Laws against blasphemy remain “astonishingly widespread” around the world, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

Such legislation is “detrimental to religious freedom,” often leads to human rights abuses, and most commonly is used against persons who hold minority perspectives.

USCIRF defined blasphemy as “the act of expressing contempt or a lack of reverence for God or sacred things.”

Blasphemy laws are defined as “provisions that sanction insulting or defaming religion and seek to punish individuals for allegedly offending, insulting or denigrating religious doctrines, deities, symbols or ‘the sacred,’ or for wounding or insulting religious feelings.”

At present, 71 nations have blasphemy laws in place and 59 of these countries allow for persons convicted of blasphemy to be imprisoned, according to the report, “Respecting Rights? Measuring the World’s Blasphemy Laws.”

“Regionally, 25.4 percent of the laws found are from countries in the Middle East and North Africa, 25.4 percent from Asia-Pacific, 22.5 percent from Europe, 15.5 percent from Sub-Saharan Africa, and 11.2 percent from the Americas,” USCIRF found.

Lashings (Sudan), forced labor (Russia and Kazakhstan) and even the death penalty (Iran and Pakistan) are among the more grievous penalties set forth for blasphemy.

Most legislation includes vague language regarding what constitutes blasphemy, and “only one-third (33 percent) of criminal laws studied specify intent, or mens rea, as an element of the crime.”

The 10 nations whose blasphemy laws diverged most significantly from internationally-recognized human rights standards are: Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Qatar, Egypt, Italy, Algeria, Comoros and Malta. The top five all have an official state religion.

“If a law expresses a preference for specific religious or belief groups, it may indicate an officially-endorsed hierarchy of faiths, which could pave the way to state-sanctioned discrimination against excluded faiths,” the report explained. “Some countries do express preferences for religious groups and exclude others.”

While the report noted that most people find blasphemy to be offensive, it emphasized that laws outlawing such expressions hinder not only freedom of speech but also freedom of religion.

“Freedom of religion or belief implies that people have the right to embrace a full range of thoughts and beliefs, including those that others might deem blasphemous; freedom of expression implies that they have the right to speak or write about them publicly,” USCIRF emphasized.

“People also have a right to speak out against what they consider blasphemy as long as they do not incite others to violence,” the report added. “These rights are guaranteed in international documents to which most countries have agreed, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

The full report is available here.

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