Anti-conversion laws are spreading in Asia—What can we do in the U.S.?

September 15, 2020 by Lindy Lowry in Advocacy

In August 2019, 65-year-old Nasir* was summoned to his local mosque in West Bangladesh and asked to change his mind about becoming a Christian. It was the culmination of a year-long pressure campaign from friends and family, and every effort by Nasir to explain his decision had fallen on deaf ears. He refused, so his family beat him, tore his clothes, took his money, phone and the deed to his land. Then they kicked him out of his house.

Of course, violently beating an innocent person and stealing their property is clearly against the law in Bangladesh, as it is everywhere in the world. The problem is, Bangladesh has another law—a blasphemy law. Section 295-A of the Bangladesh Penal Code stipulates that any person who “insults or attempts to insult [a] religion … shall be punished with imprisonment … which may extend to two years.”

Even if Nasir wished to seek redress, it would be all too easy for his community to accuse him of blasphemy, and Nasir could end up being the one arrested.

Blasphemy laws, apostasy laws and “anti-conversion” laws—which all ultimately have the same effect of trying to intimidate people who want to change their religion—are astonishingly common. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has identified 84 countries with blasphemy provisions on the books.

Absurd laws

A significant part of our advocacy work here in Washington, D.C., involves highlighting cases like Nasir’s and pushing back on governments when they refuse to protect citizens who have decided to convert to Christianity or, even worse, seek to outright punish them for it.

While most of the world’s attention is elsewhere, Haryana, one of India’s 29 states with a population of 25+ million, is introducing a new “anti-conversion law” that would ensure those looking to punish new converts (or anyone even trying to share their faith) will have the backing of the police and the courts. With the stroke of a pen, 25 million Indian citizens will suddenly find it substantially more difficult to change their religious beliefs, if they choose to do so.

In India, these laws are disguised as “religious freedom laws” designed to prevent the “forced” conversion of someone to another religion. That purpose is absurd on its face, because there’s no way of “forcing” someone to convert to another religion, which wouldn’t already be illegal under existing law (such as kidnapping, violence, blackmail, etc.).

In practice, these laws give sanction to often aggressive vigilantes who use any pretext to attack non-Hindus engaging in any kind of community work. Christians inviting neighbors to a church dinner are accused of “forced” conversion and subsequently harassed or arrested. Visiting a sick friend and praying for them? Forced conversion. Tell a family member about Jesus? Forced conversion.

So what we can do about this?

From an advocacy perspective, our job is to make it clear to nations like India and Bangladesh that punishing their citizens for following their conscience is not acceptable to their partners and allies in the rest of the world. A strong, healthy relationship with the United States—and all of the benefits that come with such a relationship—cannot be maintained unless these basic freedoms are upheld.

Ideally, countries like India, Bangladesh and Pakistan would repeal laws that so clearly prevent people from exercising such a basic right. But a more tangible goal is to at least convince officials to narrow these laws and ensure that innocent men and women are not attacked by those around them, as Nasir was. Efforts like these are underway, both in public and behind the scenes.

For instance, Senate Resolution 458, introduced by Senator James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, and co-sponsored by Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, calls for a “global repeal” of blasphemy, heresy and apostasy laws. Although this is what’s known as a “messaging” resolution, it sends an important message nonetheless: the U.S. Senate is opposed to laws used to stop people from freely choosing their faith. Currently, seven other Senators have joined the resolution.

Perhaps one of the most powerful ways to speak out against these laws is to highlight the stories of those who have been ensnared by them. The plight of Asia Bibi, sentenced to death in Pakistan, drew global attention until her release last year. So did the case of Meriam Ibrahim in Sudan. While these cases may not always lead to a change in the law, they do often discourage officials at local and national levels from aggressively pursuing those accused of blasphemy or apostasy, and sometimes convince governments they should protect victims from vigilante attacks.

Lastly, we need to encourage legislators in countries where blasphemy laws still exist, but are never enforced (or even remembered) to repeal these laws. In the U.S., Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Wyoming still have laws that reference blasphemy, even though any enforcement of these laws was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson in 1952. Repealing these antiquated laws in U.S. states would let other countries know we take seriously the right of others to change their faith if they choose.

As Christians, we believe Jesus must be followed freely. Intimidating or threatening others into adopting your beliefs, especially with the force of law, is as antithetical to the Christian message as anything could be. This doesn’t mean we don’t boldly proclaim the truth, but let’s do so while also insisting that people be free to follow wherever their conscience may lead them.

*name changed for security

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