Religious freedoms: report highlights risks of blasphemy and apostasy laws

An annual State Department report on global religious freedom warns that such laws could allow 'societal passions' to take dangerous expression.

Massoud Hossaini/AP
In this Sunday, March 22, 2015 file photo, Afghan women rights activists carry the coffin of 27-year-old Farkhunda, an Afghan woman who was beaten to death by a mob, during her funeral in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The US State Department's annual report on religious freedom around the world raises concerns over laws passed by countries across the world that restrict religious freedoms, particularly highlighting measures against blasphemy and apostasy in some nations with Muslim majorities.

“In many … Islamic societies, societal passions associated with blasphemy – deadly enough in and of themselves – are abetted by a legal code that harshly penalizes blasphemy and apostasy,” said the report. “Such laws conflict with and undermine universally recognized human rights.”

The State Department pointed in particular to the March death of Farkhunda Malikzada, an Afghani woman falsely accused of burning a Quran by the caretaker of a shrine outside of her mosque after the two argued over charms sold outside, which she believed were un-Islamic. Incited by the accusation, a mob beat Ms. Malikzada to death.

“All residents of countries where laws or social norms encourage the death penalty for blasphemy are vulnerable to attacks such as the one on Farkhunda,” the report says.

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani moved quickly to condemn the lynching and order an investigation into the young woman's death. Four men were eventually sentenced to death, including the shrine’s caretaker, and eight others given 16-year prison terms, as The New York Times reported in May 2015. Eleven involved police officers were told to continue working in their districts for one year, and avoid travel during that time.

Malikzada’s family has repeatedly criticized the court’s handling of the case – including its decision to acquit eight other officers, as well as dozens of other men accused of involvement in the mob, because of a lack of evidence – and in June 2015, they told the Associated Press that they still lived in fear.

"We cannot live a normal life, our children cannot go to school or college, we can't even go shopping," said her father, Mohammad Nader Malikzada, in an interview with the AP. "We are under such psychological pressure. It is hell in this house."

Still, the State Department held up the numerous convictions as an indication that "change is possible."

“The fact that individuals have been held accountable for this horrific crime represents a significant step forward for Afghanistan’s justice system, and sends an important message to those who might see allegations of blasphemy as a means to act with impunity against others,” it said.

A Pew Center study published in late June concluded that despite a continued rise in religiously motivated terrorism, government restrictions on faith – as well as social hostilities stemming from religious conflicts – had decreased somewhat from 2013 to 2014. Among the world's most populous countries, Pakistan was found to have the highest proportion of religion-related social hostilities, while the highest level of restrictions were found in Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey.

The State Department report singled out several countries where governments prosecuted citizens for blasphemy or apostasy in the past year, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, and Pakistan. And it took special note of the genocide carried out against religious minorities by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) and Boko Haram, calling them “amongst the most egregious abusers of religious freedom in the world.”

IS, it wrote, was "responsible for barbarous acts, including killings, torture, enslavement and trafficking, rape and other sexual abuse against religious and ethnic minorities and Sunnis in areas under its control."

In West Africa, meanwhile, Boko Haram "continued to launch indiscriminate, violent attacks targeting both Christians and Muslims who spoke out against or opposed their violent ideology," the report said.

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