Rescuing and serving persecuted Christians since 1995
Select Page

By Linda Burkle, PhD

Blasphemy laws “ban speech or actions considered to be ‘contemptuous of God or of people or objects considered sacred.”[1]  Many such laws are vague and applied selectively.

Apostasy laws ban “the act of abandoning one’s faith.” [2]

Prevalence of Blasphemy and Apostasy Laws

In January 2022, the Pew Research Center published an extensive report on blasphemy laws, the results of a 2019 review of countries worldwide. The research revealed that 79 countries (40%) maintained blasphemy laws. In addition, the Pew study found that twenty-two countries also banned apostasy.[3] However, despite numerous repealed blasphemy laws since 2017, a recent USCIRF report identified 13 additional criminal blasphemy law provisions that had not been included previously. “Not counting repealed laws, researchers identified 84 countries across the globe with criminal blasphemy laws on the books as of 2020.”[4]

According to the Pew report, “These laws were most common in the Middle East and North Africa, where 18 of the 20 countries (90%) in the region have laws criminalizing blasphemy, and 13 of them (65%) outlaw apostasy.”[5]

Countries that have created new or amended existing blasphemy laws within the last decade include Kazakhstan, Nepal, Oman, Mauritania, Morocco, and Brunei.  Germany also includes a blasphemy provision in a new technology law (2018).[6] Most recently, Indonesia revised its criminal code to strengthen blasphemy laws, further restricting free speech and discriminating against Christians and other religious minorities.[7]

Countries that have repealed blasphemy laws in the last decade include Iceland, Norway, a province of France (Alsace-Moselle), Malta, Denmark, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, Greece, and Scotland.[8]

Penalties for violating blasphemy laws by country

  • Maximum Sanction is the death penalty: Brunei, Iran, Pakistan, Mauritania
  • Corporal punishment (whipping): Sudan
  • Compulsory labor: Russia
  • Correctional labor: Kazakhstan, Moldova
  • Imprisonment: Algeria, Andorra, Austria, Antigua and Barbuda, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Botswana, Brazil, Burma, Cameroon, Comoros, Cyprus, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Finland, Gambia, Germany, Grenada, Guyana, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Lichtenstein, Malaysia, Malawi, Maldives, Mauritius, Montenegro, Morocco, Nepal, Nigeria, Oman, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Poland, Qatar, Rwanda, San Marino, Seychelles, Singapore, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Syria, Tanzania, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe
  • Fines: Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan
  • No sanction/punishment specified in written law: Afghanistan, Cape Verde, Jamaica, Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia

Source:  USCIRF[9]

It is noteworthy that Afghanistan, ranked number one on Open Doors 2022 World Watch List, does not specify specific sanctions or punishments for blasphemy, giving broad freedom to subjectively apply and punish those accused.  The government is the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, under whom blasphemy and apostasy will certainly result in ostracism at the very least and perhaps death. [10] Similarly, Saudi Arabia, ranked eleven on the World Watch List, is a restrictive Islamic state ruled by a monarchy.

Enforcement of Blasphemy Laws

Of states with blasphemy laws studied between 2014 and 2018, researchers identified 674 cases of state enforcement, representing 49% of countries that have such laws. Fifty-one percent of the countries did not have a single case of state enforcement the researchers discovered. Of the instances enforced, 78 cases involved mob activity, threats, and/or violence around blasphemy allegations which coincided with state enforcement of blasphemy laws. Ten countries account for 81% of all reported cases.  “From January 2014 through December 2018, the top 10 countries that have enforced blasphemy (or other) laws against alleged blasphemers most frequently are Pakistan (184), Iran (96), Russia (58), India (51), Egypt (44), Indonesia (39), Yemen (24), Bangladesh (19), Saudi Arabia (16), and Kuwait (15). Of these states, 70% declare Islam the official state religion.”[11]

 “In Pakistan, at least 17 individuals were sentenced to death on blasphemy charges in 2019, including a university lecturer accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad verbally and on Facebook, although the Pakistani government has never actually executed anyone for blasphemy.”[12] In 2021, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan urged other Muslim countries to boycott Western countries to pressure them to pass blasphemy laws, specifically, to criminalize speaking out against Prophet Muhammad.[13] In Saudi Arabia, an Indian national was charged with blasphemy in 2019, fined, and sentenced to 10 years in prison for tweeting criticism of Muhammad and Allah, as well as of the Saudi government.[14]

