasons, there appears to be an association between a lack of religious freedom and the presence of violent religious extremism.
First, when governments enforce laws, such as blasphemy-like codes, that stifle religious freedom, they embolden extremists to commit violence against perceived transgressors. In Pakistan, such codes fuel extremist violence threatening all Pakistanis, but particularly Christians and Ahmadi Muslims.
Second, when governments repress religious freedom or fail to protect it, they risk driving some into the arms of radical religious groups and movements. Russia’s repression of Muslims in the name of fighting the extremist views of some has produced violent extremism in others.
And finally, governments that crack down on everyone’s liberty in the name of fighting extremists risk strengthening the hand of extremists by weakening their more democratic, but often less hardy or resilient competition in the process. Under President Mubarak’s rule, Egypt ended up strengthening the Salafists and their allies while enfeebling their more liberal opposition.
An important tool to help defeat terrorism is the ability to persuade people to reject the extremist ideologies that support it. In the struggle for global safety and security, religious freedom might well be a powerful and effective means of countering violent religious extremism.
In summary, the defense of religious freedom is both a humanitarian imperative and a practical necessity. To betray it is to betray human nature and well-being; to affirm it is to affirm our very humanity and its thriving. It is an indispensable freedom that merits our firm and dedicated support abroad, wherever it is threatened.
Some governments also enforce religious conformity. In countries where governmental and religious authority overlap, there may be a requirement that national laws conform with religious law or that the law of one religion applies to all regardless of individual choice, and/or the government may coerce compliance with an official religion. Iran’s theocratic regime is a good example. And when legal systems promote intolerance, USCIRF has documented that non-state actors often act unilaterally to enforce these biased notions. For instance, blasphemy-type laws empower the forces of intolerance to use state institutions to protect their religious hegemony. International law experts have repeatedly deemed blasphemy-type laws incompatible with human rights commitments.19 Pakistan’s laws and practice are particularly egregious in this regard, with its constantly-abused law penalizing blasphemous acts with the death penalty or life in prison. In addition to state enforcement, mobs feel enabled, under the cover of this law, to mete out vigilante justice against individuals deemed to have committed blasphemy. The result is that extremist groups are empowered and the state’s rule-of-law system corrupted in the service of the narrow agendas of extremist groups and unscrupulous religious leaders.
From the 2015 Annual Report:
In January 2015, the … forces of violent religious extremism … struck the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket and the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris. The victims of the supermarket attack were murdered simply because they were Jews and the victims of the assault on the newspaper were killed because their attackers considered them blasphemers deserving punishment.
For a number of years, the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly were the centers of a problematic effort by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and some of its members to seek an international legal norm restricting speech that defamed religions, particularly Islam. In a welcome change, the OIC no longer is sponsoring the flawed and divisive defamation-of-religions resolutions. They were replaced in 2011 by a new, consensus approach (often referred to as the Resolution 16/18 approach, after the first such resolution) that focuses on positive measures to counter religious intolerance and protect individuals from discrimination or violence, rather than on criminalizing expression.
USCIRF remains concerned that some OIC members continue to support a global anti-blasphemy law. Many OIC member states continue to have and enforce repressive domestic blasphemy and religious defamation laws. These laws result in gross human rights abuses and exacerbate religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence, the very problems that the OIC claims it is trying to address. In addition, some OIC countries continue to refer publicly to the defamation-of-religions concept and call for international laws against it, including in the context of the “Istanbul Process,” a series of international meetings launched in 2011 to discuss the implementation of the Resolution 16/18 approach.
The Arab League also has been considering a regional model law against the defamation of religions. With respect to these issues, USCIRF recommends that the State Department:
- Continue to use the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process, as well as country-specific resolutions in both the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly, to shine a light on religious freedom violations in specific countries, especially those designated as CPCs under IRFA;
- Continue its vigorous support of the mandate and work of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, including by working to secure sufficient assistance to support the Rapporteur in carrying out this volunteer position;
- Work for the creation of additional country-specific Special Rapporteur positions, especially for CPC countries;
- Remain vigilant against any renewed efforts at the UN to seek legal limitations on offensive or controversial speech about religion that does not constitute incitement to violence, and continue to press countries to adhere to the Resolution 16/18 approach, including by repealing blasphemy laws.
From the 2016 Annual Report:
In Pakistan, Abul Shakoor was sentenced on January 2, 2016 to five years in prison on blasphemy charges and three years on terrorism charges for propagating the Ahmadiyya Muslim faith. Another Pakistani, Aasia Bibi, a Catholic mother of five, has been imprisoned since her arrest in 2009 on blasphemy charges. She remains on death row. (Page 2.)
More people are on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy in Pakistan than in any other country in the world. Aggressive enforcement of these laws emboldens the Pakistani Taliban and individual vigilantes, triggering horrific violence against religious communities and individuals perceived as transgressors, most recently Christians and Muslim bystanders on Easter Sunday 2016 in Lahore. (Page 2.)
