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Blasphemy laws in the Commonwealth

As of 2019, 79 countries globally had laws or policies banning blasphemy. This includes speech or actions considered to be insulting, contemptuous or showing lack of reverence for God or sacred things.

According to the Pew Research Trust, there were 26 Commonwealth states with blasphemy laws in 2019 (46% of its 56 members). In some countries, including Pakistan, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados, these laws date back to their period under British rule. The attached briefing provides a table listing Commonwealth states with blasphemy laws.

In 2021, the US State Department reported that those actively enforcing laws included Bangladesh, Brunei, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Those not enforcing these laws included member states in the Caribbean.

Commonwealth countries that have recently repealed blasphemy laws include New Zealand (2019)42F and Malta (2016).

The below section provides a background to blasphemy laws in five states.


There is no specific blasphemy law, but the US State Department reports that authorities use elements of the country’s penal code and telecommunication laws to charge those perceived to be criticising Islam.

Brunei Darussalam

In 2013, Brunei Darussalam created a new penal code which imposes the death penalty for some blasphemy cases, as well as other restrictions on religious freedom including against propagating any religion other than Islam. The code came into force in 2019. A moratorium on the death penalty was adopted the same year.

The country’s government has long enforced the Sharia Penal Code, which states offences such as blasphemy and apostasy are punishable by corporal and capital punishment. The US State Department says the death penalty has not been applied in these cases since 1957 but there have been some instances of caning as a punishment. It reports fears that the laws can be used to constrain non-Muslim group activities.


India’s constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion. The country’s penal code, however, also criminalises “promoting enmity” between different groups on religious grounds and “deliberate and malicious acts” intended to “outrage religious feelings…by insulting” religion or belief.

In 2021 there were reports of several individuals being arrested for making comments considered offensive to Hinduism, both online and in other settings. Muslims and Christians were among those arrested. Communal violence also occurred in some cases.


While Nigeria’s constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression, its criminal code makes it an offence to insult religion. The NGO Human Rights Watch report that allegations of blasphemy by Muslims against Christians or other Muslims often trigger violence.

There have been reported deadly riots involving allegations of blasphemy in 1994, 2002, 2007, 2021 and 2022.

Twelve states in Northern Nigeria have Islamic courts that also consider blasphemy an offence punishable by death. There have been reports that courts have imposed such sentences in both 2015 and 2020.

In August 2022, a northern Nigerian court ruled that these laws do not violate the country’s constitution.


Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were first introduced under British rule in 1860 but expanded by Pakistan’s military government in the 1980s. Rights groups have reported affected groups have included Muslims, Ahmadis, Christians, and Hindus. There has been domestic discussion on reform, but the laws remain.

In 2020 the UK Government cited examples of blasphemy charges being used against academic and religious communities. The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority also targeted websites allegedly containing blasphemous content. Ahmadi Muslims were particularly affected.

In 2022, the Commons International Development Committee, in its report on UK aid to Pakistan, said that the laws are “frequently misused to settle personal disputes and to target religious minorities.” Those accused were often subject to “mob justice.”

Blasphemy can carry the death penalty, but reportedly none have been executed due to many being acquitted by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. At least 199 people were charged with blasphemy in 2020.

UK policy on Freedom of Religion or Belief (ForB)

At the 2018 CHOGM, Commonwealth Leaders affirmed their commitment to FoRB as “essential for democracy and sustainable development.”

The UK Government says it is “deeply concerned” about the use of blasphemy laws, and regularly applies diplomatic pressure to countries that use them. It has raised concerns with the Governments of India, Pakistan, and Nigeria, for example.

In 2020 Fiona Bruce MP was appointed the UK Special Envoy for ForB.

In July 2022, the UK hosted an international conference on FoRB. Thirty countries joined the UK in signing up to statements. Participating Commonwealth members included Australia, Canada, and Kenya. 

Statements included those committing signatories to speak out bilaterally and through international organisations to raise FoRB issues and strengthen the capacity of those seeking to defend FoRB.

To mark the conference, the UK announced £500,000 to provide legal support to areas where FoRB is under pressure.

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