1. Abstract
  2. Keywords
  3. Introduction
  4. Explanation about the nature of the question
  5. Historical perspective
  6. Status quaestionis
  7. Legal regulations: legislation, jurisprudence etc.
  8. Practical aspects
  9. Bibliography
  10. About the Author



Islam, Hinduism, Christianity – all of the major world religions had their birthplace in Asia. Naturally, the practice of religion has a critical role in Asian society. Paradoxically, Asia is also home to some of the most stringent laws and policies that restrict religious freedom. The blasphemy laws in particular, amongst other countries in Asia, are most common in Muslim majority nations, policing and punishing to a great extent, their citizens from minority faiths, in the legitimate practice of their religion. This paper traces the blasphemy laws in a few countries in Asia like Pakistan, India, Indonesia, amongst others, objectively surveying them as they operate. The existence of the blasphemy laws severely curtail the freedom of religion or belief in Asia. Exhaustive publications on religious freedom viz. the annual report of United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and the World Watch List published by Open Doors International have been the primary sources relied by the author for this paper.



Blasphemy laws, religious freedom in Asia, death penalty


This paper is a commentary on religious freedom in Asia with an emphasis on the blasphemy laws as the main topic of discussion. These laws penalize any perceived slander against a deity, practice or belief considered sacred in scriptures or custom. In most cases, persons from minority faith backgrounds are prosecuted under these laws for offending the deity or the followers of a religion under direct or indirect state protection. The penalty for blasphemy is quite stringent, varying from fines to prison sentences and in some cases lashings and execution. These laws severely restrict and impede the free practice of religion or beliefs where they exist.


Explanation about the nature of the question

With major and minor world religions thriving in Asia, the Asian society is one of the most religiously diverse in the world. To a large extent, mutual tolerance has permitted the region to be religiously plural, allowing many faith traditions to grow and flourish there. However, countries professing a state religion as part of its’ national code, have demonstrably expressed preference for such religion over others. In most cases, this preference is not limited to state support to the religion under protection but extends to policies and laws that positively restrict and penalize the free practice of any other religion in such countries.


Historical perspective

A 2014 Pew Research Center survey showed that half of the most religiously diverse countries in the world are in the Asia-Pacific region. Islam, Hinduism, Christianity – all of the major world religions had their birthplace in Asia. This continent is also home to Buddhism, Judaism, and many other minor religions. Christianity flourished largely outside of Asia and has a minority following in a few Asian countries. Birthed in India, Buddhism is practiced fervently in its many forms, in quite a few southeast Asian countries, China, Japan and Sri Lanka.

Founded in 7th century, the influence of Islam is quite apparent in the Asian continent where it is the state religion for many southwest Asian countries. It also has a substantial following in Asia as the majority of Muslims in the world live in Asia. Most Muslims belong to the Sunni branch of their faith, except in Iran and Iraq. This lay of religious demographics in the Asian region has a direct bearing on the state of religious freedom in the region.

Status quaestionis

Theree are a few studies and literature that occupy the domain that this paper comments on. The Annual Report published by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom comprehensively surveys and comments on the universal right of freedom of religion across the globe. It focuses on two groups of countries based on their track record on religious freedom as Countries of Particular Concern and countries on the Special Watch List. It also monitors Entities of Particular Concern for non-state actors. The World Watch List of the top 50 countries vis-à-vis religious freedom by Open Doors International is a similar resource. A book by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea titled Silenced, is an in-depth analysis of the impact of apostasy and blasphemy codes worldwide.

Rich scholarship over the years has examined the extent of religious freedom in the world and in Asia in particular. An elaborate treatment of the religious freedom situation in Asia would be challenging within the scope of this paper. To narrow the ambit, this paper picks up a dominant theme in the religious freedom arena in Asia which is the prevalence of blasphemy restrictions. This phenomenon is largely visible in Muslim-majority nations or nations with a state religion with the exception of a few countries like India. Blasphemy laws exist in many hues and colours in quite a few Asian countries. This law as it operates in a few such nations has been described in the below given sections for study.


Legal regulations: legislation, jurisprudence etc.

In 2019, a significant number of countries, approximately 79 out of 198, had laws or policies prohibiting blasphemy, while 22 countries enforced laws penalizing apostasy. Notably, Asia accounted for around half of the countries with blasphemy laws.

According to Black's Law Dictionary, blasphemy refers to the act of displaying disrespect or irreverence towards God, religion, sacred symbols, or other objects regarded as sacred. From a legal perspective, blasphemous acts encompass defamatory statements against deities, religious practices, or beliefs considered sacred based on scriptures or customs.

An analysis of blasphemy laws reveals several critical issues. Firstly, these laws infringe upon internationally recognized standards of freedom of speech and expression. Moreover, they suffer from vague language, leading to arbitrary interpretations and broad applications. Additionally, the requirement to establish intent or mens rea in committing a blasphemous act is often insufficiently addressed.

