Criminalizing ‘Matters of the Soul’: New Alliance to Target Blasphemy and Apostasy Laws

By Patrick Goodenough | February 6, 2020 | 4:24am EST
Iranian women attend a Shi’ite religious meeting in Tehran. Iran is one of a small handful of countries where blasphemy and apostasy are punishable by death. (Photo by Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images)
Iranian women attend a Shi’ite religious meeting in Tehran. Iran is one of a small handful of countries where blasphemy and apostasy are punishable by death. (Photo by Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images)

( – The United States joined 26 other countries on Wednesday in launching an international religious freedom alliance, with blasphemy laws and the persecution of people who leave their religion or convert to another high on the agenda.

“We condemn blasphemy and apostasy laws that criminalize matters of the soul,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the launch dinner at the State Department’s Benjamin Franklin state dining room.

According to the department, priority areas for the alliance include challenging “the use of blasphemy laws and the denial of registration to religious or non-religious groups.” Alliance members also are “committed to opposing restrictions on the freedom to change one’s religion or belief, or to hold no belief, and to demonstrating solidarity with person or persons victimized by such restrictions.”

The alliance’s founding members include nations in Europe, Latin America, and Africa – among them countries with Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox traditions, the Jewish state of Israel, and four members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – Albania, Gambia, Senegal, and Togo.

Of dozens of countries that outlaw blasphemy today, at least six – all members of the OIC – carry the death penalty: Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Somalia.

Twelve countries have the death penalty in their statute books for apostasy – the act of converting to another religion, or discarding religious faith altogether.

Again, all are Islamic countries: Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

Under some interpretations of shari’a, Muslim men who abandon Islam or convert to another faith, and who refuse to recant – usually within a specified, limited period of time – can be put to death.

Scholars who argue in favor of the death penalty for apostates point for example to sura 4:89 of the Qur’an, which urges Muslims to seize and kill those who turn away. The Hadith, or traditional writings and sayings of Mohammed, include one in which he commands, “Any person who has changed his religion, kill him.”

Another view holds that, to deserve death the apostate should not only have converted but also be a danger to the community, equating it with the crime of treason. Proponents often cite another sura in the Qur’an, 2:256, which states that “there is no compulsion in religion.”

Pompeo pushed back at the notion that promoting religious freedom was pushing American or Western values.

“Look at the diversity of the other countries, organizations, and networks that are joining us here today,” he said. “Our mission spans nationalities, political systems, and creeds. Together, we say that freedom of religion or belief is not a Western ideal, but truly the bedrock of societies.”

‘Chinese pressure’

The initiative was first announced by Pompeo at a religious freedom ministerial in Washington last July, and then promoted by President Trump at the U.N. in New York in September.

Trump at the time described it as “an alliance of like-minded nations devoted to confronting religious persecution all around the world” and urged countries “to join us in this urgent moral duty.”

The State Department said Wednesday it was “the first time in history an international coalition has come together at a national leadership level to push the issue of religious freedom forward around the world.”

“Egregious perpetrators of religious persecution have long operated with impunity,” the State Department said. “The alliance will unify powerful nations and leverage their resources to stop bad actors and advocate for the persecuted, the defenseless, and the vulnerable.”

The administration has led international condemnation of China’s treatment of its minority Uighur Muslim population, and when he hosted the ministerial last summer, Pompeo accused Beijing of having put pressure on some countries to boycott that meeting, praising those that had “defied the Chinese pressure to come here.”

In his remarks at Wednesday’s alliance launch dinner, Pompeo touched on the subject again.

“We condemn the Chinese Communist Party’s hostility to all faiths,” he said. “We know several of you courageously pushed back against Chinese pressure by agreeing to be part of this alliance, and we thank you for that.”

Members of the alliance commit themselves to condemning violence, or incitement to violence, against anyone based on their religion or belief, and to “demanding perpetrators be held to account,” the State Department says.

What steps will be taken to do so remain unclear at this stage, but a senior State Department official briefing on background said the “toolbox of tools” would include putting out statements, coordinating positions in international bodies, as well as “the possibilities of sanctions.”

“It’s a consensual body, and by that I mean there won’t be votes taken, and every nation is not bound to join in each of the items that come forth,” the official said. “But as countries look at this and say ‘that’s something we’re interested in,’ then they can join.”

Joining the U.S. in the alliance are Albania, Austria, Bosnia, Brazil, Britain, Bulgaria, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Gambia, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Senegal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Togo, and Ukraine.


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