Today, on International Blasphemy Rights Day, the eleventh anniversary of the Danish Mohammad cartoons, Atheist Ireland calls for the urgent repeal of the Irish blasphemy law, and the release of all prisoners held around the world on blasphemy and related charges, of which we include fifteen examples in this statement.
In the last week, Atheist Ireland has raised this issue twice internationally: at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland (the first time an atheist group has addressed the full Human Rights Council in Geneva), and at the OSCE annual human rights meeting in Warsaw, Poland.
Dr Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, told Atheist Ireland at the OSCE meeting that he thought that the Irish blasphemy law had already been repealed, because the Irish Government had committed to doing so. We had to let him know that this commitment has not been kept.
Dr Bielefeldt had previously advised Atheist Ireland as part of our campaign that: “The major damage done by this law is international. Those countries that have an intimidating anti-blasphemy practice like to quote European countries to unmask Western hypocrisy.”
Atheist Ireland reminded both the UN and the OSCE that the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation seeks global laws against defamation of religion, and that, as part of this, Pakistan at the UN has cited specific language from the Irish blasphemy law to support their case.
Blasphemy and related laws around the world
Human Rights Without Frontiers International is an organisation that campaigns against State violations of the human right to Freedom of Religion or Belief. Its World Annual Report 2015 outlines countries that oppress people through blasphemy and related laws.
Many religious regimes persecute atheists and religious minorities. Just a few examples: Saudi Arabia has a law classifying atheists as terrorists. Iran represses atheists, Bahais, Sufis, Sunnis, Evangelicals, Shia dissidents, Erfan-e-Halghe and Zoroastrians. Egypt misuses blasphemy laws against atheists, Coptic Orthdox Christians and Shia Muslims. Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh persecute atheists, Ahmadiyya Muslims and others.
The death penalty is a violation of the right to life and usually concerns the change of religion in a number of Muslim majority countries: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Physical punishments such as lashing, flogging and caning are obviously torture as well as inhuman and degrading treatments. Some countries also impose prison terms and exorbitant fines, sometimes of up to 100 times the minimum monthly salary.
Two authoritarian nonreligious regimes also persecute religious minorities. China represses Tibetan Buddhists, Roman Catholics, Falun Gong practitioners, Evangelicals, Pentecostals and Uyghur Sunni Muslims. In North Korea, a UN Commission of Inquiry concluded that religious practitioners are severely punished, even unto death.
Ongoing Atheist Ireland campaign activities
Atheist Ireland has raised the Irish blasphemy law at meetings with the Taoiseach and officials from the Department of Justice, and at the Irish Constitutional Convention, along with independent blasphemy expert Professor David Nash of Oxford Brookes University.
We gave them examples of the chilling effect of self-censorship that the blasphemy law results in within Ireland, particularly in local media that cannot afford either the legal fees to examine possible breaches of the law or a €25,000 fine if they were to be convicted of blasphemy, but also in the national media.
We also highlighted the impact of the Irish blasphemy law internationally, with Islamic States citing the hypocrisy of western States like Ireland, passing a new blasphemy law in the 21st century while criticising Islamic blasphemy and apostasy laws.
Last year Atheist Ireland gave Taoiseach Enda Kenny an open letter about the Irish blasphemy law signed by more than forty Irish and international scientists, philosophers, writers, comedians, politicians and activists.
The signatories included scientists Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Jerry Coyne and Aoife McLysaght, philosophers and writers Daniel Dennett, Taslima Nasrin and Steven Pinker, comedians Ed Byrne and Kate Smurthwaite, and politicians and activists Clare Daly, David Norris, Rory O’Neill and Maryam Namazie.
We were also joint founders of the International Coalition Against Blasphemy Laws, along with Association Humaniste de Quebec, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Ireland, Centre for Inquiry Canada, the European Humanist Federation, Humanist Canada, the Humanist Society of New Zealand, the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association, and the International Humanist and Ethical Union.
15 examples of blasphemy law convictions
Here are some examples of people imprisoned around the world on blasphemy and related charges, as recorded in the 2015 World Annual Report of Human Rights Without Frontiers International.
Ahmadiyya Muslims in Saudi Arabia: On 14th May 2012, Sultan Hamid Maarzouk al-Anzi and Saudh Faleh Awad al-Anzi were arrested for the sole reason that they had joined the Ahmadi community. The two were then shuttled from one prison to another without charge and denied access to their families and legal advice. Their whereabouts and condition remain unknown.
Atheists in Egypt: After his arrest in November 2014 in a so-called ‘atheist café,’ Karim Ashraf Mohammed Al-Banna, a student, was kept in custody until his trial on 10th January 2015. The Idku District Misdemeanor Court (Delta governorate of Beheira) then handed down a three-year prison sentence for contempt of Islam and insulting the divine but allowed Al-Banna a bail of EGP 1,000 (USD 140) to suspend the prison time.
Baha’is in Iran: In September 2015, the Baha’i International Community delivered a statement to the UN Human Rights Council on the situation of the Baha’is in Iran. They said Baha’is in Iran are not only subject to arbitrary detention—since 2005, there have been over 820 of such arrests, which are in violation human rights norms—but throughout the judicial process they face an unjust treatment that clearly violates Iran’s own Penal and Criminal Procedure codes.’
