THE world is still gripped by a lack of freedom of religion, particularly in countries where the crime of blasphemy remains a legal and social flashpoint, the latest International Religious Freedom Report from the United States concludes.
Published last week, the report from the US Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, David Saperstein, states that 74 per cent of the world’s population lives in countries “with serious restrictions on religious freedom”.
Of special concern are Islamic nations with blasphemy laws. “Such laws conflict with and undermine universally recognized human rights,” the report says.
“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.”
“In far too many countries, 2015 witnessed appalling patterns of significant restrictions on religious practice, as well as societal intolerance of, restrictions on and even violence against members of religious minority groups,” the Deputy Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, said on Wednesday, at the State Department event that launched the report.
It begins by retelling the story of Farkhunda Malikzada, who was killed in Afghanistan by a mob after she was falsely accused of burning the Qu’ran, while police officers stood by and watched.
“False accusations, often lodged in pursuit of personal vendettas or for the personal gain of the accuser, are not uncommon,” the report finds. “Mob violence as a result of such accusations is disturbingly common.”
Courts in these countries continue to hand down harsh sentences, including the death penalty, for blasphemy and apostasy, which severely curtails the religious freedom of citizens.
Ms Malikzada’s story, however, does also reveal chinks of light in the battle for greater religious freedom, the report says.
“While Farkhunda’s killing illustrates the horrors that can result from false accusations of blasphemy in deeply conservative Islamic societies, what happened subsequently demonstrates that change is possible.” The President immediately condemned the killing, thorough investigations led to charges and convictions for those involved, and Afghans carried her body to her grave-site in an unprecedented public protest against the culture that facilitated her death.
But blasphemy accusations continue to impinge on religious freedom across the Islamic world. In Mauritania, a blogger has been sentenced to death, 27 members of a Muslim sect in Sudan have been detained on charges of apostasy, and Saudi Arabia continues to punish atheists and political opponents with public flogging and death after convictions for blasphemy and apostasy.
In Pakistan, there were 359 people accused of blasphemy in 2013 alone, and more than 40 others are currently on death row for blasphemy, many members of religious minorities, including Christians such as Asia Bibi (News, 24 July 2015).
The other major perpetrators of crimes against religious freedom are terrorist groups such as Islamic State (IS, or Da’esh) and Boko Haram in Nigeria, the report states.
“Da’esh continued to pursue a brutal strategy of what Secretary Kerry judged to constitute genocide against Yezidis, Christians, Shia, and other vulnerable groups . . . including killings, torture, enslavement and trafficking, rape, and other sexual abuse against religious and ethnic minorities and Sunnis,” is the report’s grim conclusion about the jihadist group.
Government forces in Syria have also committed war crimes against Sunnis and other religious minorities, including indiscriminate shelling of neighbourhoods targeted on the basis of the religion of the inhabitants.
Less urgent, but also concerning, is the increase in countries that require registration by people of minority faiths, and strict regulation that favours the traditional or majority religion.
Research from Penn State University shows that, today, a total of 90 per cent of nations, in places as diverse as Azerbaijan to Angola, force religions to formally register with the state.
Other countries picked out by the report include China, for its local campaigns of tearing down crosses on churches (News, 14 August 2015), and Russia for granting privileges and favours to the Orthodox Church while cracking down on small groups such as Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Pentecostals (News, 22 July).
Freedom of religion remained essentially non-existent in North Korea, the report also said. This assessment sparked a furious response from the country’s foreign ministry, whose spokesman said the report proved that the US — “the sworn enemy of the Korean people” — was seeking to topple North Korea’s “social system” under the pretext of spreading human rights and freedom of religion.
There was some good news, though, including the story of how Muslim bus passengers in Kenya refused to reveal the Christians among them when pulled over by al-Shabab terrorists intending to kill them (News, 1 January).
The Pope’s visit to the Central African Republic in November seemed to break down barriers, metaphorically and literally, between warring Christian and Muslim communities.
Mr Saperstein’s position and his annual report are a result of the US’s International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which requires the government to monitor and promote religious freedom around the world.
The report is available at www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/.