Washington D.C., Aug 10, 2016 / 03:10 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Among the biggest threats to religious freedom worldwide are blasphemy laws, the State Department said in its annual religious freedom report, released Wednesday. “I want to highlight this year the chilling, sometimes deadly effect of blasphemy and apostasy laws in many places of the world, as well as laws that purport to protect religious sentiments from defamation,” the Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein said at the release of Wednesday’s report.

Every year, the State Department publishes a report on the state of religious freedom worldwide, as mandated in the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. It documents the religious liberty situation in almost 200 countries and territories, reporting the worst abuses while noting positive steps taken to protect the rights of citizens.

“The purpose of this annual report is not to lecture,” Antony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State, said Wednesday while introducing the report. “It is to inform, to encourage, and ultimately to persuade.” Religious freedom “is written into the founding DNA of the United States, renewing and strengthening our nation with every generation,” he said. “Every country has an obligation to respect religious liberty and freedom of conscience,” he added. “Societies tend to be stronger, wealthier, safer, and more stable when their citizens fully enjoy the rights to which they are entitled.”

The 2015 report, released Wednesday, highlighted the threat posed by blasphemy laws and apostasy laws to the religious freedom and human rights of citizens. Blasphemy laws are particularly pernicious because, in the worst cases, they are punishable by death and may require no evidence or trial to convict, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said. Thus, they have a “chilling, sometimes deadly effect” Ambassador Saperstein explained, because religious minorities are targeted under these laws by mobs acting with impunity. Or minorities are victims of their own government, cracking down on their religious practice under the guise of prohibiting blasphemy.

“Governments have too often failed to take appropriate steps” to stop violence done in the name of these laws, Saperstein continued. “These government failures weaken trust in the rule of law.” Around one-quarter of countries today have blasphemy laws and other laws prohibiting acts like apostasy, Ambassador Saperstein said, citing a recent Pew Research report. Pakistan has the highest number of blasphemy convictions worldwide, most notably in the case of Asia Bibi, a mother of five who was accused by a neighbor of insulting the prophet Mohammed in 2009, convicted in 2010, and is currently on death row.

“Iran continues to execute prisoners of conscience for their beliefs,” Ambassador Saperstein stated at the press conference introducing the report, noting that at least 20 persons charged with “enmity against God” were executed in 2015, and almost 400 members of minority religions are in jail, including Shi’a Muslim leaders who have spoken out against the government. In Saudi Arabia there are “lengthy prison sentences and lashings” for blasphemy charges, without even a conviction in court, he continued.

The report noted the case of Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh who was sentenced to death stemming from a 2013 arrest for allegedly making “disparaging remarks about Islam.” He had previously been sentenced to eight years in prison and 800 lashes. The report also pointed to the continued atrocities inflicted on religious minorities in 2015 by “non-state actors” like the terror groups Boko Haram and Da’esh, or ISIS. The State Department ruled in March that ISIS had committed “genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims.”

Deputy Secretary Blinken noted on Wednesday that “naming these crimes is important. But our goal is to stop them.” The report noted its continued violence towards these groups in 2015 — “including killings, torture, enslavement and trafficking, rape and other sexual abuse against religious and ethnic minorities and Sunnis.” Boko Haram, meanwhile, kept targeting Christians in Nigeria, as well as Muslims who opposed their actions. “Boko Haram claimed responsibility for scores of attacks on churches and mosques, often killing worshippers during religious services or immediately afterward,” the report said.

A “Global Terrorism Index” report published last fall said that Boko Haram “has become the most deadly terrorist group in the world,” killing more people than ISIS. Meanwhile, in Syria, “as the insurgency increasingly became identified with the Sunni majority,” the government “targeted” areas with Sunni Muslims for bombardment. Terror groups like ISIS and al-Nusra continued to attack religious minorities there.

There have been some global signs of hope for religious freedom, however, Saperstein noted. For instance, Iceland “abandoned its 75 year-old blasphemy law.” And when synagogues were threatened with violence in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, youth — including some Muslims — banded together to physically protect the synagogues. Muslims in France “showed their solidarity” with Catholics in attending the funeral Mass of 84 year-old Fr. Jacques Hamel, recently murdered in church in Rouen by ISIS sympathizers, Saperstein noted.

In May of 2015, Muslims protected their Christian neighbors from a mob accusing them of blasphemy. There was also the Marrakesh Declaration calling for “protecting religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries,” signed by hundreds of Muslim leaders. “In closing, the protection and promotion of religious freedom remains a key policy priority for the United States,” Saperstein concluded.