Bias Report Puts Critical Eye on Muslim States

     WASHINGTON (CN) — In a report with particular sting for Muslim countries, the State Department took aim Wednesday at laws against blasphemy and apostasy.
     Criticizing the harsh punishments defendants face if convicted of such offenses, the annual International Religious Freedom Report says laws against religious freedom threaten the rights of women, the poor and members of minority groups.
     Though the State Department found these laws especially prevalent in Islamic societies, it also raised flags about preferential treatment for the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia and the Hungarian government’s near funding of a statue to a “notorious World War II-era anti-Semite.”
     Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken noted that religious freedom is a universal issue.
     “Bigotry and intolerance can be found in every part of the world, including the United States,” Blinken said at a press conference Wednesday announcing the release of the report. “But every country has an obligation to respect religious liberty and freedom of conscience; we encourage every country to do so.”
     The executive summary of the report begins by recounting the death of Farkhunda Malikzada this past March in Kabul, Afghanistan.
     Frothed into a rage over false accusations that Malikzada had burned a Quran, a mob beat the 27-year-old teacher’s assistant with sticks, ran her over with a car, stoned her and then set her on fire while police watched, helpless.
     Burning the Quran is considered blasphemy in some Islamic countries, according to the report. In addition to Afghanistan, blasphemy is a crime in Mauritania, Pakistan, Sudan and Saudi Arabia.
     More than 40 people are on death row in Pakistan for violating such a law, and more than 62 people have died from mobs outraged over accusations of blasphemy, according to the report.
     Laws against apostasy, a related crime in which a person disavows a specific religion, led to the imprisonment in Mauritania of a blogger who allegedly criticized the Prophet Mohammad and a death sentence in Saudi Arabia for a Palestinian poet who the government says “made disparaging remarks about Islam,” according to the report.
     State Department officials say these laws are a danger for anyone who lives in countries with such laws on the books, but especially for already-vulnerable groups like the poor and women, who would have a harder time defending themselves against false accusations.
     “In many other Islamic societies, societal passions associated with blasphemy – deadly enough in and of themselves – are abetted by a legal code that harshly penalizes blasphemy and apostasy,” the report reads. “Such laws conflict with and undermine universally recognized human rights.”
     Countries with majority Muslim populations dominate the report, but the State Department also voiced concerns about leaders in Europe who have used religion to oppose accepting migrants and asylum seekers or who threatened to accept only Christian refugees.
     The report goes on to note that, for all the problematic laws on the books, terrorist organizations like Da’esh, the State Department’s preferred name for the Islamic State Group, and Boko Haram are among the most egregious persecutors of minority religious groups.
     Even while it focuses mostly on the threats to religious freedom around the world, the report does highlight some positive developments as well.
     For example, though Malikzada’s death in Afghanistan was brutal and an example of the terrors harsh blasphemy laws can bring with them, the country’s response to her death was encouraging, the report found.
     Afghan President Ashraf Ghani immediately condemned the attack and members of parliament participated in her funeral, which the report says “doubled as a widely publicized protest against her killing.”
     Members of the mob, and some police officers, were brought to trial and convicted for their role in Malikzada’s death.
     “The fact that individuals have been held accountable for this horrific crime represents a significant step forward for Afghanistan’s justice system, and sends an important message to those who see allegations of blasphemy as a means to act with impunity against others,” the report states.
     In another story recounted in the report, al-Shabaab militants attacked a bus in Kenya to kill Christians but Muslims on the bus helped shield the targeted passengers.
     The purpose of the congressionally mandated report is to ultimately to persuade other countries that have clamped down on religious freedom to reverse course, Blinken said Wednesday.
     “Far from a vulnerability of weakness, religious pluralism shows respect for the beliefs of every citizen and gives each a tangible reason to contribute to the success of the entire society,” Blinken said at the press conference, according to a transcript. “That’s why no nation can fulfill its potential if its people are denied the right to freely choose and openly practice their faith.”

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