Laws punishing acts of blasphemy or apostasy against certain religions are present in almost one-fourth of the world’s countries, said a U.S–based religious research group.
“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 even today,” said the Pew Research Center in a May 30 blog post.
The organization found that “that as of 2012, nearly a quarter of the world’s countries and territories” had anti-blasphemy laws or policies, and 11 percent of countries had “laws or policies penalizing apostasy.” Consequences for changing faiths or criticizing a religion ranged from fines to the death penalty.
Pew examined data in its 2014 Religious Freedom Report, as well as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2014 report.
The research showed anti-blasphemy laws across the world and on every populated continent, with some of the most severe legislation enacted in Pakistan.
Such laws are also on the books in Michigan and Massachusetts, although they are not enforced in these states.
On example in which anti-blasphemy laws were used came in the North African country of Mauritania, where anti-slavery activists were imprisoned “after publicly burning religious texts to denounce what the activists viewed as support for slavery in Islamic commentary and jurisprudence.”
While apostasy laws were found to be less common overall – only 21 countries had anti-apostasy legislation on the books – these laws were present in “more than half the countries in the Middle East-North Africa region,” Pew said.
These laws against leaving a certain faith often have strict consequences, with punishments as severe as death, in some cases, or the loss of citizenship, such as in the Maldives, where “all citizens are required to be Muslim.”
Apostasy laws have drawn attention in recent weeks in connection with Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, a 27-year-old woman who has been sentenced to death in Sudan.
Ibrahim is recognized as Muslim under Sudanese law because her father was Muslim, despite the fact that her father abandoned the family when she was six years old, and she was raised as a Christian by her Ethiopian Orthodox mother.
Ibrahim was arrested in August 2013; a Khartoum court convicted her May 15 of apostasy from Islam, and adultery, on the grounds that marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men is not recognized.
She recently gave birth to the couple’s second child while in prison. Reports indicate that she will be allowed to nurse her baby for several months before her death sentence is carried out. Meanwhile, international attention and pressure is growing on Sudan to release her and her children.