The penalties associated with blasphemy offenses vary widely, ranging from fines and imprisonment to lashings and even capital punishment in certain countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. Notably, in Pakistan, several individuals received death sentences for blasphemy in 2019, including a university lecturer accused of verbally insulting Prophet Muhammad and making derogatory remarks on social media. However, it is important to mention that no executions for blasphemy have occurred in Pakistan thus far.

It is significant to recognize that Pakistan's blasphemy laws specifically target violations against Islam and not other religions. The law allows any individual to accuse another of blasphemy based solely on circumstantial evidence, and the testimony of a single Muslim is sufficient to secure a conviction against a non-Muslim. Many blasphemy cases in Pakistan are driven by personal, professional, or economic hostilities rather than acts of blasphemy, often targeting minority community members.

Disturbingly, in some instances, the police or mobs themselves pose a greater threat to the accused's life and safety than vigilantes. When the Pakistan Supreme Court upheld the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, violent protests erupted, demanding her execution. Shockingly, it is estimated that more than thirty individuals have been killed shortly after being acquitted in blasphemy trials, highlighting the severe risks faced by those accused.

Blasphemy laws often exhibit ambiguous language, granting prosecutors significant discretion in charging and prosecuting individuals accused of blasphemy. This lack of clarity allows judges to impose severe penalties, such as lengthy prison terms and public lashings.

In India, Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) is considered an anti-blasphemy law. In the case of Ramji Lal Modi v. State of Uttar Pradesh, the Indian Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of Section 295A, deeming it a reasonable restriction on freedom of speech and expression. However, it should be noted that the freedom of religion in India is subject to considerations of public order.

Indonesia recognizes the right to freedom of religion, as guaranteed by the 1945 Constitution. Article 28E emphasizes that individuals are free to adopt and practice their chosen religion, while Article 28I stresses that the right to religion is an inviolable human right. Additionally, Article 29(2) ensures freedom of religious belief and worship. However, the 1965 Blasphemy Law and the Criminal Code in Indonesia do not align with these constitutional principles and regulations. An example of this disconnect is the case of a Chinese Buddhist woman who received an 18-month prison sentence for blasphemy based on a comment she made about the volume of a mosque's loudspeakers.

The imprecise definition and scope of blasphemy under these laws enable acts that are perceived as deviating from established religious interpretations or practices to be classified as blasphemy. Consequently, in cases where individuals' sentiments, particularly those of the majority group, are offended by differing religious interpretations or practices, judges often conclude that the elements of blasphemy have been satisfied.

Currently, the concept of blasphemy in Indonesia encompasses a wide range of acts, including but not limited to interpreting religion differently, insulting religion, claiming to be a prophet, mocking the prophet's family, tearing the Quran, conducting mass baptisms, proclaiming the ability to summon angels, using a dog head logo for packaged rice, and suspending Friday prayers as part of Covid-19 health protocols. Amnesty International has reported that since 2005, at least 106 defendants have been prosecuted under blasphemy laws.

In India, a significant number of states, namely 11 out of 28, have enacted anti-conversion laws, with another state currently considering similar legislation. These laws, presented as statutes promoting "freedom of religion," are in effect in Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, and Karnataka. Moreover, Rajasthan requires reporting of religious conversions as per a High Court directive. Unfortunately, religious minorities face additional challenges due to the rising influence of right-wing ideologies in the political landscape.

Each subsequent anti-conversion law becomes more stringent than its predecessor, with punishments for "forced" conversions escalating to a maximum of 10 years of imprisonment and substantial fines, in contrast to the earlier provisions that prescribed up to one year of imprisonment without any fines.

The procedural requirements for religious conversions have become increasingly burdensome and protracted. Notably, the Karnataka Act incentivizes individuals to engage in witch hunts by offering cash rewards to complainants. Ostensibly, India's anti-conversion laws aim to prevent conversions involving force, fraud, or allurement. However, in practice, these laws are often exploited by religious extremist groups to impede conversions away from Hinduism. The lack of clear definitions and vagueness surrounding terms such as "force, fraud, and allurement" lead to situations where acts as benign as providing charitable assistance can be deemed violations.

Furthermore, these laws frequently mandate registration of conversions with the government. Unfortunately, such information often falls into the hands of religious extremist groups who employ it to harass, threaten, and intimidate registered individuals to deter their conversions.

Convictions under these laws are rare, underscoring their limited effectiveness in addressing legitimate concerns of forced conversions. Instead, they primarily serve as instruments to harass and intimidate religious minorities. Moreover, some of these laws shift the burden of proof onto the accused, compelling them to demonstrate their innocence and establish non-violation of any provisions. Recent arrests made under the amended or newer laws affirm the government's intent to target religious minorities through the utilization of these legal provisions. Scholars draw parallels between these laws and the anti-miscegenation laws of Nuremberg, as they also seek to invalidate interfaith marriages.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted in 1976 and ratified by India, provides member states with the authority to prohibit the promotion of hatred based on nationality, race, or religion that incites discrimination, hostility, or violence. Research conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014 indicates that around a quarter of the world's nations and territories (26%) have implemented laws or policies addressing blasphemy.

