SALT LAKE CITY — In August, "The Book of Mormon" came to Salt Lake City for the second time in three years, bringing its irreverent depiction of Mormon missionaries to a theater just a few blocks from the worldwide headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The show was "back by popular demand" in a city where many residents object to its message, a phenomenon that illustrates Americans' ability to stomach insults aimed at their faith, said Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.
"Here you have a wildly successful dramatic production that clearly ridicules and defames the founding prophet of a significant faith community," she said. "And yet because of our robust religious freedom protections in the U.S., I don't think there are many if any LDS Church members who have thought it should be their right to shut down this production."
In many other places, the show could not have gone on. More than one-third of the world's countries criminalize blasphemy, or speaking ill of sacred things, according to a July 2017 report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Because of blasphemy laws, Mohamed Abdullah Al-Nasr faces five years in an Egyptian prison for questioning common interpretations of the Quran on Facebook. Ruslan Sokolovsky was arrested in Russia last year for playing Pokémon Go in a church. Three men were sentenced to death in Pakistan last month. Their crime? Tearing down a religious poster.
To some, these arrests and harsh punishments are a necessary part of protecting religious harmony. Hundreds of Pakistanis protested near Islamabad earlier this month in support of the country's blasphemy laws, decrying efforts to reduce the number of blasphemers sent to death row.
To others, including leading international religious freedom organizations in the United States, blasphemy laws represent the worst possible reaction to religious diversity and freedom. Governments should worry about protecting citizens' right to believe whatever they want to believe, not protecting God, they say.
"The goal of the freedom of religion is to protect individuals' rights of conscience, not to protect religions themselves from being criticized or disagreed with or even defamed," said Lantos Swett, former chair of the religious freedom commission.
Blasphemy laws have been linked to a growing number of arrests, killings and civil rights violations in recent years, and yet few Americans know where they're enforced or how they threaten people of faith, said Elizabeth Cassidy, the commission's director of international law and policy.
"Blasphemy laws have been an issue in a number of countries that USCIRF has consistently monitored and reported on," she said. "They are often a source of severe religious freedom abuses."
This month, the Deseret News spoke with blasphemy law experts and studied recent reports on faith-related government restrictions. Here's an overview of what we learned:
What is a blasphemy law?
Blasphemy laws come in a variety of forms, but they all police the ways people talk about and act toward God and faith groups.
"Laws prohibiting blasphemy include provisions that sanction insulting or defaming religion and seek to punish individuals for allegedly offending, insulting or denigrating religious doctrines, deities, symbols or 'the sacred,' or for wounding or insulting religious feelings," according to the commission's report.
Blasphemy laws criminalize personal expression, whether or not they promote violence against others, Cassidy said.
"We're looking at laws that seek to punish expression about religious ideas, doctrines, symbols, deities," she said.
By seeking to punish blasphemy, governments take on a power that's usually reserved for religious authorities: defining appropriate faith-related behavior. Blasphemy has long been a serious accusation within religious communities, and the Bible includes accounts of blasphemy charges leveled at Jesus, Stephen and others, which often led to death.
"We need to differentiate between the rights of faith communities to define orthodox views" and excommunicate or sanction those who don't follow them and "governments that seek to impose penalties on individuals for their beliefs," Lantos Swett said.
How many of these laws exist around the world?
Sixty-nine countries have some form of blasphemy law, and they're spread relatively equally across the regions of the world, the commission reported.
About a quarter of these countries are found in the Middle East or North Africa, and a similar share are located in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. Around 15 percent of the countries are in Sub-Saharan Africa, while 10 percent can be found in the Americas.
"I think blasphemy laws are more prevalent than people realize," Lantos Swett said.
Europe's link to blasphemy laws often surprises people, since it's a relatively secular region, experts noted.
"Many of these laws are on the books in Western and European countries. They're just never enforced," Lantos Swett said.
What justifies blasphemy laws?
Government leaders who defend blasphemy laws present them as a show of reverence for the world's faiths. They cite the need to encourage respectful interactions between citizens, Cassidy said.
"They'll talk about the need for preserving societal harmony, especially if a country has diverse religious communities," she said.
Policymakers may also defend blasphemy laws by referencing their constituents' support for them, providing events like the recent protest in Pakistan as evidence, said Daniel Philpott, one of the leaders of Under Caesar's Sword, a global research project aimed at understanding how Christians respond to religious persecution.
Since the 1960s and 1970s, politicians in many Muslim-majority countries have been able to score political points by enforcing piety, he said.
In these countries, strict enforcement of blasphemy laws is tied up with larger cultural clashes with Western countries, said Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish writer and senior visiting fellow at Wellesley College, to Foreign Policy earlier this year.
"I think Muslims in the modern world feel very insecure, which makes them aggressive and authoritarian," he said. "Free speech is broadly conceived as a liberal imposition."
Islamic leaders, as well as representatives to the United Nations from some Muslim-majority countries, have repeatedly called for a global blasphemy law, arguing that prioritizing speech protections over their faith has damaged Islam.
"We cannot accept insults to Islam under the guise of freedom of thought," said Recep Tayyip Erdogan, former prime minister and now president of Turkey, to a gathering of Islamic policymakers in 2013.
