By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Recently a Muslim woman in North Sudan was convicted of apostasy and sentenced to death for marrying a Christian man and converting to his faith. She was also sentenced to 100 lashes before her execution for adultery because she had a child from her unlawful marriage. The sentence was not carried out due to a public outcry from around the world, but this abomination of justice is not unique. Apostasy laws exist in 22 countries according to the Pew Research Center (Ishaan Tharoor, MAP: Where offending a religion could get you executed.
Whenever religions have been wed with political power they have restricted individual freedoms. That includes Christianity as well as Islam, but the last execution for heresy by the Church was in Spain in 1826, and blasphemy laws in Puritan New England were eliminated in the 19thcentury. In the U.S. today faith and freedom are celebrated in the lyrics of the patriotic hymn, America the Beautiful: “Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” But liberty in law does not exist for religious minorities in Islamist regimes today—even in democracies—when apostasy and blasphemy laws are enforced to protect the sanctity of Islam.
In the West the libertarian political theories of the Enlightenment motivated reformers like Thomas Jefferson to make the freedoms of religion and speech first among the civil (human) rights protected in the constitutions of their new democracies. While these human rights originated from natural law and reason, they have a theological foundation in God’s love for all people in the teachings of Jesus on love over law and the greatest commandment, and Paul took it a step further when he wrote to the Romans that all Jewish law was summed up in the one rule to love your neighbor as yourself and that love is the fulfillment of the Law. (Romans 13:9-10)
Today the freedoms of religion and speech are recognized as universal human rights in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights to which the U.S., Israel and most Islamic nations are parties; but Islamic nations are also parties to the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam which conditions all human rights on a Shari’ah that prohibits any criticism of Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. That condition and the prevalence of apostasy and blasphemy laws in Islamic nations make the freedoms of religion and speech problematic.*
Pope Francis has confirmed that human rights are matters of faith as well as secular law. On a recent trip to Turkey he condemned the barbaric violence of the Islamic State Group, or ISIS, and told religious leaders “…we are obliged to denounce all violations against human dignity and human rights.” And when Pope Francis met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he said: “Fanaticism and fundamentalism, as well as irrational fears, which foster misunderstanding and discrimination, need to be countered by the solidarity of all believers. This solidarity must rest on … respect for human life and for religious freedom, that is, the freedom to worship and to live according to the moral teachings of one’s religion….” See http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/11/pope-francis-we-must-condemn-those-who-use-religion-to-violate-human-rights/.
The 2013 International Religious Freedom Reportof the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor of the U.S. Department of State reported increased violations of religious freedom around the world (see http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm). Of the nine countries identified as engaging in or tolerating particularly severe violations of religious freedom, five are Islamic nations: Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, with Burma, Eritrea, China and North Korea the exceptions. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Bangladesh and Indonesia were also mentioned in the report as having serious violations of religious freedom.
The relationship between faith and freedom is at the heart of legitimacy, and where a nation uses its rule of law to prohibit or regulate religious beliefs and expression, there can be no real freedom. While the first requirement of any government is to prevent anarchy and protect its people and their property from those who would do them harm, the next most important function is to provide its people with fundamental civil (human) rights, beginning with the freedoms of religion and expression. In states such as Syria, Libya, Somalia, Nigeria and the Central African Republic, religious violence can be attributed to the failure of the governments to prevent it, but in Islamic nations like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, apostasy and blasphemy laws deny religious minorities the freedoms of religion and speech.
All people of faith who share the belief that we love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves—and that includes our unbelieving neighbors—should join Pope Francis in promoting the freedoms of religion and expression as fundamental matters of faith as well as good politics. And that should begin with our promoting the elimination of all apostasy and blasphemy laws.
* Articles 18, 19 and 20 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ratified by the U.S. in 1992 and by Israel in 1991) protect the freedoms of religion and free expression, but the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights of 1990 has no comparable provisions, and Articles 24 and 25 of that treaty condition all human rights on Shari’ah “…as the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification to any of the articles of this Declaration.” See Religion, Legitimacy and the Law at pp 7-8 and end notes 17 and 18.