Which countries still outlaw apostasy and blasphemy?

Source: Pew Research Center

Apostasy and blasphemy may seem to many like artifacts of history. But in dozens of countries around the world, laws against apostasy and blasphemy remain on the books and often are enforced.

Last December, for instance, authorities in Sudan charged 25 men for apostasy – the act of abandoning one’s faith — including by converting to another religion. The men face the death penalty for following a different interpretation of Islam than the one sanctioned by the government. And, in Pakistan, police are currently pursuing a Christian accused of sending an allegedly blasphemous poem to a friend. Blasphemy – defined as speech or actions considered to be contemptuous of God or the divine – is a capital crime in Pakistan.

A new Pew Research Center analysis finds that, as of 2014, about a quarter of the world’s countries and territories (26%) had anti-blasphemy laws or policies, and that more than one-in-ten (13%) nations had laws or policies penalizing apostasy. The legal punishments for such transgressions vary from fines to death.

We counted and categorized these laws in 2014 as part of our research for a major report on restrictions on religion around the world. This report, which examines both government restrictions on religion and social hostilities involving religion, relied on 17 widely cited, publicly available sources from groups such as the U.S. State Department, the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group.

We found that laws restricting apostasy and blasphemy are most common in the Middle East and North Africa, where 18 of the region’s 20 countries (90%) criminalize blasphemy and 14 (70%) criminalize apostasy. While apostasy laws exist in only two other regions of the world – Asia-Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa – blasphemy laws can be found in all regions, including Europe (in 16% of countries) and the Americas (29%).

Some blasphemy laws have been on the books for decades and have endured in spite of dramatic political and social changes. In Pakistan, for instance, blasphemy statutes have their origins in the country’s colonial past, when British rulers first introduced penalties for insulting any religious beliefs. These laws remained in effect after Pakistan’s independence in 1947 and have since increased in severity.

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