Ed. Note: The following piece, written by Communications Officer for ADF International, Ludwig Brühl, originally appeared at The European Conservative
Defending Faith From Fear
By Ludwig Brühl — June 6, 2023
I can still vividly remember how determined my 94-year-old grandma was to find a Sunday church service. She traveled across the city, climbed a seemingly endless flight of stairs, and arrived faint with exertion to a hidden chapel where a small congregation gathered to worship away from the prying eyes of the state.
Legally, the act of communal worship was in a gray area. This was back in 2021 when across Europe governments banned religious services. The state deemed ‘inessential’ what all believers consider most essential: the act of gathering together to worship God. For the first time in recent Western European history, governments did the unthinkable by banning religious gatherings and services, thereby violating a core aspect of the fundamental right to religious freedom.
Ján Figel’, former EU special envoy for freedom of religion and belief outside the EU, knows exactly what he’s talking about when he calls the ban “illiberal and undemocratic.” This respected politician has held various positions in the Slovak government and the EU-commission. He never imagined that his freedom-fighting efforts would end up pivoting toward the defense of the freedom of worship in the heart of Europe. But in 2021, it became clear that the erosion of fundamental rights in response to COVID was happening with alarming rapidity. The Slovak government extended its existing worship ban, only allowing weddings and funerals to take place with up to 6 people, including religious staff.
Figel’ decided to take a stand for freedom by challenging the ban in court. With Alliance Defending Freedom International as co-counsel, he sued the Slovak state at Europe’s top human-rights court.
Figel’ argues that the worship bans lacked legal foundation. They were neither legal nor necessary to curb the pandemic. The government was at fault for failing to rely on data and avoiding scientific consultation. Big churches and outdoors spaces provided smart and safe ways to continue worshiping together, even through the pandemic’s darkest days. Arguably, this is when coming together to pray is most needed.
Both the Slovak constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights guarantee freedom of religion. This explicitly includes the “freedom … to manifest [one’s] religion … in worship” (Article 9, ECHR). For people of faith, worshiping together can be as important as food and water.
The right to religious services becomes tokenistic when it can so easily be violated in times of crisis. It is precisely for this reason that people of faith and religious leaders across Europe, such as the Slovak bishop’s conference, welcome the case as a much-needed defense of the human rights we hold most dear.
Worldwide, the pandemic brought a number of absurd cases of religious-freedom violations because of COVID restrictions. In Switzerland, choir practices were allowed, but religious gatherings banned. Uganda opened shopping malls while locking up religious buildings. In Scotland, bike shops were deemed more essential than churches. The list can continue on with examples from countries around the world.
For now, it’s over, but what does this episode portend for the future? Figel’ doesn’t want to wait to find out. This case is a key opportunity and one of the first to examine this kind of human-rights violation in the European Court of Human Rights.
Given the nature of the court’s processes, the ruling likely will take many months, if not years. But we hope and pray this is an opportunity to re-establish religious liberty in its rightful place in a just and democratic Europe—at the core of the human-rights framework. Hopefully, when we look back at the days when we could not gather for the simple act of prayer, we will be reminded of how precious our rights really are and never fail to defend them anew.
Ed. Note: The following piece, written by Communications Officer for ADF International, Sofia Hörder, originally appeared at IDEA and has been translated from German
India: Standing Up for Your Rights
By Sofia Hörder — May 4, 2023
Social exclusion and violence against Christians in India have been increasing massively for years. From January to March 2023 alone, there were 187 confirmed attacks on Christians because of their faith – unfortunately, it’s likely just the tip of the iceberg. But Christians are mobilizing. The spokesperson for the legal advocacy organization ADF International, Sofia Hörder, explains how.
It's happened again: in mid-April, Hindu extremist groups in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh called for supporters to boycott shops owned by Christians or Muslims. Unfortunately, discrimination like this is increasing despite court orders to refrain from such actions. Christians are still waiting for such boycotts to be officially banned.
Violence Increases by 400 Percent
According to a United Christian Forum (UCF) report, documented incidents of violence against Christians increased by 400 percent from 2014 to 2022. In addition to physical attacks, Christians have suffered everything from forced conversions to Hinduism to violent disruption of their religious services to their places of worship being vandalized or even burned down.
