(CNSNews.com) – At a press briefing to release the 2015 International Religious Freedom Report at the State Department on Wednesday, David Saperstein, Middle East ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, told a reporter who asked if blasphemy laws were mainly a problem in Muslim countries that the United States still has those laws “on the books” in five states.
“Are there significant numbers of non-Muslim majority countries that have anti-blasphemy laws or is this largely a problem confined to the Muslim majority world?” the reporter asked.
Saperstein referred the reporter to a July 29, 2016 Pew Research report on the countries around the globe that outlaw apostasy and blasphemy but then cited laws in the United States, which are not included in the Pew report.
“They issued a report recently, and you can see a list of every country in the world that comprise that quarter of the countries that have blasphemy laws,” Saperstein said. “And there are still five states in the United States that have blasphemy laws on the books.”
Based on 2014 data, the Pew report stated, “About a quarter of the world’s countries and territories (26%) had anti-blasphemy laws or policies, and that more than one-in-ten (13%) nations had laws or policies penalizing apostasy. The legal punishments for such transgressions vary from fines to death.”
This does not include the United States, according to Pew.
In 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported on blasphemy laws in the United States:
“Blasphemy laws remain on the books in some states, though they are dead letters,” the Times reported, citing one law in Massachusetts.
“According to Massachusetts General Law Section 36: "Whoever willfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior."
According to the Unitarian Universalist Harvard Square Library website, Amber Kneeland was the last person be convicted of blasphemy in 1835 in Massachusetts. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail.
The report itself, which does not include an analysis of religious freedom in the U.S., reveals that blasphemy laws are in place in many Muslim-majority countries.
“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’s executive summary stated.
Examples are given, including Pakistan.
“Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which prescribe harsh punishments for crimes such as the desecration of the Quran or insulting the Prophet Mohammad, have often been used as justification for mob justice. Since 1990, more than 62 people have been killed by mob violence (according to Centre for Research and Security Studies in Pakistan),” the report stated.
“In 2013, there were 39 registered cases of blasphemy against a total of 359 people, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), more than 40 people remain on death row for blasphemy in Pakistan, many of whom are members of religious minorities,” it added.
Other countries highlighted in the report for harsh treatment of people and groups because of religious beliefs include:
• In Iran, the government executed at least 20 individuals on charges of moharebeh, translatable as ‘enmity towards god,’ among them a number of Sunni Kurds. A number of other prisoners, including several Sunni preachers, remained in custody awaiting a government decision to implement their death sentences. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center database of prisoners, at least 380 religious practitioners remained imprisoned at the end of the year for their membership in, or activities on behalf of, a minority religious group, including approximately 250 Sunnis, 82 Baha’is, 26 Christian converts, 16 non-Sunni Sufis, 10 Yarsanis, three Sunni converts, and two Zoroastrians.
• Since 2013, provincial authorities in Zhejiang, China ordered the demolition of several state-sanctioned Protestant and Catholic churches and the removal of over 1,500 crosses as part of a government campaign targeting so-called “illegal” structures. Lawyers and religious leaders protesting the campaign face detention and arrest. In August 2015, Chinese authorities seized human rights lawyer Zhang Kai just prior to a scheduled meeting with the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. Zhang Kai had been providing legal counsel to church communities affected by a government-led campaign to demolish “illegal” churches and crosses. He was finally released in March 2016, but the U.S. government remains concerned about his well-being.