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Barnabas Fund
March 27, 2014

An increasing number of countries, mostly ones with a Muslim majority, are enforcing blasphemy laws, which are used to penalise Christian minorities and others with different religious views.
A report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released this month said that such laws are incompatible with international human rights standards because they protect beliefs over individuals. Director of policy and research Knox Thames said:
This trend of greater usage of blasphemy laws will surely lead to increased violations of the freedoms of religion and expression. Governments will jail people, and extremists may kill others in the defence of undefined notions of religious sentiment.

Blasphemy Accusations

The report said that where an authoritarian government supports an established religious creed, blasphemy accusations are frequently used to silence critics or democratic rivals under the guise of enforcing religious piety.

Pakistan was cited as “the most egregious example” of the increasing use and application of blasphemy laws; 14 people are currently on death row and 19 are serving life sentences. Barnabas Aid has repeatedly raised the plight of condemned Christian mother Aasia Bibi, who is languishing in jail awaiting an appeal against her controversial blasphemy conviction.
In both Pakistan and Egypt, the small Christian minorities are disproportionately affected.

There has been a significant increase in the use of blasphemy-type laws in Egypt since the revolution of January 2011. From then to the end of 2012, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights recorded a total of 36 blasphemy cases involving 63 people. Of these, 59% were against Muslims and 41% against Christians, even though the latter comprise only around ten per cent of the population.

Four people are currently serving jail terms for blasphemy in Egypt. Among them is Bishoy Kamel, a Christian teacher who was sentenced to six years over cartoons and comments on his Facebook page.

Other countries to invoke blasphemy laws include: Indonesia, where more than 120 people have been detained since 2003; Iran, where “insulting Islam”, “criticising the Islamic regime” and “deviating from Islamic standards” are offences; Saudi Arabia, where the government uses blasphemy charges against those who challenge the lack of separation between religion and the state and champion political and human rights reforms; and Sudan, where blasphemy accusations are likewise used against those opposing the government or expressing dissenting religious views.

Between 1998 and 2011, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which comprises 57 nations with large Muslim populations, lobbied the United Nations for a global blasphemy law. Support for their non-binding resolutions on “combating defamation of religions” steadily fell because of growing opposition from Western and Latin American countries based on their concerns about the threat to free speech.

In 2011, a more general resolution, drawn up with the US and European Union, shifted away from the defamation of religion to combating religious intolerance; this passed unanimously.

Although the OIC has not tried to reintroduce the “defamation of religions” campaign, the Arab League, which comprises 22 members, all of which belong to the OIC, is now taking up the cause. In November 2013, Arab League justice ministers endorsed a model blasphemy law for their region.

So it seems that the increasing use of blasphemy laws is a trend that is likely only to continue, a prospect that bodes ill for vulnerable Christian minorities, especially those in the Arab world.


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