In Saudi Arabia, Ashraf Fayadh, a Saudi poet and artist, was sentenced to death in November 2015 for apostasy, allegedly for spreading atheism. His sentence was changed in February 2016 to eight years in prison and 800 lashes. Raif Badawi, founder and editor of the “Free Saudi Liberals” web site, has been imprisoned since 2012 on charges that include “insulting Islam.” In 2014, an appeals court increased his original sentence of seven years in prison and 600 lashes to 10 years in jail and 1,000 lashes. (Page 2.)
Imposing its own interpretation of Sunni Islam on the country, Saudi Arabia bans all non-Muslim public worship and continues to prosecute and imprison individuals for dissent, apostasy, blasphemy, and sorcery. (Page 2.)
In Sudan, the government prosecuted 25 Quranists for apostasy and stiffened penalties for both apostasy and blasphemy. The regime prosecutes Christian pastors on trumped-up charges and represses and marginalizes the country’s minority Christian community. It imposes a restrictive interpretation of Shari’ah law and applies corresponding hudood punishments on Muslims and non-Muslims alike. (Page 2.)
USCIRF remains concerned that some OIC members continue to support a global anti-blasphemy law. Many OIC member states continue to have and enforce repressive domestic blasphemy laws that result in gross human rights abuses and exacerbate religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence, the very problems the OIC claims it is trying to address. In addition, some OIC countries continue to refer publicly to the defamation-of-religions concept and call for international laws against it, including in the context of the “Istanbul Process,” a series of international meetings launched in 2011 to discuss the implementation of the Resolution 16/18 approach.
With respect to these issues, USCIRF recommends that the State Department:
- Remain vigilant against any renewed efforts at the UN to seek legal limitations on offensive or controversial speech about religion that does not constitute incitement to violence, and continue to press countries to adhere to the Resolution 16/18 approach, including by repealing blasphemy laws. (Page 20.)
Burma’s government revealed a troubling double standard in dealing with individuals whose words or actions were perceived to express hate and/or insult religion. On the one hand, Ma Ba Tha figurehead Ashin Wirathu’s slanderous and vile insults of UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee, after she criticized the race and religion bills in January, went unchecked, and the government failed to distance itself from his remarks. Meanwhile, former NLD official Htin Lin Oo was found guilty in June of insulting religion following an October 2014 speech in which he spoke out against the use of Buddhism for extremist purposes. Also, in March 2015, three nightclub managers – a New Zealand man and two Burmese men – were sentenced to two-and-a-half years’ hard labour for insulting religion after posting online a promotional advertisement depicting Buddha wearing headphones. The New Zealand man, Philip Blackwood, was released as part of the January 2016 prisoner amnesty, but his two Burmese colleagues remain in prison. While hateful and intolerant expression should be strongly condemned, the right to freedom of expression is indivisible from the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief, and laws making religious defamation a crime violate international human rights norms. (Page 29)
From the 2017 Annual Report:
Blasphemy laws are yet another example of governments using laws as a tool for restricting religious freedom under the purported need to protect religions from defamation. In more than 70 countries worldwide, from Canada to Pakistan, governments employ these laws, which lead to grave human rights violations, embolden extremists, and are, in the long run, counterproductive to national security. (Page 2.)
In addition, many countries in Western Europe, including Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, and Italy, retain legislation on blasphemy, defamation of religion, or “anti-religious remarks,” though these laws are seldom enforced. In one promising development, Ireland’s coalition government announced in May 2016 its intention to hold a referendum on the removal of its blasphemy law. In a rare example of implementation, however, Spanish councilor Rita Maestre was charged with “infringing on freedom of conscience and religious convictions” in a high-profile case based on her participation in a topless protest within a Catholic chapel. In December 2016, the Spanish court acquitted Maestre, holding that her actions were disrespectful, but not desecration. In February 2017, Denmark issued its first charge of blasphemy since 1971. The accused, a 42-year-old man who uploaded a video of himself burning a Qur’an, faces a possible four-month prison sentence or a fine. The trial is scheduled for June 2017. [In response, on 2 June 2017, and before the trial commenced, the parliament of Denmark repealed the blasphemy law with a majority of 75 to 27 .]
From the 2015 Annual Report:
In Pakistan, the country’s strict blasphemy laws and increased extremist activity further threatened already marginalized minority communities, including Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Shi’a Muslims. …
In addition, both the Trump Administration and Congress should amplify their international religious freedom efforts by: working with international partners, humanizing the issue by focusing on prisoners of conscience and victims of blasphemy laws, and stressing the importance of empowering women to fully exercise their rights to freedom of religion or belief. …
The second theme was the issue of blasphemy laws, to highlight both their incompatibility with international human rights principles and some of the individuals affected by their enforcement. These laws exist in at least 69 countries worldwide and should be repealed. …
The Chinese government accuses the Dalai Lama of blasphemy and “splittism” and cracks down on anyone suspected of so-called separatist activities. Monks and nuns who refuse to denounce the Dalai Lama or pledge loyalty to Beijing have been expelled from their monasteries,
imprisoned, and tortured.