More than 30 years have passed since Pakistan’s President General Zia-ul-Haq – during military rule in 1986 – decided that the death penalty was the appropriate punishment for blasphemy against Sunni Islam.
Today, Pakistan remains the world’s most determined anti-blasphemy state. Christians make up only about 4 per cent of the country’s overwhelmingly Muslim population, but about half of blasphemy charges are against Christians. The cases of two Christian females, Aasiya Noreen (better known as “Asia Bibi”) and teenager Rimsha Masih, on whom evidence was planted by an imam, both hit the world headlines.
But blasphemy law doesn’t begin and end in Pakistan. Around the world, numerous governments make use of such laws today – and their impact is felt chiefly by religious minorities, including Christians.
World Watch Monitor looks at how blasphemy laws are used around the world, and how this affects minority Christians.
Which countries have blasphemy laws?
Section 295C of Chapter XV in Pakistan’s penal code states:
“Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”
Prior to the 1986 legislative amendments, the Judiciary and Legislature exercised some evidence of will and intent to protect individuals and religious communities from being persecuted. The law discouraged exploitation of religion or instigations of violence. In the post-Zia-ul-Haq era, however, the law protects Sunni Islam alone and provides a legal justification for religious prosecution and persecution.
Examples: Asia Bibi – a Christian woman accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death in 2010. The Supreme Court overturned her conviction in October 2018. And teenager Rimsha Masih, on whom evidence was planted by an imam.
Religious discrimination is prevalent, apostasy and blasphemy are most severely penalised, and public-order laws prescribe floggings and fines for undefined honour, decency, reputation and morality transgressions. Blasphemy can be punished by six months’ imprisonment, flogging or a fine, or both. Abandoning Islam (apostasy) is illegal and carries the possibility of the death penalty.
Example: Mariam Ibrahim, the Sudanese mother imprisoned for six months but eventually released from death-row charges for apostasy. She is now in the US with her family.
Anti-blasphemy provisions were added to the Egyptian penal code in 1981, following deadly clashes between Christians and Muslims in a Cairo suburb. At the time, radical Islamists were using the pulpits of the mosques to insult Christians and non-Sunni Muslims. The law forbids “mak[ing] use of religion in propagating, either by words, in writing, or in any other means, extreme ideas for the purpose of inciting strife, ridiculing or insulting a heavenly religion or a sect following it, or damaging national unity.” It carries a penalty of six months to five years in prison.
At first, prominent writers, such as Taha Houssin and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, had to answer in court for novels or articles that questioned some core tenets of Islam. More recently, the number of charges have increased, and Christians have been among the accused.
Examples: Bishoy Garas, a Coptic Christian, finally declared innocent after serving more than half of his six-year sentence for charges including defamation of Islam – for posts found on a fake Facebook page opened in his name. And Mohamed Hegazy, the first Egyptian to openly seek, in 2007, a change from Muslim to Christian on his ID card. In July 2016, his lawyer announced that he had returned to Islam.
Though freedom of expression is constitutionally protected, blasphemy laws are in effect in some areas. After independence, mainland Tanzania unified “personal” laws. However, qadi courts remain part of the national judicial system of the island of Zanzibar, where Islamic law holds sway over matters of personal status. Many Muslims of Zanzibar regard attempts by mainlanders to reform some aspects of the judicial system as an attack on Zanzibar’s legislative autonomy. Blasphemy laws are in effect under areas with Sharia. But the two-year imprisonment (and later acquittal) of Eva Abdullah on the mainland indicates blasphemy is criminalized there, too.
Example: Eva Abdullah, a teenage convert from Islam to Christianity, imprisoned for two years after being accused of urinating on a Qur’an. She was later acquitted.
The country’s ruling party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), has backed the introduction of laws based on the tenets of Sharia. UMNO sees itself as the protector of Islam and the rights of Malays, the country’s majority racial group that makes up half the population.
Article 3(1) of the Constitution is often interpreted as Islam being supreme and Muslims’ rights superseding those of other religions. This feeds into other restrictive clauses: Malay Muslims are denied the right to change religion – Article 160 states that “a Malay is someone who professes the Muslim religion, speaks Malay language and conforms to Malay customs.” So, in other words, if you leave Islam you are, by law, no longer Malay.
Cases of conversion in Malaysia have been plagued by official dissension and charges of apostasy by Muslim authorities challenging verdicts by secular courts in Sharia tribunals.
Example: The most prominent suit involved Lina Joy, who converted from Islam to Christianity in 1998 at the age of 26; her application to have her conversion legally recognised by Malaysian courts was rejected in 2007 after a six-year legal battle. However, Rooney Rebit in March 2016 had his right upheld by the High Court to embrace the Christian belief into which he’d been born – before his parents became Muslims – so affirming his freedom to choose his own religion or belief.