Victims Are Punished
Instead of taking action, local authorities often contribute to discrimination by allowing perpetrators to go unpunished. Mobs of religious extremists are sometimes even accompanied by the police and local media when they break into a prayer meeting or beat people up. What is most outrageous is that sometimes the police witnesses everything and then arrests the Christians - the victims of the attack – as troublemakers. The number of these incidents has increased since the Hindu nationalist party BJP came to power in 2014. It promotes the so-called Hindutva, a political ideology fighting for a purely Hindu state.
Christians Are Not Silent
What is encouraging, however, is that Christians are not simply accepting these circumstances. They are gathering more and more often to demonstrate for their rights. They call on authorities to take action against the boycotts and, supported by human rights organizations, have managed to take more and more such cases to court.
On April 13, a delegation of Christian leaders also met with India's President Droupadi Murmu to draw attention to persecuted Christians. They called for concrete solutions, such as installing video cameras in all police stations and the consistently documenting and tracking attacks against Christians. They also want the country’s human rights commissions to be strengthened. “We are encouraged that the President of India took the time to meet a delegation of Christian leaders and hear about the violence and discrimination being experienced by the community. We are hopeful that she will follow up on the topic and raise the issue with the government of India to advocate for concrete steps to be taken to counter Christian persecution,” says Tehmina Arora, Director of Advocacy, Asia for ADF International.
Christians in India are victims of targeted violence, but it is encouraging to see that they are increasingly standing up for their rights and demanding justice in a more targeted, determined and coordinated way.
Ed. Note: The following piece, written by Executive Director for ADF International, Paul Coleman, originally appeared at Spiked
A Global Wave of Censorship
By Paul Coleman — April 6, 2023
On think-tank Freedom House’s ‘world freedom index,’ happy Finns top the charts as the ‘most free’ country in the world, scoring 100 out of 100. Finnish MP Päivi Räsänen is rather unlikely to agree with such an assessment.
Last week, the long-serving politician and grandmother marked the one-year anniversary of her acquittal for ‘hate speech’ charges. Her alleged crime? In 2019, Räsänen criticized her local church for its sponsorship of a Helsinki Pride parade. She tweeted a picture of some Bible verses alongside a question, asking how supporting Pride could be justified in accordance with the church’s teaching. Prior to this, Räsänen had also shared her Christian beliefs in a radio debate and in a church pamphlet written nearly two decades ago, both of which were used in the case against her. As a result, she was prosecuted for voicing beliefs that fall foul of today’s reigning social orthodoxy.
Finland has the fewest police officers per capita in Europe. Yet the Finnish state poured enormous resources into prosecuting Räsänen for her peacefully expressed opinion.
So why pursue a criminal conviction for something as innocuous as tweeting some Bible verses? Because the authorities wanted to make an example of her. For having views that differ from the establishment, Räsänen endured over 13 hours of police interrogations, months of waiting for court proceedings and an onerous and invasive trial. All for a mere tweet. Although she has now been exonerated, this was a punishing process. And it didn’t just affect Räsänen herself. It also sent a chilling message to the Finnish public – that what happened to Räsänen could happen to you, too.
If state censorship like this can happen in Finland, which supposedly tops the world’s freedom charts, then imagine how bad things must be for free speech elsewhere. Indeed, all across the world nowadays, people are being criminalized for expressing views that challenge the prevailing politically correct orthodoxy.
Take the case of Mexican congressman Gabriel Quadri. Mexico has a quota in place requiring 50 / 50 representation of men and women in congress. In Mexico’s 2021 election, two congressional seats earmarked for women were given to males who identify as women. So Quadri took to Twitter to declare it an injustice. His tweets contained no foul language, named no particular person and in no way incited violence. Yet for standing up for women’s representation, Quadri has been convicted of being a ‘political violator against women,’ and is suffering egregious personal and professional consequences. He is now at risk of becoming ineligible to run for office again.
The trend is clear everywhere you look. Blasphemy against woke orthodoxy is being punished.
