There is good news about the State Department International Religious Freedom Report, released on May 20. First, the report is, by and large an excellent resource. While slightly slimmer than in most previous years, it is still the most comprehensive overview of religious freedom and persecution on the planet.
There is more good news. The report pays particular attention to the growing threat created by blasphemy and apostasy accusations to religious freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. It highlights this not only in the reports on particular countries, but also, following a practice that State introduced last year, in a special section in the executive summary: “The use of blasphemy and apostasy laws continued to be a significant problem, as was the continued proliferation of such laws around the world. Such laws often violate freedoms of religion and expression and often are applied in a discriminatory manner.”
Secretary of State John Kerry also singled out this issue as one of the only two trends he highlighted in his very brief introductory remarks at the report’s release. “Lastly, another troubling trend is the increasing use of laws governing blasphemy and apostasy. These laws are frequently used to repress dissent, to harass political opponents, and to settle personal vendettas. Laws such as these violate fundamental freedoms of expression and religion, and we believe they ought to be repealed. And because we defend others’ rights of expression, we are also ensuring that we can express our own views and practice our own faith without fearing for our own safety or our own lives.”
Much of my and Nina Shea’s work is on this key issue, especially on how these accusations are used to repress political and religious dissidents and reformers, and Kerry appears to have adopted this analysis. His call for such laws to be repealed may signal an end or a change to the “Istanbul Process” on religious tolerance in which the State Department has partnered with the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation, whose charter commits it “to combat defamation of Islam.”
Of course, the State Department has often said good things in its reports before, but without translating them into policy. This might turn out to be true here as well, but the signals are better than we have seen for a while.
— Paul Marshall is Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and the co-author of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christian.