While the constitution promises every Nigerian freedom of thought, expression, conscience, and religion, both the country’s court systems can punish blasphemy. Section 204 of the Criminal Code forbids public insults to any religion and carries a maximum two-year prison sentence. Sharia Courts in the 12 northern states examine alleged insults to Islam, for which the punishment can be death.
The system of law enforcement in Nigeria is beset by a lack of resources, sectarian loyalties, and corruption. As a consequence, vigilantism that erupts after a blasphemy accusation often goes unpunished. Most blasphemy charges are made by Muslims against Christians and frequently trigger mob violence before the police and courts can intervene. Blasphemy in Nigeria, then, is more a matter of sectarian violence than of legal proceedings.
Perhaps the most explosive outgrowth of Nigeria’s blasphemy law appears to be the violent insurgency of Boko Haram, which thrives on defending Islam from “false Muslims” who corrupt or blaspheme Islam. It considers education and democracy as threats to Islam, and its stated goal is to install an Islamic government. Not surprisingly, its fiercest grip is in those regions in Nigeria where Sharia can punish blasphemy by death.
As with other countries on the subcontinent, it inherited, from British colonial rule, anti-blasphemy laws originally intended to prevent Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims from using provocative language against each other.
A more modern adaptation of the law that applies to electronic media is “much wider and the punishments threatened by far more draconian”, said Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, after a fact-finding visit to Bangladesh. “[T]his law undoubtedly has a chilling effect on civil-society organisations, human rights activists and members of religious minority communities. It much contributes to the perception of a shrinking space for frank public discourse. The offences mentioned … are only vaguely circumscribed – rather than clearly defined – and thus remain vulnerable to highly subjective invocations and arbitrary applications.”
By presidential decree, non-Muslims who use Arabic terms to preach about Christianity – such as “Isa” for Jesus, or who wear Muslim clothing while worshipping Jesus, can be considered blasphemous. Radicals and Muslim clerics sometimes make use of the decree to pressure local governments to prosecute converts who preach to Muslims.
In 2012 the new government adopted a provisional constitution that claims to provide for some freedom of religion, as well as some freedom of expression. However, it also enshrines Islam as the state religion and prohibits proselytism for any religion other than Islam. Meanwhile, the violent Islamist group al-Shabaab, which harasses and kills those suspected of diverging from its strict version of Islam, retained control of some central and southern rural areas. Although the legal situation is in flux, it is clear that in many parts of the country, any significant criticism of religion could result in a death sentence from a Sharia court, backed by al-Shabaab.
Became an Islamic state in 2015. Although the constitution guarantees freedom of religion or belief in theory, the government promotes and tightly controls religion, especially the Sunni Islam of more than 90 percent of the population, and bars atheism. The status of “blasphemy” as such may be controlled by Islamic legal tradition. Constitutionally established qadi courts have authority over family law, personal status and inheritance; while interreligious marriages are not unheard of, anyone expressing atheist views might run the risk of severe discrimination.
Officially a secular state with no state religion and theoretically strong constitutional protections for freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression. However, “scoffing” at religion or expressing anything “blasphemous … to the feeling or convictions of others or towards the Divine Being” is punishable in law.
Article 816 of the Ethiopia Criminal Code states: “Whoever…in a public place…by gestures or words scoffs at religion or expresses himself in a manner which is blasphemous, scandalous or grossly offensive to the feelings or convictions of others or towards the Divine Being or the religious symbols, rites or religious personages, is punishable with fine or arrest not exceeding one month.”
Article 492 says: “Whoever publicly: a) prevents the solemnization of, or disturbs or scoffs at, an authorized religious ceremony or office; or b) profanes a place, image or object used for religious ceremonies, is punishable with fine not exceeding one thousand Birr, or with simple imprisonment not exceeding two years.”
However, World Watch Monitor is unaware of any cases where an Ethiopian was charged with blasphemy.
Society is very religious and in practice religion is privileged in law. “Insult” to religion is punishable with fines; prison terms from eight days to five years can be handed out to those guilty of hindering the free practice of religion.
The law also criminalises anyone who publicly “humiliates” rites, symbols, or objects of religion, or “insults”, threatens, or physically assaults a religious leader. Though this law appears designed to protect freedom of worship, it seems to conflate assault with free expression or protest, and clearly risks over-extension and could be interpreted as a de facto blasphemy law.
There are no known cases of prosecution under this law.
Section 42 of the penal code says anyone “causing offence to persons of a particular religion” may be fined or imprisoned for up to one year.
No known cases of anyone being prosecuted for this crime.
The ‘End Blasphemy Laws Campaign’ provides an even more comprehensive list of more than 60 countries from around the globe, including countries in Europe, the Americas and Oceania. The full list of countries included: Brazil, Canada, El Salvador, Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand, Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Malta, Montenegro, Poland, Russia, Turkey, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Western Sahara, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Australia, New Zealand, Vanuatu, Ethiopia, Gambia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Somalia,