US religious freedom report challenges apostasy, blasphemy laws

Apostasy and blasphemy laws - especially in deeply conservative Islamic societies - are often in conflict with universally recognized human rights, an annual religious freedom report issued Wednesday by the US State Department found.

The International Religious Freedom Report for 2015 cites the case of a 27-year-old Afghan woman who was beaten to death by a mob after being falsely accused of burning the Koran. In the outrage that followed, however, many of those responsible were brought to trial.

"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," the report found.

It was one of the more positive findings of the report, which cited countries including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran and Bahrain for blasphemy laws or other restrictive religious practices.

Seventy-six per cent of countries around the world "provide the basic conditions for people to freely practice their religion or beliefs," Assistant Secretary of State David Saperstein said.

The report concentrates on the 24 per cent "with serious restrictions on religious freedom," whether by government decree or by hostile organizations, he said, noting 74 per cent of the world's population lives in those countries.

Non-state actors such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State movement were among "the most egregious abusers of religious freedom in the world," the report says.

The Islamic State organization "kills Yazidis because they are Yazidi; Christians because they are Christian; Shia Muslims because they are Shia," Assistant Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

Islamic State forces not only kill but seek "to erase the memory of those they've killed, destroying centuries-old religious cultural sites," he said.

In Syria, religion is central in the ongoing conflict as government and allied Shia groups kill and arrest Sunnis and other minorites, while Islamic State forces and al-Nusra Front target Alawites, Shia, Christians and other minorities.

The report noted governmental restrictions on religion in North Korea, Russia, Burma and Vietnam, among others.

Among other positive signs in 2015, the report notes Pope Francis' visit to Central African Republic helped ease longstanding tensions between Muslims and Christians.

In Vietnam, authorities are gradually expanding religious freedoms though recognizing a wider variety of religious organizations.

Saperstein noted that Iceland ended a 75-year-old blasphemy law in 2015.

Last update: Wed, 10/08/2016 - 19:57

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