Obama's Final Religious Freedoms Report Zeroes in on Blasphemy Laws in Muslim Countries

Account of stoning death of Kabul resident wrongfully accused of burning a Koran opens report, compiled under direction of Rabbi David Saperstein, ambassador at large for religious freedoms.

President Barack Obama speaks about US - Iranian relations, including the Iranian-American nationals that were jailed in Iran and are being freed as part of a prisoner swap, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC, January 17, 2016.
AFP

JTA - The Obama administration’s final report on religious freedoms focused on oppressive blasphemy laws and societal norms in Muslim countries.

The report for 2015, posted Wednesday on the State Department’s website, begins with a harrowing account of the stoning death last year of Farkhunda Malikzada, a resident of Kabul who was wrongly accused of burning a Koran.

It notes also the swift justice Afghanistan authorities delivered to her killers, saying this “demonstrates that change is possible.”

“In many other Islamic societies, societal passions associated with blasphemy — deadly enough in and of themselves — are abetted by a legal code that harshly penalizes blasphemy and apostasy,” said the report, compiled under the direction of Rabbi David Saperstein, the ambassador at large for religious freedoms, and until this appointment, the longtime director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

“Such laws conflict with and undermine universally recognized human rights,” it said. “All residents of countries where laws or social norms encourage the death penalty for blasphemy are vulnerable to attacks such as the one on Farkhunda.”

It singled out for criticism, in the executive summary, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Pakistan.

The report’s tough tone comes after years of Obama administration outreach to the Muslim world, launched with a Cairo speech in 2009, shortly after he was elected.

That speech figured on a list of Obama administration accomplishments in advancing religious freedoms the White House posted Wednesday, separately from the State Department report.

The “Fact Sheet: Promoting and Protecting Religious Freedom Around the Globe” covering both of Obama’s terms had a slightly defensive tone.

“Throughout the Obama Administration, the U.S. Government has prioritized efforts to promote freedom of religion globally as a universal human right, a strategic national interest, and as a key foreign policy objective,” it said, and noted that advocacy to release religious prisoners of conscience often takes place behind the scenes.

Republicans and conservative Christian groups have accused Obama of deprioritizing advocacy for religious freedoms, compared with his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Among other accomplishments listed in the White House release are speeches in 2014 and 2016, when Obama decried the rise of anti-Semitism among other religious persecutions, and the convening in 2015, at the behest of the United States, Israel, Canada and the European Union, of a special United Nations session on combating anti-Semitism.

The State Department report’s Israel section noted a rise in attacks on Israeli Jews last year over tensions regarding Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, a site holy to Muslims and Jews, as well as retaliatory Jewish attacks on Muslims and Christians.

“Because religion and ethnicity were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize much of this violence as being solely based on religious identity,” it said.

It also noted the monopoly that the Orthodox rabbinate continues to maintain over Jewish religious life there.

“The government allowed persons of all religions to access the Western Wall, but with the strict separation of women and men,” it said. “The government implemented policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law; in July it reversed its previous decision to allow a wider spectrum of Orthodox rabbis to perform conversions. The government did not permit civil marriages, interfaith marriages, or marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis or nonrecognized religious authorities.”

In a separate section on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the report noted that “anti-Semitic material continued to appear” in official Palestinian Authority media in the West Bank and in Hamas media in the West Bank, and that Hamas and other radical groups often followed their rocket attacks on Israel with anti-Semitic statements claiming responsibility.