- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2019

Christians in India’s Punjab province this week asked authorities to prosecute a fellow Christian for cutting a birthday cake in the design of a Bible.

Earlier this month, Indian authorities arrested two Muslim men for criticizing a recent high court decision upholding the right of a Hindu temple to be built on the ruins of a mosque.

And earlier this year, Asia Bibi — a Christian woman — left Pakistan, where she had spent three years in prison after being condemned to die for blasphemy for drinking water from a well reserved for Muslims.

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India and Pakistan strictly enforce their blasphemy laws, which were enshrined in 1927 by British colonial rulers and have expanded since then. But these and similar laws in nearly 90 countries increasingly are being weaponized to silence religious dissent.

On Thursday on Capitol Hill, a lawmaker and international observers called for an end to blasphemy laws and other measures that direct religious thought.

“It’s hard to think of a more central question as it relates to religious liberty,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, Maryland Democrat, said in support of a House resolution that calls for the global repeal of blasphemy, heresy and apostasy laws. “There are billions of people on Earth who can be prosecuted for what are essentially thought crimes.”

More than 80 nations have blasphemy laws, which the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom defines as measures that penalize the act of insulting a deity or sacred things. Regions with the highest number of such laws are in Asia Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa, but several countries in the West, usually viewed as more religiously tolerant, maintain blasphemy laws, including Brazil, Spain and Germany.

Punishments under these laws range from lashings and prison sentences to forced labor, as in Russia. In four countries, including Pakistan, blasphemy charges can lead to the death penalty.

“It’s so important that the United States take the lead with our allies that we can’t allow these kinds of laws on the books anymore,” said Matias Perttula, advocacy director for International Christian Concern, who organized Thursday’s event.

While some nations, including Ireland and Denmark, have removed blasphemy laws over the last decade, others have added such laws, such as Mauritania, an Islamic nation in northwest Africa. In Brunei, a tiny nation in Southeast Asia, blasphemy is punishable by death.

“All pose human rights concerns,” said Elizabeth Cassidy, a researcher with the commission.

Blasphemy laws, experts say, are often wielded as “score-settling” measures and a consequence of official state religions.

“If one religion can capture state power in a nation, then it can define anyone else’s religious practice or worship as blasphemy, heresy, or apostasy,” said Mr. Raskin, who is a lead sponsor of the resolution along with Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican.

International organizations have sought to repeal blasphemy laws, and, when they can’t, extricate supposed offenders from prison.

Earlier this year, Pakistani authorities released Abdul Shakoor after three years of imprisonment following sustained pressure from the commission and Mr. Raskin.

Mr. Shakoor, a bookseller and a member of the minority Ahmadiyya faith, had been jailed after authorities convicted him for possessing Ahmadi literature in his shop, a violation of the Muslim nation’s blasphemy law.

Blasphemy remains a particular problem in Pakistan, where minority Christian practitioners represent a disproportionate percentage of those accused. In one study, roughly 50% accused in Pakistan of blasphemy were non-Muslim.

International Christian Concern estimates that more than 60 people have been lynched due to “supposed blasphemy laws.”

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