flagsWritten by Don Byrd

Today, the U.S. State Department released its International Religious Freedom Report for 2015, which documents the status of religious freedom in 199 countries around the world. While a majority of those countries provide conditions that allow for the free practice of religion, 74 percent of the world’s population live in countries with substantial restrictions to religious freedom.

The report opens with the harrowing story of 27-year old Farkhunda Malikzada, who died the victim of brutal mob violence in Kabul, Afghanistan after being falsely accused of burning the Quran.

The killing is emblematic, the report suggests, of the serious threat to religious liberty faced by many around the world in regions where blasphemy and apostasy are regarded, officially or unofficially, as grave crimes against society. Here is an excerpt from the Executive Summary:

The fact that individuals have been held accountable for this horrific crime represents a significant step forward for Afghanistan’s justice system, and sends an important message to those who might see allegations of blasphemy as a means to act with impunity against others. A prominent public memorial erected on the site of Farkhunda’s death has been the site of vigils and a widely publicized commemoration of the one-year anniversary of her killing.

In many other Islamic societies, societal passions associated with blasphemy – deadly enough in and of themselves – are abetted by a legal code that harshly penalizes blasphemy and apostasy. Such laws conflict with and undermine universally recognized human rights. All residents of countries where laws or social norms encourage the death penalty for blasphemy are vulnerable to attacks such as the one on Farkhunda. This is particularly true for those who have less power and are more vulnerable in those societies, like women, religious minorities, and the poor. False accusations, often lodged in pursuit of personal vendettas or for the personal gain of the accuser, are not uncommon. Mob violence as a result of such accusations is disturbingly common. In addition to the danger of mob violence engendered by blasphemy accusations, courts in many countries continued to hand down harsh sentences for blasphemy and apostasy, which were used to severely curtail the religious freedom of their residents.

In addition to emphasizing the role blasphemy and apostasy laws and attitudes play in jeopardizing religious freedom in many parts of the world, the report highlights the substantial danger non-state terrorist groups like Boko Haram and Da’esh pose, being among “the most egregious abusers of religious freedom in the world.”

You can view the report, and browse by country, here. A transcript of the press briefing conducted by Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom David Saperstein is here.

In addition, the White House released a Fact Sheet detailing the Obama Administration’s efforts to “promote and protect religious freedom around the globe.” As Rabbi Saperstein noted, the Office of International Religious Freedom has more staff and resources to focus on this issue than at any time since its creation.