Of course, this is not to say old-fashioned blasphemy laws aren’t also inhibiting free speech. Indeed, some of the most extreme examples of this global wave of silencing and censorship are to be found in West Africa. In 2020, for instance, Sufi musician Yahaya Sharif-Aminu was sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy. He was convicted after sharing self-composed rap lyrics on WhatsApp that referenced a 19th-century imam, revered in his particular tradition of Sufi Islam. Sharif-Aminu was accused of blasphemy for allegedly placing the imam above the prophet Muhammad. He has appealed to the Supreme Court of Nigeria for his life and is challenging the constitutionality of the Sharia-based blasphemy laws. He remains in prison, his life hanging in the balance.
The nature of blasphemy, not to mention the consequences, are very different in the West compared with Nigeria. But the underlying dynamic of censorship is very similar. Cancel-culture mobs and state censorship are feeding off each other, creating a culture of crippling silencing and sanctioning. Cancel culture empowers the government to suppress speech. And state censorship, in turn, breeds a culture of intolerance.
There are few places in the world spared from this kind of censorship today. Those who voice dissenting opinions on social media will often face a mob calling for their cancellation – and most states are willing to enforce it.
Make no mistake, free speech is under threat all over the world. After all, If Finland really is the free-est country on Earth, then heaven help the rest of us.
Ed. Note: The following piece, written by Legal Communications Director for ADF International, Elyssa Koren, originally appeared at The Daily Wire
‘Buffer Zones’: U.K. Parliament Affirms Ban On Silent Prayer Around All Abortion Facilities
By Elyssa Koren — March 10, 2023
Fundamental freedoms have been dealt an extreme blow by the Parliament of the United Kingdom with the passage of a new bill on Tuesday rolling out so-called “buffer zones” around every abortion facility in England and Wales. The Public Order Bill puts into force 150-meter censorship zones banning any form of “influence,” including silent prayer and consensual conversations, wherever abortions are performed. The U.K., the birthplace of the Magna Carta and many of the foundational freedoms we enjoy in the West, is now leading the charge on a new era of thought-crime prosecution.
One need only look to recent arrests to understand the immense human rights ramifications of the new law. Where censorship zones are already in force, they have engendered severe violations of the right to free expression.
Take for example the viral arrest of Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, whose case reveals the state of legal chaos that censorship zones generate. Isabel was first arrested in December for the “crime” of standing in peaceful silence, praying, on a public sidewalk classified as a censorship zone near a Birmingham, England abortion facility. In February, she was acquitted fully in court, only to be arrested once again for the imperceptible act of silent prayer on Monday of this week.
At the time of the second incident, the arresting officer commented: “You’ve said you’re engaging in prayer, which is the offense”. To which Isabel counters: “Silent prayer”. His response says it all — “You were still engaging in prayer, which is the offense”. Censorship zones empower authorities to arrest peaceful individuals on the basis of their thoughts alone. This is a catastrophic failure for a democratic society where every person should have the right to peaceful expression, not to mention, their own thoughts, in the place of their choosing.
And Isabel was not alone in what befell her. Catholic priest Father Sean Gough was criminally charged, and likewise found “not guilty,” for standing in silent prayer in the same zone as Isabel. Absurdly, he was also charged for having an “unborn lives matter” bumper sticker affixed to his car, which was parked in the zone. Army veteran Adam Smith-Connor was fined for silent prayer in Bournemouth, England. Bournemouth offers a particularly outrageous example of censorship zone lunacy. The city has in place an eerily specific ordinance, ominously posted on signposts listing prohibited activities. These include sprinkling holy water, kneeling, reading scripture, and prayer considered to be an “act of approval/disapproval” toward abortion.
Most egregiously, the debate over the new nationwide law revealed that pro-censorship Members of Parliament deem the specific targeting of silent prayer acceptable. It is no accident that prayer, in all of its forms, is captured by the new prohibitions. This triggered a Parliamentary vote on an amendment to exclude both prayer and consensual conversation from the bill, which failed with 116 votes in favor and 299 against. 299 British Members of Parliament think prayer should be an offense under the law in certain public places. Let that sink in.
No doubt the new law will give rise to countless more abuses similar to that of Isabel, Father Sean, and Adam. Peaceful citizens throughout the country are now under real risk of legal sanction for exercising their most basic right to pray, think, and act in accordance with their convictions. At the same time, parts of the U.K. are experiencing rapidly escalating violent crimes without adequate response from law enforcement. What happens when already stretched police resources are redirected to patrol for prayer?