Buddhists in China: The US Congressional Executive Commission on China Political Prisoners Database carries the documented cases of nearly 3900 Tibetan Buddhists and some 20 non-Tibetan Buddhists. In the long struggle for Tibetan self-determination, it is very difficult to distinguish between activities that are primarily motivated by religion or belief and those that are more rightly considered politically motivated.
Catholics in Pakistan: Asia Bibi was arrested in 2009 for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad during an argument with some Muslim neighbours after she drank water from a well with an allegedly ‘unclean’ cup used by Muslim women. She was sentenced to death one year later. Three politicians took up her case to call for reform of the country’s rigid blasphemy code. Two of them were assassinated, and the third one is in hiding.
Erfan-e Halghe followers in Iran: Mohammad Ali Taheri was arrested in 2011 and convicted of ‘insulting Islamic sanctities’ and sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment. In addition, Taheri was sentenced to seventy-four lashes on the charge of ‘committing a religiously forbidden act’ by holding the hands of one of his female followers in the course of a healing session. In August 2015 Taheri was sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court on charges of Fesad fel Arz (corruption on earth) and establishing a “diversionary cult”.
Falun Gong followers in China: Ye Jianguo was sentenced to 11. years in prison by the Jianyang District Court in 2013 because of his affiliation with Falun Gong. In Jiazhou Prison, the guards have tried to re-educate him by forcing him to listen to and read materials defaming Falun Gong. They ordered him to write statements denouncing his belief. Since 1999, he has been arrested at least five times.
Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Korea: As of 31st July 2015, 555 young Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Korea were serving 18-month prison terms for conscientious objection to military service. From the Korean War period to the present, South Korea has sentenced more than 18,000 Witnesses to a combined total of around 35,000 years in prison for refusing to perform military service. No provision is made for alternative service.
Orthodox Christians in Egypt: Ishaq Medhat was initially charged in August 2015 with ‘inciting sectarian strife’ and ‘harming national unity’ and later with ‘insulting religion.’ He was distributing Bibles on the street when he was arrested. There is no law against this, but Article 98 of the penal code is often used to criminalise the use of religion for the purposes of ‘inciting sectarian strife and harming national unity and social peace.’ He was kept in pre-trial custody for at least two weeks. No further details are known of his case.
Protestants in Indonesia: Antonius Richmond Bawengean was arrested in 2010 while distributing leaflets. He was accused of blasphemy and in February 2011 sentenced to five years in prison. Protesters demanded that he be handed over to the police, chanting ‘Kill, kill, kill’ outside the court as he was led away under heavy security. The angry mob then trashed the courtroom before targeting Christian sites, burning down a number of churches and schools.
Said Nursi followers in Azerbaijan: In June 2015, police officers raided Sabuhi Mammadov’s home in Gadabay, western Azerbaijan, where twenty-five Muslims were meeting to study Said Nursi’s works. Mammadov was fined the maximum amount of 1,500 Manats (then about 1,290 Euros) for ‘Violating legislation on holding religious meetings, marches, and other religious ceremonies’, and 13 other Muslims were fined fifty Manats (about 40 Euros) for ‘Hooliganism’.
Shia Muslims in Indonesia: Tajul Muluk, a Shia cleric, was sentenced in 2012 to four years in prison for blasphemy, because he argued that the current version of Quran is not the original one, and he questioned the belief concerning the five pillars of Islam. Andreas Guntur was sentenced to four years in prison for blasphemy in March 2012. He is the leader of Amanat Keagungan Ilahi against which the Indonesia Council of Ulemas issued a fatwah in 2009, claiming that the movement rejected conventional Islamic rituals.
Sufi Muslims in Iran: Hamid-Reza Moradi Sarvestani was arrested in 2011 and charged with: membership in a sect endangering national security, propaganda against the system, insulting the Supreme Leader; disturbing the public consciousness, and disrupting public order. Hamid-Reza Moradi Sarvestani thinks his condemnation was politically motivated and due to his contribution to the Sufi website Majzooban-e Noor. Tehran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced him to ten and a half years in prison.
Sunni Muslims in Iran: The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran published a list eighty-eight Sunni Muslims who were in prison in 2014. The official charges are typically enmity against God, assembly and collusion against or undermining national security, espionage or involvement in Salafi and terrorist groups. In June and July 2009, thirty-three Sunnis were arrested for preaching Sunni Islam and sentenced to death. The following were executed on 4th March 2015: Hamed Ahmadi, Jahangir Dehghani, Hadi Hosseini, Kamal Molaee, and Pouria Mohammadi. The others are still detained and on death row.
Tablighi Jamaat Muslims in Kazakhstan: Sixteen cases of Tablighi Jamaat Muslims arrested and detained are documented in the Prisoners’ List of Human Rights Without Frontiers. Trials of people alleged to be part of Tabligh Jamaat have been surrounded in secrecy. Such trials in South Kazakhstan Region ended in December 2014 with a three-year prison sentence being imposed. In the Almaty Region five prison terms of between eighteen and twenty months were imposed. More alleged member of Tablighi Jamaat were prosecuted in 2015.
Atheist Ireland will continue to campaign for the urgent repeal of the Irish blasphemy law, and the release of all prisoners held around the world on blasphemy and related charges. We urge you to also do so, and to find more information in the World Annual Reports of Human Rights Without Frontiers International.
Please join Atheist Ireland and help us in this an our other campaigns to promote atheism, reason and ethical secularism in Ireland and internationally. You can find details on how to join here.