Within the ICCPR, Article 18 explicitly acknowledges the unrestricted freedom to adopt or hold any belief or religion, emphasizing the internal realm of personal convictions. Paradoxically, anti-conversion laws seem to impede this very freedom of choice. General Comment No. 22 issued by the UN Human Rights Committee affirms that individuals should never be compelled to disclose their religious affiliation. However, certain states require prospective converts to seek approval from a magistrate, leaving them vulnerable to the influence of religious extremists who seek to prevent conversions away from their own faith while ignoring mass conversions towards it.

The requirement of individuals to give notification prior to their conversion can discourage them, especially when the magistrate harbours prejudice against such conversions. Furthermore, magistrates have the potential to expose the identities of prospective converts to extremist organizations, resulting in intimidation and manipulation tactics to impede the conversion process. Ultimately, this procedural system operates as a suppressive mechanism, dissuading individuals from altering their religious affiliation and subjecting them to societal prejudice linked to government investigations.

In Malaysia, a two-tier legal system exists where the regulation and enforcement of Shari'a law are delegated to the individual states. Some states utilize this authority to restrict religious freedom for both Muslim and non-Muslim residents. The federal government has consistently supported these limitations. Article 11(4) of the constitution empowers state and federal laws to control or limit the dissemination of religious doctrines or beliefs among individuals who profess the Islamic faith.

During the early months of 2021, two judicial rulings addressed the jurisdiction of secular courts regarding matters concerning religious freedom. On February 25, Malaysia's Federal Court declared unconstitutional the state Syariah laws of Selangor that banned same-sex relations as "against the order of nature"; however, this ruling did not invalidate federal statutes that criminalize same-sex relationships. On March 10, the Kuala Lumpur High Court overturned the ban on non-Muslim publications using the term "Allah." In another instance, the High Court and Court of Appeal in Malaysia ruled that Ahmadis cannot be considered as Muslims or as “persons professing the religion of Islam” due to legally binding religious edicts.


Practical aspects

Numerous Asian countries rank high on the World Watch List, indicating the presence of severe constraints on religious freedom. For instance, Saudi Arabia maintained significant restrictions on the freedom of religion or belief throughout 2021. The construction of non-Muslim places of worship is prohibited in the country. Discrimination against Shi'a Muslims persisted in education, employment, and the judicial system, with limited access to senior positions in the government and military. Religious minorities such as Christians, Jews, and others are only able to meet privately, and they have faced harassment and targeting by the government in the past. In Turkey, the government maintained a law that criminalizes blasphemy or the "insulting of religious values," imposing penalties on those perceived to have insulted or mocked Islam. In Sri Lanka, the government has exploited legal avenues such as the blasphemy law, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act to target religious minorities and deepen societal discrimination against Muslims, particularly since the 2019 Easter bombings.



  3. Paul, Santhosh Love Jihad: A Present-Day Variant of The Anti-Miscegenation Laws, (30 December 2020)
  4. PTI, UP Love Jihad: Over 35 Arrests, Dozen FIRs Under New Anti-Conversion Law in A Month, Outlook India (26 December 2020);
  5. Parents of Woman, Seven Other Arrested Under MP's New Anti-Conversion Law Outlook India (27 January 2021)
  7. Meghan G. Fischer, Anti-Conversion Laws and the International Response, 6 PENN. ST. J. L. & INT’L AFF. 1, 11-28 (2018),
  13. Marshall, Paul, and Nina Shea, Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide (New York, 2011; online edn, Oxford Academic, 19 Jan. 2012)


About the Author

Siju Thomas, National Director, ADF India

Siju Thomas serves as ADF India’s Director, providing administration, vision, and direction to the entire organization. Siju is responsible for developing legal strategies and advocacy to respond to the violence and hostility against Christians in India due to their faith. He is currently overseeing the litigation in over 180 cases in the Supreme Court, High Courts, and lower courts.

Siju is an Advocate enrolled with the Bar Council of Delhi since 2013. He specializes in constitutional law and criminal law. He practices primarily, on the writ and appellate side of constitutional courts, including the Supreme Court of India. Siju is a part of the legal team which has challenged the various state anti-conversion laws in India.

He earned his LL.B. from the Faculty of Law, University of Delhi, New Delhi. He is a Fellow of the prestigious Blackstone program of Alliance Defending Freedom.

Siju joined the ADF India team in August 2017.

Financed from the means of the Justice Fund, administered by the Minister of Justice.
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