WASHINGTON: The United Arab Emirates on Thursday joined a US-led call to prevent the abuse of blasphemy laws, which are on the books in much of the Islamic world.
The United Arab Emirates was one of only three Muslim-majority nations along with Albania and Kosovo, both known for moderation, that signed a statement on blasphemy and apostasy laws at the end of a ministerial-level meeting on religious freedom in Washington.
The statement noted that the laws “are often used as a pretext to justify vigilantism or mob violence in the name of religion, or as a pretext to pursue retribution related to personal grievances.”
“We see governments using such laws to wrongfully imprison and punish individuals whose views on matters of religion or belief may differ from official narratives or the views of majority populations,” it said.
“We call on governments that utilize these laws to free any individuals imprisoned on such grounds, and to repeal blasphemy, apostasy and other laws that impede the exercise of freedoms of expression and religion or belief, in a manner inconsistent with international law.”
Blasphemy remains a punishable offense in the United Arab Emirates.
The latest State Department report on religious freedom said, quoting local press, that a court in July 2018 sentenced a man to seven years in prison followed by deportation for a phone message deemed to be blasphemous.
But the United Arab Emirates, a close US ally, has won international praise for recent steps including welcoming Pope Francis in February on the first-ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula.
The United Arab Emirates also held a conference as part of the US religious freedom initiative, a key priority for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Blasphemy is an especially explosive issue in Pakistan, where Christian woman Asia Bibi was sentenced to death and two of her high-profile defenders assassinated before she was able to leave for Canada in May.
Vice President Mike Pence, addressing the ministerial earlier on Thursday, urged Pakistan to free another person jailed for blasphemy, university lecturer Junaid Hafeez.
A total of 20 countries signed the joint statement on blasphemy including the United States, Britain, Italy and Poland.