 International Condemnation

The international community has condemned blasphemy and apostasy laws, declaring they are inconsistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  However, only twenty-seven countries, including the United States, signed this statement.[15] They state that such laws “are often used as a pretext to justify vigilantism or mob violence in the name of religion, or as a pretext to pursue retribution related to personal grievances.”[16] These laws typically target those who hold religious beliefs different from the official state-sanctioned religion or majority.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom conducted a five-year study (from January 2014 through December 2018) examining the enforcement of criminal blasphemy laws worldwide.  Countries having blasphemy laws are found throughout all regions of the world.  Most have laws embedded in the criminal code which violate international human rights principles, including freedom of expression.  The worst offending nations maintain an official state religion. Penalties for violating blasphemy laws, which are often broad and vague, vary widely among countries.  They may include fines, imprisonment, flogging, force labor, and even death.  Eighty-six percent have imprisonment as a punishment for violations.[17]

In December 2020, the US Senate and US House of Representatives passed companion resolutions, Senate Resolution 458 and House Resolution 512, condemning and calling for the end of blasphemy and apostasy laws. These laws are considered antithetical to religious freedom and its expression.[18]

Ironically, several US states, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania, still have blasphemy laws embedded in their penal codes, in direct conflict with the US constitutional guarantees of free speech and religious expression. Such laws are artifacts from colonial days and have not been enforced since the late last century.

“A key issue has not so much been the content of the message, but the manner in which it is expressed. This means that spreading blasphemous ideas without using violent or instigating ‘language’ has been perfectly legitimate and protected by the First Amendment.”[19] In the twenty-first century, the terms “hate speech” and ‘hate crimes” have gained prominence, giving rise to a whole new legal framework which extends beyond this paper’s examination.


Dr. Burkle retired from The Salvation Army in early 2019, where she oversaw an array of social services in a multi-state region. Along with the State Attorney General, Burkle Co-Chaired the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Burkle holds a doctoral degree in international relations. Dr. Burkle has worked with persecuted peoples in a number of countries, and her dissertation focused on religious persecution, specifically regarding Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China, and Burma (Myanmar). Dr. Burkle resides in Omaha, Nebraska. She has three grown children and eight grandchildren.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.


[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/01/25/four-in-ten-countries-and-territories-worldwide-had-blasphemy-laws-in-2019-2/

[2] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/01/25/four-in-ten-countries-and-territories-worldwide-had-blasphemy-laws-in-2019-2/

[3] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/01/25/four-in-ten-countries-and-territories-worldwide-had-blasphemy-laws-in-2019-2/

[4] “Violating Rights: Enforcing the World’s Blasphemy Laws”, 2020 Blasphemy Enforcement Report PDF.  Published by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom

[5] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/01/25/four-in-ten-countries-and-territories-worldwide-had-blasphemy-laws-in-2019-2/

[6] “Violating Rights: Enforcing the World’s Blasphemy Laws”, 2020 Blasphemy Enforcement Report PDF.  Published by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom

[7] https://www.persecution.org/2022/07/13/indonesias-new-criminal-code/

[8] “Violating Rights: Enforcing the World’s Blasphemy Laws”, 2020 Blasphemy Enforcement Report PDF.  Published by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom

[9] 2020 Legislative Factsheet: BLASPHEMY: April 2020, PDF. Published by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom

[10] https://www.opendoors.org/en-US/persecution/countries/afghanistan/

[11] “Violating Rights: Enforcing the World’s Blasphemy Laws”, 2020 Blasphemy Enforcement Report PDF.  Published by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom

[12] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/01/25/four-in-ten-countries-and-territories-worldwide-had-blasphemy-laws-in-2019-2/

[13] https://www.persecution.org/2021/04/28/prime-minister-imran-khan-calls-expand-blasphemy-laws-globally/

[14] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/01/25/four-in-ten-countries-and-territories-worldwide-had-blasphemy-laws-in-2019-2/

[15] https://www.state.gov/statement-on-blasphemy-and-apostasy-laws/

[16] https://www.state.gov/statement-on-blasphemy-and-apostasy-laws/

[17] “Violating Rights: Enforcing the World’s Blasphemy Laws”, 2020 Blasphemy Enforcement Report PDF.  Published by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom

[18] https://bjconline.org/u-s-house-passes-resolution-end-blasphemy-and-apostasy-laws-120920/

[19] https://www.resetdoc.org/story/blasphemy-in-the-united-states-limits-of-the-first-amendment/