Which countries still outlaw apostasy and blasphemy?
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.
Earlier this month, the U.S. embassy in Khartoum said it was “deeply disturbed” that Sudan had sentenced a pregnant woman to death for apostasy, the act of abandoning one’s faith — including by converting to another religion. (The woman later gave birth in jail.) And in Pakistan, the country’s most popular TV station was the latest target in a rash of recent government accusations of blasphemy, defined as speech or actions considered to be contemptuous of God or the divine.
A new Pew Research analysis finds that as of 2012, nearly a quarter of the world’s countries and territories (22%) had anti-blasphemy laws or policies, and one-in-ten (11%) had laws or policies penalizing apostasy. The legal punishments for such transgressions vary from fines to death.
We found that laws restricting apostasy and blasphemy are most common in the Middle East and North Africa, where 14 of the 20 countries (70%) criminalize blasphemy and 12 of the 20 countries (60%) criminalize apostasy. While apostasy laws exist in only two other regions of the world – Asia-Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa – blasphemy laws can be found in all regions, including Europe (in 16% of countries) and the Americas (31%).
We counted and categorized reports of the presence of these laws in 2012 as part of an extension of our research on restrictions on religion around the world. Nearly three-in-ten countries in the world (29%) had a high or very high level of government restrictions in 2012 – these countries include about 64% of the world’s population, according to our report.
This research relied on 18 widely cited, publicly available sources from groups such as the U.S. State Department, the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have their origins in the country’s colonial past, when British colonial rulers first introduced penalties for insulting religious beliefs. These laws remained in effect after Pakistan’s independence in 1947 and have since increased in severity. In 2012 alone, there were more than two dozen blasphemy cases filed in the country.
But Pakistan is not alone. Nine of the 50 countries in the Asia-Pacific region (18%) had blasphemy laws in 2012, and in Europe such laws were found in seven out of 45 nations (16%). In November 2012, the Dutch parliament dissolved its blasphemy law, which was drafted in the 1930s and had not been used for half a century.
In the Americas, 11 out of 35 countries (31%) had blasphemy laws, including the Bahamas, where the publication or sale of blasphemous material can be punished with up to two years imprisonment. The U.S. does not have any federal blasphemy laws, but as of 2012, several U.S. states – including Massachusetts and Michigan – still had anti-blasphemy laws on the books. However, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would almost certainly prevent the enforcement of any such law.
In South America, Peru’s federal law does not formally prohibit blasphemy, but local government authorities have enforced penalties for it. In October 2012, a district mayor in Lima closed a public art exhibit that featured a naked statue of Christ after religious groups condemned it as blasphemy. According to the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report, representatives of the local art community “expressed concern over censorship and freedom of speech” after the incident.
Blasphemy laws are least common in sub-Saharan Africa (three of 48 countries), according to 2012 data. In April of 2012, anti-slavery activists in Mauritania were charged and imprisoned for blasphemy after publicly burning religious texts to denounce what the activists viewed as support for slavery in Islamic commentary and jurisprudence.
Apostasy laws are less common worldwide – found in 21 countries, in only three regions of the world. Including Sudan, anti-apostasy measures were in effect in more than half the countries in the Middle East-North Africa region as of 2012.
Five of the 50 countries (10%) in the Asia-Pacific region had apostasy laws. For instance, in the Maldives, all citizens are required to be Muslim, and those who convert may lose their citizenship. In sub-Saharan Africa, just four of the 48 countries (8%) have laws prohibiting apostasy. There were no laws against apostasy in any countries in Europe or the Americas in 2012.
Angelina Theodorou is a Research Assistant at the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project.