Earth & Conservation

Where Blasphemy Carries a Death Sentence

About a quarter of the world's countries and territories have blasphemy laws on the books, but 13 execute for it.

<p><em>Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images</em><span></span></p>

On Thursday, October 13, Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi will face her final appeal in what has been a six-year-long ordeal on the charge of blasphemy. Following an altercation with a Muslim women over water, Bibi insulted the prophet Muhammad, an infraction for which Bibi was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to death by hanging.

If Bibi's sentence is not overturned, she will be the first woman to be executed since blasphemy laws were enacted in Pakistan in the 1980s.

When first created in 1980, the law originally called for a maximum sentence of three years in jail. In 1982, a separate clause was passed calling for life imprisonment for willful desecration of the Quran. In 1986, yet another clause was added recommending the death penalty or life imprisonment for blasphemy against Muhammad, according to the BBC.

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Since the 1980s, more than 1,300 have been accused of blasphemy. Scores have been killed as a result, some even before their trials began as a result of vigilante violence. And Pakistan isn't alone in putting people to death for blasphemy.

According to the latest International Humanist and Ethical Union's Freedom of Thought report, 13 countries currently have laws on the books carrying a penalty of death for blasphemy or apostasy. Including Pakistan, the other 13 countries are Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Each of these countries have adopted Islamic law as the ideological foundation of the government.

Because blasphemy law is so subjective, the cases brought up in the various countries that try and execute for insulting religious belief have ranged from egregious to ridiculous.

In 2007, in Sudan, British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons was arrested and interrogated for allegedly insulting Islam after allowing her class of six-year-olds to name a teddy bear "Muhammad." Thousands of protestors took to the streets, calling for Gibbons' execution. It took the intervention of the British government and a presidential pardon from the government of Sudan to get Gibbons out of jail.

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In Saudi Arabia, which also puts people to death for "sorcery," usually by beheading, religious authorities issued a fatwa against Pokemon Go, decrying it as blasphemous. "It is shocking that the word 'evolution' has been much on the tongues of children," the fatwa read, according to a Reuters report.

In Iran, an Islamic theocracy, political advocacy can come off as blasphemy, as was the case for Hashem Aghajari, a history professor and disabled war veteran, in 2002 calling for religious reform. His speech garnered massive protests, and Aghajari was tried, convicted and sentenced to death, though following appeals his punishment was reduced to jail time.

Blasphemy laws restrict religious freedom and promote intolerance of minority religions, and for that reason, a United Nations special investigator on religious freedom called for their universal repeal. Although they may not carry a death sentence everywhere, blasphemy laws on the books in about a quarter (26 percent) of the world's countries and territories, according to Pew Research Center.

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Top photo: Pakistani Christians in 2010 demonstrate against the death sentence handed to Asia Bibi for blasphemy. Credit: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images