The recent trial and conviction of Saeed Abedini in Iran drew attention once more to the lack of religious freedom in a number of Muslim-majority countries.
Abedini, born in Iran but now a U.S. citizen, was visiting his birth country when he was arrested by authorities. Abenini was born a Muslim and later converted to Christianity. In past years he had established some home churches in Iran but at the time of his arrest he had returned to work on an orphanage.
On Jan. 27 he was sentenced to eight years imprisonment by a Revolutionary Court judge who said his efforts to establish Christian churches threatened Iran’s national security, a Jan. 29 report by World Watch Monitor said.
“We remain deeply concerned about the fairness and transparency of Mr. Abedini’s trial,” said the newly confirmed US secretary of state, John Kerry, when questioned about the matter during his hearing before the Senate, the Christian Post reported Jan. 30.
“I, along with the U.S. government, condemn Iran’s continued violation of the universal right of freedom of religion and call on the Iranian authorities to respect Mr. Abedini’s human rights and release him,” he said.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published an analysis last Nov. 21 looking at the laws against blasphemy, apostasy and defamation of religion.
They referred to a number of recent cases, such as the 14-year-old girl in Pakistan arrested for allegedly burning some pages of the Quran.
While many violations involve Islamic countries, Muslims are not alone in limiting religious freedom. One example the analysis referred to was the charge of blasphemy against a man in Greece for satirical references to the Orthodox Church that he posted online.
According to the Pew study in 2011 nearly half of the countries and territories in the world (47%) have laws or policies that penalize blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion.
Of the 198 countries they studied, 32 (16%) have anti-blasphemy laws, 20 (10%) have laws penalizing apostasy and 87 (44%) have laws against the defamation of religion, including hate speech against members of religious groups.
An earlier study by the Pew Forum on this subject also found that restrictions on religious liberty were often found in countries with either severe government restrictions on religion or high levels of social hostility involving religion.
Anti-blasphemy laws are particularly prevalent in the Middle East and North Africa, the analysis noted, with 13 out of the 20 countries having them. This compares with nine out of 50 countries in the Asia Pacific region and eight out of 45 countries in Europe.
Out of the 20 countries that penalize apostasy, 11 were in the Middle East and North Africa, while there were no laws against it in Europe or the Americas.
By contrast laws against defamation of religion are most common in Europe, where 36 out of the 45 countries had such laws. The study noted, however, that most of these laws were related to penalties against religious hate speech rather than defamation itself.
The latest news and the findings of the Pew Forum study confirm the concerns expressed in a book published late 2011 by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea. In “Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide,” (Oxford University Press), they examined both Muslim-majority countries and Western nations, as well as attempts to introduce blasphemy restrictions through the United Nations.
Regarding the Muslim countries, they observed that the restrictions are used to curb the freedom of scholars, writers, dissidents and human rights activists. Frequently political and academic freedoms are curtailed.
As well, they said that the restrictions foster a closed religious orthodoxy and favor the position of extremists who use these laws to intimidate those who seek reconciliation between the Islamic nations and the rest of the world.
Often the laws are very broad and courts are not required to follow precise definitions. For example in Malaysia it is illegal to publish “twisted facts that can undermine the faith of Muslims.”
In Pakistan the blasphemy laws prohibit any act that “by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly,” is an offence.
Apart from legal restrictions one of the book’s chapters looked at the violent acts carried out by extremists. “While legal strictures on religious speech are dangerous, a more pervasive, and in many ways deeper, problem is violence and threats of violence against those accused of insulting Islam,” the authors observed.
The threat of such violence can result in self-censorship. One such case is when in 2009 Yale University Press refused to publish a photograph of the Danish cartoons that sparked a worldwide controversy, even though the book was being promoted as the definitive study of the cartoons.
At stake is the undermining of fundamental freedoms of religion and expression, the book concluded. It finished with a call for politicians to understand better the role of religion in politics and for all to defend with more vigor religious freedom. A call still very relevant today.