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Washington, D.C. August 18 (ICC) – Anti-blasphemy laws are among the greatest threats targeting Christians today, a recent report shows. The highest concentration of countries where anti-blasphemy policies are observed is found in the Muslim majority Middle East and North Africa. From Algeria to Pakistan, Christians have paid a high price for allegedly offending Islam.

Severe cases

In Pakistan, Section 295 of the Penal Code, which prohibits the “deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens,” only consistently applies to those who blaspheme Islam. Of little surprise is that a disproportionate amount of Christians, though encompassing less than four percent of Pakistan’s population, make up a significant number of those behind bars for blasphemy. Ahmadis, adherents of an unorthodox sect of Islam, have also been singled out by the government. If convicted, these minorities could face the death penalty.

Asia Bibi, a young Christian mother, was convicted and is on death row in what has become the world’s highest-profile blasphemy case. Bibi was accused of breaking Section 295C of the Penal Code, which stipulates that “derogatory remarks” against the Muslim prophet Muhammad warrants the punishment of “death, or imprisonment for life.” On November 8, 2010, after spending more than a year in jail, Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging. Two of her closest advocates, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s sole Christian cabinet minister, were assassinated for publicly opposing the blasphemy law. Despite staunch international criticism, Pakistan’s government has thus far refused to pardon Bibi.

While Bibi is the first to be sentenced to execution for blasphemy, 46 of the 1,060 people charged for blasphemy between 1986 and 2011 have been killed while awaiting trial or after having been acquitted, according to The Christian Post. For example, in 2009, 40 houses and a church in the town of Gojra, Punjab were set ablaze by a Muslim mob. At least seven Christians were burned alive. The attacks were triggered by reports that Christians desecrated the Quran, violating 295B of the Penal Code. A blasphemy case against three of those Christians had already been registered by local police, reported The Los Angeles Times. Hence, whether an offender is officially convicted in a Pakistani court or merely accused of blasphemy by a neighbor, the offense may still merit the death sentence in one form or another.

Blasphemy is not only a problem in ‘extremist’ Islamic states like Pakistan, but also in countries that are more tolerant toward religious minorities.

Double standards

Unlike Pakistan, Christians in Algeria are steadily acquiring religious rights. The Algerian government, though closely monitoring and occasionally harassing its Christian population, is slowly relinquishing its control. Recent government decisions – like the July 18th resolution to grant the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) the right to officially register – have been welcome improvements. But while professing to uphold religious freedom, Algeria at the same time embraces a blasphemy law that can, by its very nature, be used to prosecute anyone who does not adhere to the religion of Islam.

Take the case of Siagh Krimo for example. Arrested on April 14, 2011 and held for three days for giving a CD about Christianity to his neighbor, Krimo was later summoned to the Criminal Court in the Djamel district of Oran on May 4 and charged with blasphemy. The court tried Krimo based solely on the neighbor’s accusation that Krimo attempted to convert him to Christianity even though the neighbor himself failed to appear at the hearing. The prosecutor, losing his lone witness and the bulk of his evidence, reportedly asked the judge to have Krimo’s sentence reduced to two years imprisonment. However, to the surprise of many, the judge sentenced Krimo beyond the prosecutor’s recommendation, giving him a five year prison sentence, the maximum punishment one can receive for blasphemy.

Krimo’s conviction was in accordance with Article 144 bis 2 of Algeria’s Penal Code, similar to that of Pakistan’s, which criminalizes acts that “insult the prophet and any of the messengers of God, or denigrate the creed and precepts of Islam, whether by writing, drawing, declaration, or any other means.”

Algerians were shocked that the blasphemy law was applied. “We did not expect this verdict at all,” Krimo’s defense lawyer Mohamed Ben Belkacem told Compass Direct News. “It was a heavy sentence. The judge punished the ‘Christian,’ not the ‘accused.’ There was no proof, and despite that, the court granted him no extenuating circumstances.”

“If they start applying the law like that, it means there is no respect for Christianity and pretty soon all the Christians of Algeria will find themselves in prison,” said Mustapha Krim, the president of the EPA.

Increased vulnerability

Siagh Krimo is one case among many that persuaded The Pew Forum in a report released last week to cite anti-blasphemy laws as a primary reason for the decline of religious freedom around the world. The report, titled “Rising Restrictions on Religion,” notes that Christians and other religious minorities are becoming increasingly vulnerable in countries that implement anti-blasphemy laws which, according to the American Center for Law and Justice, are “used as weapons against Christians – to punish them because of their beliefs.”

The Pew Forum report states that their, “study finds that restrictions on religion are particularly common in countries that prohibit blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion. While such laws are sometimes promoted as a way to protect religion, in practice they often serve to punish religious minorities whose beliefs are deemed unorthodox or heretical.”

According to the report, 59 countries, which include Pakistan and Algeria, have policies which forbid blasphemy at some level. Of those, 44 countries enforce punishments ranging from fines to imprisonment to the death penalty. The report also notes that eight out of every ten countries in the Middle East and North Africa have laws against blasphemy or apostasy which is the highest share of any region.

The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has the same concerns, stating in a report titled, “The Dangerous Idea of Protecting Religions from ‘Defamation,’” that extremists will continue to abuse the broad provisions allowed in blasphemy laws “to intimidate and arbitrarily detain members of religious minority communities, including disfavored minority Muslim sects, and others with whom the extremists disagree.” Christians are among those who have and will continue to suffer most.