US takes aim at blasphemy laws, religious discrimination


WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is highlighting concerns over laws against blasphemy and apostasy that limit religious freedom in Muslim and other nations where they are on the books.

The State Department said in its annual report on global religious freedom released Wednesday that these laws, notably in Muslim countries, can abet societal and religious passions that often encourage death sentences for the accused.

“Such laws conflict with and undermine universally recognized human rights,” it said. “False accusations, often lodged in pursuit of personal vendettas or for the personal gain of the accuser, are not uncommon. Mob violence as a result of such accusations is disturbingly common.” The report also said “courts in many countries continued to hand down harsh sentences for blasphemy and apostasy, which were used to severely curtail the religious freedom of their residents.”

The report noted particular problems with blasphemy laws in Afghanistan, Mauritania, Pakistan, Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

In releasing the report, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein pointed out that about a quarter of the world’s countries have blasphemy laws but that they are often unenforced in non-Muslim states.

Another concern is an increase in governmental regulation of religious groups, often aimed at stifling the freedom to worship, according to the report.

“Around the world, governments continued to tighten their regulatory grip on religious groups, and particularly on minority religious groups and religions which are viewed as not traditional to that specific country,” it said. Angola, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Eritrea, Myanmar, Russia and Vietnam were cited as having extremely restrictive registration laws.

The report also took aim at harassment, discrimination and violence that includes genocide against religious minorities, including Christians, being carried out by the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and Boko Haram in west Africa. And it noted actions against Sunni Muslims and minority sects in Iran, Shiite Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, steps against Christians in China, anti-Semitism in parts of Europe and a total lack of religious freedom in North Korea.

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