A pair of House subcommittees held a joint hearing on Tuesday, January 28, titled “Ending Global Religious Persecution.” The focus of the hearing was the plight of religious minorities and nontheists around the world at the hands of their governments, aided in part by blasphemy and heresy laws.
Rafida Bonya Ahmed, a Bangladeshi-American who is a humanist and atheist, submitted her story for the record. In her written testimony, Ahmed described being victim to a violent attack that left her gravely injured and her husband dead while visiting their home country in 2015. The government used blasphemy laws, she explained, to justify arresting the secular humanist writers – who were its intended victims – instead of arresting the perpetrators of a wave of religiously motivated violence in Bangladesh. Now, she advocates against blasphemy and other laws that criminalize forms of religious dissent.
BJC’s information sheet on House and Senate resolutions that call for repeal of blasphemy and apostasy laws gives a helpful definition of them:
A blasphemy law seeks to punish those who insult, offend, demean, or denigrate religion (including religious doctrines, leaders, symbols, and texts) with fines, imprisonment, or even the death penalty. An apostasy law criminalizes changing from one religion to another.
There are no blasphemy or apostasy laws on the books in the U.S., of course. Our First Amendment would not tolerate them. But is there anything we can do here to address these troubling laws in other nations? Bipartisan legislation introduced in both houses of Congress is a good start.
BJC’s Holly Hollman and Jennifer Hawks submitted written testimony to the committees to express support for H.Res. 512 and S.Res. 458, proposals that encourage countries with blasphemy and apostasy laws to repeal them. The resolutions also call on the president and Secretary of State to prioritize the repeal of such laws in our dealings with countries that still have them. Hollman and Hawks explain how Baptist history informs BJC’s support of this legislation:
As Baptist Christians in the United States, it is safe to presume that we have not suffered under blasphemy laws in our context. That is not true of early Baptists in America nor of our Baptist brothers and sisters abroad. The founding mothers and fathers of our Christian denomination suffered under laws similar to modern blasphemy laws. Under those laws, they were fined, whipped and imprisoned by their Christian neighbors for daring to follow God as they interpreted Scripture to demand. From these earliest days as a persecuted religious minority group, fighting for religious liberty for all people became part of the Baptist DNA. Marginalized Baptist pastors fought not only for their own religious freedom but consistently spoke of the need for Jewish, Muslim, atheist and all of our neighbors to be free to worship God, or not, as they feel led. It is this advocacy tradition that BJC continues today.
According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, approximately 1/3 of the nations of the world have blasphemy laws, though several countries have repealed them since 2015 in response to pressure and advocacy from religious freedom advocates.
For more on this issue and the proposed legislation, see BJC’s call to action fact sheet: “Repeal Blasphemy Laws,” read BJC’s submitted written testimony, and watch video or read witness testimony from the congressional joint subcommittee hearing.