Censorship zone afficionados are quick to cite harassment as justification for these draconian measures. But this is a severe distortion of their real, and intended, impact. Censorship zones don’t “buffer” women from harassment. Harassment is always wrong, which is why it is already fully criminalized under U.K. law. It is clear that these zones are not about the protection of women. What they do is give the state the power to stifle views that are deemed disagreeable—in this case the view that both women and their unborn children are worthy of protection.
Today, the silencing power of the state in the U.K. is being leveraged full-throttle against the pro-life view. Tomorrow, censorship zones could be deployed to target another issue altogether. Parliament has opened the door to ever-proliferating state censorship in the U.K. Who’s to say that the next push won’t be for censorship zones around schools, government buildings, or any other public spaces deemed to require a protective bubble of this sort?
Let this be a clear warning to all concerned with the protection of fundamental freedoms. In the U.S., we must robustly defend our First Amendment protections. The thought police are real and standing by across the pond. Prayer can never be a crime, and nobody should be punished for peacefully living, and thinking, according to what they believe.
Ed. Note: The following piece, written by Director of ADF UK, Ryan Christopher, originally appeared at Newsweek
Policing Thought Crime Should Have No Place in the U.K.
By Ryan Christopher — January 24, 2023
Parts of the United Kingdom are now policing thought crimes. This is happening under a series of local ordinances that ban prayer, including silent prayer, in the vicinity of abortion facilities. Don't believe it? Recent cases have confirmed that you can be interrogated, arrested, fined, and even face a prison sentence for the act of praying in the privacy of your own mind.
First came the arrest of Isabel Vaughan-Spruce. On December 15, she was charged with failing to comply with an ordinance that set up a "buffer zone" in an area comprising of several streets around an abortion facility in Birmingham, England. Prayer is listed as a "prohibited activity" under the ordinance. Isabel was free to stand where she was, and free to think about anything else—but for directing her thoughts to God on the issue of abortion, she was arrested, and now could be tried and convicted of a crime.
Video footage of Isabel's arrest went viral on Twitter. When probed by the police, she made clear that she was not there to protest. In response to questioning, she stated that she "might be" praying inside her head. For this, she was searched, including through her hair, and placed under arrest.
Now, Adam Smith-Connor similarly has been fined for breaching a Bournemouth, England, "buffer zone" order. Adam stood within the zone, on the public street, praying in silence for the baby—a son—he had lost to abortion years ago. He prayed too for the men and women facing similar difficult decisions today. He stood with his back to the facility, mindful of the privacy of staff and attendees. After a few minutes, he was approached by "community safety accredited officers," tasked with enforcing the censorship zone.
As in Isabel's case, video footage of Adam's interaction with the officers dispels any possibility that this is about something other than prayer. As one officer states, "ultimately, I have to go along with the guidelines of the Public Space Protection Order, to say that we are in the belief that therefore you are in breach of clause 4a, which says about prayer." Adam interjects, "I'm just standing praying," only for her to respond, "I understand that. But the PSPO [ordinance] is in place for a reason and we have to follow through on those regulations."
It must be emphasized that Adam's only transgression was prayer, and he was fined literally for the contents of his mind. If he had been thinking about anything else, he would have faced no penalty. Bizarrely, the order that he is accused of violating also prohibits genuflecting, sprinkling holy water on the ground, or the crossing of oneself, among other activities.
What we are seeing in the U.K. is a rapidly escalating effort to criminalize the basic exercise of fundamental freedoms. Isabel and Adam are but the first in a potentially very long line of similar cases. The U.K. Parliament is now debating legislation that would establish censorship zones around abortion facilities nationwide. These zones are fundamentally incompatible with a free society. They directly violate myriad fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression and religion, and as evidenced by what has already transpired, easily slide into the policing of people's thoughts.
"Buffer zone" proponents cite harassment as justification for this kind of infringement. Let's be unmistakably clear in our response—harassment is a crime. The harassment of any person, including a woman facing a difficult situation, is an abomination already covered under U.K. law. These zones are drastically distinct from any legitimate means to protect women. No democratic state should be in the business of criminalizing thought.
Nobody benefits when a free state voluntarily relinquishes the essential attributes of freedom. And every person, regardless of their stance on abortion, should be horrified by what is happening to fundamental freedoms in the U.K. Even if we disagree, let us not lose sight of the fact that all people have the right to peacefully pray, act, and yes, even think, in accordance with their beliefs.
