State Department Takes Aim at Blasphemy Laws in New Report

The U.S. State Department this week unveiled its annual report on the status of religious liberty around the world. Announcing the publication, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “No nation can fulfill its potential if its people are denied the right to freely choose and openly practice their faith.”

As mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the State Department assesses each year the atmosphere for free exercise of religion in nearly 200 countries and territories. This newest report takes particular aim at blasphemy and apostasy laws that are especially prevalent and dangerous in Muslim-majority nations. Warning of the mob violence and harsh sentences often connected to these laws, the department declares they have been used to “severely curtail the religious freedom of their residents.” Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein highlighted that nearly a quarter of all countries have blasphemy laws, and they are used to persecute religious minorities. In its introduction, the report makes specific note of incidents associated with blasphemy laws in Afghanistan, Mauritania, Pakistan, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia.

In line with Secretary of State John Kerry’s labeling earlier this year of ISIS actions against Christians and other minorities as “genocide,” this week’s report also analyzes threats to religious freedom posed by non-state actors like ISIS and Boko Haram. Deputy Secretary Blinken declared ISIS to be “responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing,” adding, “they’ve not only killed, they’ve sought to erase the memory of those they’ve killed, destroying centuries-old religious cultural sites.”

Among other situations, the State Department also highlighted issues in China, where churches have been demolished; in North Korea, where “religious freedom continued to be nearly non-existent”; and in Russia, where the Russian Orthodox Church is favored by the state even as religious minorities are restricted by “anti-extremism laws.”

The full State Department report is here and video of this week’s announcement is available from C-SPAN here.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: August 12, 2016

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