These leaders enjoy little support from Western leaders or other U.N. officials.
"Anti-blasphemy, anti-apostasy or anti-conversion laws, some of which are falsely presented as 'anti-incitement' legislation, also often serve as platforms for enabling intolerance," said Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, in October, before presenting his first report on his work since taking office one year ago.
What are common punishments for blasphemy?
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom published a second blasphemy report in September, detailing notable instances in which blasphemy laws led to arrests and imprisonment. It tells the story of Al-Nasr in Egypt and Sokolovsky in Russia, as well as two dozen other men and women.
"The individuals highlighted here are only a sample of those who have been negatively impacted by blasphemy laws," the report noted. "Read their stories, the charges against them and their sentences to better understand the devastating impact of these laws."
Almost everyone mentioned in the report faces multiple years in jail, although most did nothing more than speak about religion on a social media site or belong to a minority faith group. It's common for blasphemy charges to lead to a lofty punishment in countries where these laws are enforced, Cassidy said.
"The most common punishment among blasphemy laws is imprisonment, with 86 percent of all states imposing a prison penalty (and a few laws imposing lashings, forced labor and the death penalty)," the commission reported in July.
Why are these laws a problem?
Philpott illustrates the problem with blasphemy laws by telling the story of Aasia Bibi, one of the people highlighted in the commission's work.
Bibi, a Catholic, was working in a field in Pakistan with a group of Muslim farmhands in June 2009 when she drank water from a communal cup. An argument broke out since Christians are considered unclean and not meant to share with Muslims.
The fight escalated and "they brought her up on blasphemy charges," Philpott said, noting that these laws enable social conflict to spill over into criminal courts.
People who say that blasphemy laws help keep the peace seem to miss the ways they've been used to punish members of minority faiths, Cassidy said.
"In countries that have blasphemy laws there tends to be more conflict along religious grounds," she said.
There also tends to be more overall government interference with faith groups, said Katayoun Kishi, one of Pew Research Center's experts on global religious restrictions. Blasphemy laws aren't included in Pew's index of government restrictions, but there's a notable overlap between countries that score high on the index and countries with these statutes.
"Generally, we see that countries that have blasphemy, apostasy or hate crimes laws … have higher levels of government restrictions in other levels as well," Kishi said.
Should a particular faith group be blamed for blasphemy laws?
As the commission's research illustrated, blasphemy laws are not unique to a particular region. It's unfair to say that they're a natural product of a single culture or belief system, experts noted.
However, Muslim-majority countries are notable for their ongoing support for these laws, Philpott said. Members of minority faith groups are finding it increasingly difficult to live in countries where there's little separation between mosque and state.
Blasphemy laws "are part of a tapestry of what might be called a 'religiously repressive regime,' which is one type of Islamic governance," he said.
The countries with the five highest scores on the commission's index of blasphemy laws — Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Qatar — are all Muslim-majority countries. The index was calculated by recording if and how a country's blasphemy law violated internationally recognized human rights, like religious freedom and the freedom of expression.
Are Americans unique in their approach to blasphemy?
It may seem counterintuitive to oppose the criminalization of blasphemy, since few people enjoy hearing faith groups mocked or God cursed, Lantos Swett said. Blasphemy laws could be seen as a restatement of the third biblical commandment: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
"The more I have worked in the field of international religious freedom, the more impressed I am by the wisdom of the founders of our republic," Lantos Swett said, noting that, from the beginning, American leaders worked to separate church and state.
This separation wasn't common in the European context, and blasphemy laws are present throughout the world at least in part because British colonizers brought support for them to distant lands, Foreign Policy reported.
"In the European context, (blasphemy laws) don't usually translate into severe restrictions or oppression, but it is still a little shocking how much of an outlier the U.S. is with its staunch commitment to the separation of organized religion and the state," Lantos Swett said.
However, the current outcry against blasphemy laws should not be seen as an American invention. Government leaders from around the world recognize that these statutes interfere with human rights protections, Cassidy said.
"Religious freedom doesn't protect religious ideas. It protects people's right to their beliefs or no beliefs," she said. "The U.N. Special Rapporteur has repeatedly said that blasphemy laws are problematic and not justified."
What's to be done?
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to blasphemy laws, experts said. Instead of trying to cobble one together, international religious freedom groups have focused on raising awareness of these problematic protections.
"I think calling attention to where they are is a start," Cassidy said, noting that it puts pressure on leaders in countries like Canada when they're listed alongside major religious freedom violators like Pakistan.
If policymakers are going to vote against a U.N. resolution on blasphemy, they should make sure they don't have one on the books themselves, she added.
Similarly, Lantos Swett highlighted the value of putting these little-known laws in the spotlight. Countries won't be pressured to change their approach to religious freedom if few people know about what's happening within their borders.20 comments on this story
"I think we need to exercise, as much as possible, the value of the bully pulpit," she said. "Countries don't like being called out publicly and labeled as abusers of religious freedom and human rights."
Although blasphemy laws are receiving more and more attention from the U.S., Under Caesar's Sword and other religious freedom groups, law and religion experts acknowledge that the road to full repeal will be very long.
"The reality is that in our dealings with other countries we don't and can't have a singular human rights focus. There are environmental, security and economic issues, too," Lantos Swett said.