Ed. Note: The following piece, written by ADF International legal counsel, Julio Pohl, originally appeared at National Review
A Mexican Politician Called a Man a Man. Now, He May Be Barred from Office
By Julio Pohl — December 21, 2022
For noting that biological males were taking advantage of a law meant to help females, Gabriel Quadri’s political career is now in danger.
Talk of Twitter free speech may be all the rage right now in the United States, but a look around the world begs the question: What good is ostensible social-media freedom if governments can silence and sanction you with the harshest of penalties for what you post online? The international landscape for state censorship of online speech is bleak. There exists a dangerous and mounting global trend to criminalize expression, including online speech, blurring the line between dictatorship and democracy, and wreaking havoc on human rights.
In Mexico, a sitting congressman, Gabriel Quadri, may lose the right to run for office ever again because of what he posted on Twitter — a grave violation of his civil and political rights that should attract international attention. Quadri, an avowed liberal, took issue when seats reserved for women in Mexico’s congress were claimed by men who identify as transgender. Now, for the mere act of tweeting, he’s a tried and convicted “gender-based violator” under Mexican law. His case makes clear that while Twitter HQ may be galvanizing in defense of free speech, for so long as repressive governments wield censorship power, the Internet is no safe space for free expression.
Mexico’s gender-parity law requires equal representation of men and women in Congress. In a series of eleven respectful, yet impassioned tweets, posted in February 2022, Quadri voiced his concern about the devaluing of women’s opportunities. For this, he was dragged into litigation and charged, under the whim of Mexico’s National Electoral Institute court system as a “violent political offender.” Found guilty by the electoral court, the congressman currently lives under the threat of becoming ineligible to run for any public office in the future. At any point, the Institute could bar him from future candidacy. To add insult to injury, he has been forced to issue a public apology drafted for him by the court and to post a summary of his conviction on Twitter for 15 days at two set times per day.
An environmentalist who has based his career off of eschewing violence, the former presidential candidate and longstanding politician has run out of avenues for justice in Mexico. Last Friday, Quadri appealed for his case to be heard by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. As a party to the American Convention on Human Rights, Mexico may be sanctioned by the Inter-American system’s human-rights procedures. As Quadri states, “In standing up for my right to free speech, I am fighting for the free speech rights of my constituents, and those of every Mexican.” Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right belonging to every person, and the silencing of political leaders creates a culture of fear throughout society. If elected representatives aren’t free to debate the issues of our time, what hope is there for everyone else?
Like many a concerned citizen the world over, in taking to Twitter, what Quadri did was seek open conversation on a highly relevant matter of serious societal importance. He committed no crime and endorsed no violence. His case mirrors that of Finnish member of Parliament, Päivi Räsänen, charged with the “crime” of hate speech that carried with it a two-year prison sentence. A longstanding civil servant, medical doctor, and grandmother, Räsänen has been subjected to three years of onerous legal proceedings for a 2019 tweet expressing her views on marriage and sexuality.
Let us not forget that in some parts of the world, you can be sentenced to death for what you post online. In Nigeria, Rhoda Ya’u Jatau is on trial for blasphemy charges after sharing a message condemning the brutal killing of Deborah Yakubu, who was stoned to death for her Christian faith last May. Blasphemy carries with it a potential sentence of death in Nigeria. Also, upcoming at the Supreme Court of Nigeria is the appeal of Sufi musician Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, who is currently on death row for a blasphemy conviction after sharing song lyrics on the messaging platform WhatsApp.
While the consequences may vary, what these cases have in common is the dark underlying thread of totalitarian repression. Governments are weaponizing the law to stamp out speech that fails to comport with their “approved” worldview. It is imperative that we shine a spotlight on the repressive regimes under which you can be deprived of your most basic human rights for what you say online. Without free speech there can be no freedom, and everyone should be free to voice their opinions without fear of punishment.
Ed. Note: The following piece, written by ADF International's Legal Communications Director, Elyssa Koren, originally appeared at National Review
The U.K. May Soon Restrict Pro-Life Speech
By Elyssa Koren — December 5, 2022
The ‘buffer zone’ law currently being debated in Parliament is an assault on Britons’ fundamental freedoms. It should scare pro-lifers the world over.
