Should it be a crime to deny the existence of God?
In the Russian city of Stavropol, Viktor Krasnov, a 38-year-old man, faces trial, charged with publicly insulting Orthodox Church believers by supporting atheism in social media. For proclaiming in a heated Internet exchange “there is no God,” Krasnov was confined for a month to a local hospital for psychiatric evaluation. If convicted under Russia’s blasphemy law, enacted in 2013 and making it illegal to “insult the religious convictions or feelings of citizens,” he may spend up to a year in prison.
During the Soviet era, Russia infamously held people in psychiatric wards and put them on trial, not for denying a deity, but affirming one. Either way, such punishment violates the universal human right of freedom of religion or belief. This fundamental liberty includes the right to believe or not to believe and live one’s life accordingly.
Russia, however, is not the only country where atheists face punishment. As noted in country chapters of its Annual Report, released on Monday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), on which we serve, has found no shortage of nations that perpetrate or permit their persecution. It is time for our country to shine a powerful spotlight on these abuses.
In February of this year, a court in Saudi Arabia sentenced a 28-year-old man to 10 years in prison, 2,000 lashes and a $5,330 fine for posting tweets favoring atheism. A Saudi court also overturned a death sentence delivered to poet and artist Ashraf Fayadh for “spreading atheism” but re-sentenced him to eight years in prison and 800 lashes. Under Saudi Interior Ministry regulations introduced in 2014, it is considered a terrorist act “to call … for atheist thought in any form.”
That same month, an Egyptian court convicted Mustafa Abdel-Nabi in absentia and handed him a three-year prison term for blasphemy for atheistic postings on his Facebook page. In 2015, a blogger from Ismailia, Sherif Gaber, was sentenced to one year of hard labor in prison for discussing his atheist views on Facebook; he is in hiding. That same year, atheist student Karim al-Banna received a three-year prison term for blasphemy because a court found his Facebook posts to “belittle the divine.” These cases are part of a recent upsurge in blasphemy charges against atheists. In addition, over the past two years, Egypt’s Ministries of Religious Endowments and Sports and Youth co-sponsored a national campaign to combat atheism among Egyptian youth.
In Bangladesh, machete-wielding attackers in February 2015 killed Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American secular blogger, during his visit to Dhaka. Besides Roy, religious extremist groups killed four other Bangladeshi bloggers and publishers who were self-professed atheists or secularists over the past year: Washiqur Rahman Babu, Ananta Bijoy Das, Niloy Chatterjee and Faisal Arefin Dipan. Earlier this month, another blogger, Nazimuddin Samad, was killed. They were assassinated for their writings on secularism and freedom of thought, religious and communal tolerance, radical Islam and political accountability. While Bangladesh’s government has arrested more than 30 people for the murders of Roy, Bijoy Das, Babu, and Chatterjee, no one has been convicted.
In 2014, Indonesian authorities released from prison Alexander Aan, a civil servant, after he served most of a two-and-a-half-year sentence for posting on a Facebook page advocating atheism. Imposed by a Sijunjung court in West Sumatra in 2012, this sentence followed a local religious extremist group’s beating him for his Facebook postings. While a democracy, Indonesia continues to maintain blasphemy laws.
It is no coincidence that USCIRF has monitored all of these countries for perpetrating or tolerating religious freedom violations not just against atheists, but theists as well, including members of religious minorities. Simply stated, societies that fail to protect the right to freedom of conscience of atheists rarely stop there.
It is time to send a message to every nation: Persecution of atheists and theists alike is equally reprehensible and must be condemned. Religious freedom is the precious birthright of humanity and must be honored and upheld for believers and skeptics alike.
Robert P. George is chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Hannah Rosenthal is a USCIRF commissioner.
To interview a USCIRF Commissioner, please contact USCIRF at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-786-0615.