When Expressing Your Religious Beliefs Is a Crime

December 13, 2019

By FRC's Arielle Del Turco

Described by his friends as a humble, simple man who made bread for his church's communion services, 43-year-old Abdo Adel found himself sentenced to three years in an Egyptian prison. His crime? "Insulting Islam in the first degree." Residing in a small village in Egypt, a Facebook post comparing Islamic prophet Muhammad with Jesus was all it would take to violate the country's blasphemy laws.

Apostasy or blasphemy laws are often thought to be a Middle Eastern problem, especially in Pakistan, where blasphemy laws are routinely misused to punish Christians. However, a report released by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) this week sounds the alarm on apostasy, blasphemy, and hate speech laws that restrict religious freedom in Africa. Recent data has shown that more Christians now live in Africa than on any other continent in the world. The apostasy, blasphemy, and hate speech laws that plague Christians across the African continent is something that the rest of the world shouldn't ignore.

A hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill entitled: Silencing Religious Freedom in Africa: The Impact of Speech Restrictions, hosted by the USCIRF, revealed just how prevalent these laws are. Over half of all countries in Africa have laws limiting speech that can and are used to restrict freedom of religion.

Apostasy laws are typically found in Muslim-majority country and they criminalize converting away from Islam. The primary victims of these laws are Christian converts coming out of a Muslim background. Some countries go to extreme lengths to enforce them. The USCIRF report notes that in Algeria, even proselytizing by non-Muslims is illegal. Under such a regime, true religious freedom does not exist. Its victims are the Christians who are forced to restrict their activities and are too afraid to hold events in the local community that might be attended by Muslims.

Blasphemy laws criminalize the act of insulting a religion or sacred things. These laws are dangerous even when they are not enforced because they create an environment that legitimizes violence against religious minorities. Even when those accused of blasphemy are acquitted by the courts, ordinary people have shown a willingness to rally around blasphemy laws and violently punish those who are thought to have violated them.

At USCIRF's hearing, hate speech laws were highlighted as a growing threat to religious freedom. Panelist Dunia Tegegn from Amnesty International argued that restrictions on religious speech make it difficult to advocate for religious liberty, saying "We have seen these laws used against people trying to fight for their own freedom of religion." Freedom of religion and expression go hand-in-hand. Religious freedom is the ability to choose and live out your faith. Without the ability to publicly express your faith, there cannot be true religious freedom.

FRC's president and current USCIRF Chair Tony Perkins, who moderated the event, brought up similar concerns about hate speech laws across the African continent, saying "Even though some laws that impact free expression may be created with good intentions, such as to reduce hate or discrimination against certain groups, they should be carefully crafted, and should not become tools of oppression."

FRC's Travis Weber joined Tony Perkins on Washington Watch on Tuesday to discuss FRC's report on Apostasy, Blasphemy, and Anti-Conversion Laws. He recognized "the tragedy of these laws being . . . misapplied and abused . . . around the globe."

So what can be done?

USCIRF has several policy recommendations for the U.S. government. One is to urge leaders to repeal their apostasy and blasphemy laws in high-level diplomatic meetings. This is something that USCIRF commissioners have done successfully. Just last week, USCIRF commissioners met with the new Prime Minister of Sudan, Abdalla Hamdok, to discuss the state of religious freedom in his country. It was a positive meeting in which the Prime Minister said he hoped to change the country's apostasy and blasphemy laws within the next eight weeks

USCIRF recommends that the House of Representatives pass H. Res. 512, introduced by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D- Md.), which calls for the global repeal of blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws. What the United States has to say about these issues is important to world leaders. At every opportunity, U.S. politicians should promote the freedom of all people, everywhere, to seek God as they see fit and live out their beliefs. Apostasy, blasphemy, anti-conversion, and overbroad hate speech laws all restrict individuals' freedom and give governments the opportunity to oppress religious groups they disagree with -- and that is an opportunity they must not have.

For more, see FRC's publication: "Apostasy, Blasphemy, and Anti-Conversion Laws."