Abortion activists abroad are pressing forward into a foreboding new frontier: weaponizing the law to limit what you can do, say, or even think on public streets surrounding abortion clinics. Their efforts represent a kind of censorship that violates not only the right to free expression, but also the innermost sanctum of free thought.
Despite the American movement’s historic victory in the Dobbs case, in many parts of the world, it is growing more difficult, and sometimes even dangerous, to hold pro-life views. In the United Kingdom, praying in front of an abortion clinic could soon land you in jail for up to two years. Parliament is currently debating a sweeping “buffer zone” law that would restrict speech within a certain distance of the country’s abortion clinics. In a frantic effort to shore up abortion access at the expense of basic human rights, the law would impose a broad ban on “informing,” “advising,” “influencing,” “persuading,” and even “expressing an opinion” around places where women can obtain an abortion.
One need only look to the places where buffer zones already have taken root in the U.K. to understand what’s at stake. Five local councils have set up these zones, with street signs eerily demarcating the areas where free speech is restricted, listing illegal activities ranging from outright protesting to quiet prayer. Per the signs, if you have the audacity to kneel, sprinkle holy water, or cross yourself while praying too close to an abortion clinic, you’ll soon find yourself a criminal under the law.
Lest so-called buffer zones be confused with rightful means of keeping women safe, it should be pointed out that existing U.K. law includes very clear protections for women. Harassment is obviously illegal in the U.K., and authorities have the full power to protect women from it, including when they are near an abortion facility. The reality is that buffer zones have nothing to do with harassment, and are entirely disconnected from valid and welcome efforts to protect women from harm. What buffer zones do is crush civil liberties, and prevent pro-lifers from making genuine offers of help to women entering abortion clinics.
As debate over the new law mounts in Parliament, the U.K. has seen a surge of pro-life censorship in places with existing buffer zones. On November 24, 2022, women in Bournemouth, England, were confronted by local authorities for praying quietly together on a public street near an abortion clinic. Livia Tossici and her friend were urged to move on by “community safety officers” tasked with patrolling for violations of Bournemouth’s buffer-zone law. While the women were well outside the 150-meter zone in which prayer is legally prohibited, the officers deemed the women precariously close to the zone, and also noted concerns about their proximity to a local school.
This is but one example of a disturbing trend: the criminalization of public prayer in the U.K. Just last year, grandmother Rosa Lalor was arrested under Covid-lockdown laws for praying silently while out for a walk near an abortion facility. What’s happening in the U.K. provides irrefutable real-time evidence of the dangers of government censorship. It is a warning for us all.
Buffer zones, while absurd in and of themselves (as evidenced by the experience of the Bournemouth women), give rise to even greater legal absurdities, because they lack a logical end point. In Bournemouth, it’s now suspect to join together in quiet prayer beyond the perimeter of a restricted zone. What’s to stop that zone from being expanded to cover the entire town? Today, it’s an abortion facility, but tomorrow, it could be municipal buildings or shopping centers.
The freedoms of thought and expression are foundational to a free society, and buffer zones violate them. Moreover, they inevitably give rise to a culture of silencing and surveillance. Tell people when, where, and how they are allowed to express themselves and you’re well on your way to a robust dictatorship.
Should the U.K. move to roll out national buffer zones by passing the proposed new law, the societal cost will be immense. For those committed to praying for and showing a better path to women considering abortion, violating the law would constitute a crime, carrying with it a penalty of up to two years in prison. Many pregnant women would be deprived of the diverse offers of substantive assistance the pro-life community provides. And society at large would suffer a devastating blow to the fundamental freedoms inalienable to us all. As aptly put by Lord Michael Farmer of the House of Lords, “presented as a small and necessary step to protect women outside abortion centers, [this proposal] is, in fact, a giant and unnecessary leap away from our hard-fought civil liberties”.
While this fight is an ocean away for now, Americans should not complacently assume that our First Amendment safeguards against this happening here next. In fact, if the U.K. leads the charge in the policing of thought crimes, we can be sure abortion activists will try something similar here in the U.S. As we navigate the storm of post-Roe America, we must be unyielding in our defense of all human rights, vigilantly safeguarding the fundamental freedoms that allow us to debate and discuss abortion — and to pray for a pro-life future.
