US releases 2015 International Religious Freedom Report

The U.S. State Department has released its 2015 International Religious Freedom Report. Required by U.S. law, the report contains an assessment of the conditions supporting, or suppressing, freedom of religion or belief in nearly 200 countries, excluding the United States.

View the report online

The following are extracts from today’s press briefing given by David N. Saperstein, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom (in full here)

In many countries, religious freedom flourishes. According to the 2014 annual Pew study on global religious freedom trends, 76 percent of the world’s countries provide the basic conditions for people to freely practice their religion or beliefs.

Our work, however, focuses on those 24 percent of the countries with serious restrictions on religious freedom, whether caused by government policies or the hostile acts of individuals, organizations, or societal groups. These are countries in which 74 percent of the world’s population lives. In countries where religious minorities have long contributed to their national societies in relative comity for decades, centuries, even millennia, we continue to witness violent upheavals, some of historic proportions, in which entire communities are in danger of being driven out of their homelands based solely on their religious or ethnic identities. 

While the report touches on all manner of restrictions to religious freedom, I want to highlight this year the chilling, sometimes deadly effect of blasphemy and apostasy laws in many places of the world, as well as laws that purport to protect religious sentiments from defamation. Roughly a quarter of the world’s countries have blasphemy laws, and more than one in 10 have laws or policies penalizing apostasy, and the existence of these laws has been used by governments in too many cases to intimidate, repress religious minorities, and governments have too often failed to take appropriate steps to prevent societal violence sparked by accusations of blasphemy and apostasy. And when these claims turn out to be blatantly false accusations made to pursue other agendas, governments will often fail to act to hold perpetrators accountable. These government failures weaken trust in the rule of law, creating an atmosphere of impunity for those who would resort to violence or make false claims of blasphemy.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom states that 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 contexts 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. And former UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Heiner Bielefeldt noted in his December 2015 report to the UN Human Rights Council, “Abundant experience in a number of countries demonstrates that blasphemy laws do not contribute to a climate of religious openness, tolerance, non-discrimination and respect. To the contrary, they often fuel stereotyping, stigmatization, discrimination and incitement to violence. … Such laws have a stifling impact on the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief, and healthy dialogue and debate about religion” is stifled.

There are unfortunately many tragic stories in our report that illustrate the harm posed by blasphemy laws, apostasy laws, laws that purport to protect religion. I’ll mention just a few to dramatize that no one region, country, or religion is immune to the pernicious effects of such legislation. Iran continues to execute prisoners of conscience for their beliefs. The government executed at least 20 individuals on charge – on charges of moharebeh, or enmity against God, in 2015. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, at least 250 members of minority religious groups remain imprisoned, including Sunnis, Bahais, Christian converts, Sufis, Yarsanis, and Zoroastrians.

Saudi Arabia penalizes blasphemy with lengthy prison sentences and lashings, often after detention without trial or so-called protective custody, according to legal experts. In Nigeria in 2015, the Sharia court in Kano sentenced nine members of a Muslim sect to death for blasphemy for allegedly elevating the group’s founder above the Prophet Muhammad. In Indonesia, local governments selectively enforced blasphemy laws that undermined the exercise of religious freedom. In Pakistan, the government continued to enforce blasphemy laws, for which a punishment can be death sentence, for a range of charges including defiling the Prophet Muhammad. Christians as well as Muslims were arrested on charges of blasphemy in the last year. In Germany, blasphemy laws were used to punish those who defamed religion. This past February, an avowed atheist was fined in the city of Muenster for having bumper stickers that challenged the beliefs of Catholics.

And of course, as we heard, non-state actors like ISIL inflict punishment of their own – for their own interpretation of blasphemy. In May, seven-year-old Muaz Hassan was playing soccer with his friends in Raqqa, Syria. During the game, he said a bad word out of his frustration. He was detained by Daesh for blasphemy or cursing God. In a matter of days, he was marched out into a public square and murdered by a firing squad in front of a crowd of hundreds, including his parents.

Chilling stories like this show how terrorist organizations have committed, by far, some of the most egregious abuses when claiming individuals have engaged in apostasy, blasphemy, or cursing God, including those involving public crucifixions and beheading of men, women, and children.

So what are we doing? We work with people in power to change laws and practices, and in public we use social media, speeches, and op-eds to advocate fervently for these issues about which we care so deeply. In my own travels to now more than 25 countries, I’ve specifically raised our concerns about blasphemy and apostasy laws as well as legislation dealing with defamation of religion in countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, Sudan, Burma, Iraq, Nigeria. I strongly affirm the U.S. Government’s opposition to blasphemy laws, urging that they be eliminated or, as a start, not enforced.

And across the globe, encouraging efforts of governmental and nongovernmental responses at addressing the negative impact of such laws is seen. Thus, in 2015, Iceland abandoned its 75-year-old blasphemy law. We hope that will be a model for other nations to emulate. And in June, an international contact group on religious freedom of more than 25 like-minded governments, encompassing countries from six continents with majority populations of varied faith groups – all seeking to advance freedom of religion, of belief across the globe – met at the Department of State in Washington.

We are taking collective action to address the most urgent religious freedom challenges. Then there are the inspiring nongovernmental efforts, and here I’ll address not only blasphemy and apostasy but broader religious freedom issues. In Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, groups, including many Muslim youth, formed human rings around synagogues to protect them after anti-Semitic attacks. And just recently in France, after the brutal beheading of a priest in Rouen, local Muslims showed their solidarity with the grieving Catholic community, attending mass with their fellow countrymen.

In May 2015, Muslim leaders in Lahore, Pakistan courageously stepped forward, placing themselves between a mob and neighbors accused of blasphemy to successfully protect their fellow Pakistanis who were Christians.

In a crowded courtroom in Sudan in August 2015, I was present to watch the release of two of the country’s most prominent religious prisoners of conscience – although, sadly, after they were freed and left the country, charges were reapplied again.

When al-Shabaab militants attacked a bus in Kenya in December 2015, reportedly with the intention of killing Christians, a group of Kenyan Muslims refused to be separated from their fellow Christian travelers, told the militants to kill them or leave them all alone. And although two passengers were killed, the attackers eventually relented and withdrew.

In January 2016, a group of more than 300 Islamic scholars, religious and interfaith leaders, gathered in Marrakesh, where Muslim scholars and intellectuals would issue a declaration embodying common themes for protecting religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries. And Islamic religious leaders, NGOs, and political leaders are – in a number of countries are following up with plans to build on efforts of the declaration.

In closing, the protection and promotion of religious freedom remains a key foreign policy priority for the United States. As daunting as the many challenges are that we face across the globe, we will not be deterred in the work that we do. We will continue to partner with other nations, with committed NGOs, and with courageous individuals and communities on the ground across the world to advance these core freedoms. This report is at once vivid testimony for the many whose plight might otherwise receive scant attention and a document – a blueprint – of what must be addressed to bring us closer to the day when religious freedom will thrive for all. Towards that end, we rededicate ourselves anew today.