Report Identifies Seven Countries Where Atheism Is Punishable by Death

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) released a report on Monday analyzing how secular people around the world are treated, and found that seven different countries have laws that make atheism punishable by death.

The report, "Freedom of Thought 2012 – A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, and the Nonreligious," is 72 pages long and details some of the most extreme cases of persecution or discrimination targeting non-believers around the world. IHEU describes its vision as "a Humanist world, in which human rights are respected and everyone is able to live a life of dignity. The mission of IHEU is to build and represent the global Humanist movement that defends human rights and promotes Humanist values world-wide."

Afghanistan, Iran, Maldives, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan are the seven countries identified by the organization where it is possible that people who admit to being atheists could face capital punishment.

"When 21st century technology collides with medieval blasphemy laws, it seems to be atheists who are getting hurt, as more of them go to prison for sharing their personal beliefs via social media," said Matt Cherry, the report's editor, in a press release. "Across the world the reactionary impulse to punish new ideas, or in some cases the merest expression of disbelief, recurs again and again. We even have a case in Tunisia of a journalist arrested for daring to criticize a proposed blasphemy law!"

The report takes a closer look at a number of cases where atheists have also been imprisoned simply for sharing their views on social networks such as Facebook. Among the imprisoned are Alexander Aan, an Indonesian atheist activist serving two and a half years for Facebook posts declaring that he doesn't believe in God, Turkish pianist Fazil Say for "blasphemous" Twitter posts, 17-year-old Gamal Abdou Massoud and Bishoy Kamel from Egypt facing three and six years in prison, respectively, for posting "blasphemous" cartoons on Facebook, and others.

IHEU notes that in recent years, the number of blasphemy related cases has actually increased – in part due to the spread of social networking phenomenons like Facebook and Twitter that make it easy for the average Joe to share his thoughts with hundreds and thousands of people around the world.

"It is often not the case that when people hear of freedom of religion they interpret that in terms of the non-religious too," Bob Churchill, a spokesperson for IHEU, told NBC News. "This report shows clearly how people who mildly criticize religion may go on to suffer months or years in jail, even awaiting a death sentence."

U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Heiner Bielefeldt is said to have welcomed the report as it raises awareness for the plight of atheists around the globe.

The majority of countries highlighted in the report are located in Asia or Africa, and it examined nations where laws "deny atheists' right to exist, curtail their freedom of belief and expression, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry." The report also points the finger at laws that "obstruct their access to public education, prohibit them from holding public office, prevent them from working for the state, criminalize their criticism of religion, and execute them for leaving the religion of their parents."

Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Kuwait and Jordan were identified as nations where any sort of promotion of atheist views is totally banned or strictly limited under local laws.

In other countries, such as Malaysia, citizens are forced to register themselves as adherents of a small number of officially recognized religions, which are typically limited to Christianity, Islam or Judaism.

"Freedom of Thought 2012" also looks at examples from Europe and the U.S., however, where atheist rights are also suppressed, they claim. The report picks out Greece and Russia as two countries that allegedly protect the predominant Orthodox Church from all criticism, while seven U.S. states still have laws on their books barring atheists from public office.

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