Ed. Note: The following piece, written by ADF International legal counsel Sean Nelson, originally appeared at National Review
Song Lyrics Shouldn’t Get You the Death Penalty
By Sean Nelson — November 19, 2022
A Nigerian musician sentenced to death for musical ‘blasphemy’ is challenging his country’s law.
In March 2020, a Nigerian Sufi musician named Yahaya Sharif-Aminu was arrested in Kano State, in northwest Nigeria, for allegedly committing blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed. His crime? He had shared on social media song lyrics expressing the beliefs of his branch of Sufism. A mob assembled in response and burned down his house. He had no legal representation for his trial. Five months later, the local sharia judge found him guilty and declared, “I hereby sentence him to death by hanging.”
But now, Sharif-Aminu is challenging the blasphemy law under which he was convicted in what could be a groundbreaking case for freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Last week, he filed an appeal with the Nigerian supreme court, calling for the blasphemy law enshrined in Section 382(b) of the Kano State Sharia Penal Code to be ruled unconstitutional under Nigerian law. It is the first time such a blasphemy law has been challenged at the highest court in Nigeria. If he is successful, the case could have worldwide repercussions.
Nigeria is one of seven countries in the world — including Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, and Saudi Arabia — with criminal-blasphemy laws for which you can be sentenced to death. These laws exist in the twelve northern Nigerian states, which incorporated sharia into their criminal codes 20 years ago. These are majority-Muslim states, in contrast to the largely Christian south. Kano State’s law requires the death penalty for any Muslim who “publicly insults” or “demonstrates any form of contempt or abuse against the Holy Qur’an or any prophet.”
Northern Nigeria’s blasphemy laws violate not only international law, but also the Nigerian constitution, and should be deemed unlawful by the country’s supreme court. The Nigerian constitution protects the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion, and expression, including the ability to “receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” Notably, while the constitution permits sharia, it only allows for its use in personal-law matters, such as marriage. Kano State’s blasphemy law, by contrast, allows for no theological diversity among Muslims and could be used to target converts to other religions, such as Christianity, or those who have become atheists.
Sharif-Aminu’s lawyer, Kola Alapinni, spoke to me after filing the notice of appeal to the supreme court: “How in the world did it take twenty-two years for this law to be challenged, for us to get where we are? But now, Yahaya is in high spirits.”
The law also flies in the face of Nigeria’s commitments to upholding international treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As stated by six United Nations human-rights experts and bodies who wrote to the Nigerian government on Sharif-Aminu’s case, “No one should be prosecuted for the mere peaceful manifestation or expression of his or her opinions or belief,” and international law prohibits “any form of criminalization of blasphemy.”
Furthermore, 17 country-members of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance recently called for the end of the death penalty for any activity labeled as “blasphemy.” And the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has cited Nigeria’s blasphemy laws as one of the reasons it lists Nigeria among the worst countries for violations of religious freedom.
Sharif-Aminu’s supreme-court appeal comes at a precipitous time in Nigeria’s history. The upcoming 2023 elections have seen controversy over the selection by one of the major political parties of a “Muslim-Muslim” ticket, in contrast to the far more common Muslim–Christian tickets, where the presidential candidate is of one faith, and the vice-presidential candidate of another. The lynching of a Christian student, Deborah Yakubu, in Sokoto State in May of this year after accusations of blasphemy made both national and international headlines, revealing the state of religious tensions in the country.
The Nigerian Supreme Court now has the chance to take a significant step toward easing these tensions and pave the way for other jurisdictions that criminalize blasphemy with death. Nigeria is a highly religiously and ethnically diverse country of over 200 million individuals, with the largest GDP in Africa. Blasphemy laws only lead to greater sectarianism and violence, stymieing development and progress — sadly what is happening in Nigeria. But respect for the rule of law, constitutionalism, and diversity of faith, belief, and opinion instead encourages the mutual understanding and peaceful resolution of conflict necessary for a country to thrive.
The Nigerian supreme court now has a choice it must make. No one should be punished, much less killed, for the peaceful expression of their opinions and their faith. By overturning these harsh blasphemy laws, Nigeria can show that it is an international leader in working to bring different faiths together, rather than a nation trapped in a cycle of violence.