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A student of Shree Kanti Bhairav Gurukul, a school of Hindu religion, offers prayers at the school campus on the outskirts of Katmandu, Nepal, Saturday, Aug. 25, 2012. Young boys join at the age of 4 or 5 and stay in the school until they leave as priests or a Hindu scholar. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)

10 countries that can execute or jail you for being a non-believer


In the Western world, people are pretty much free to pursue any religion they please -- or increasingly more often, to follow none at all. But in dozens of countries elsewhere it's against the law not to embrace the official or mainstream faith, or to leave that faith (apostasy), or to speak out against it (blasphemy).

In those places, being a non-believer can get you legally imprisoned, beaten, flogged, and even killed.

Here are 10 nations cited by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom as "countries of particular concern," where apostasy and blasphemy can lead to imprisonment or even execution.

A Buddhist monk shows a message written in his palm while speaking through a megaphone during a protest against the ethnic minority Rohingyas in Myanmar during a visit of Myanmar's President Thein Sein in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, July 24, 2012. Communal violence is grinding on in western Myanmar six weeks after the government declared a state of emergency there, and Muslim Rohingyas are increasingly being hit with targeted attacks that have included killings, rape and physical abuse, Amnesty International said last week. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)


Despite significant improvements to its human rights record, the overwhelmingly Buddhist nation of Myanmar, also known as Burma, still outlaws insulting or defaming religion. 

What's its problem?

Though last year's general elections marked an end to Myanmar's military dictatorship, the government recently enacted four discriminatory "race-and-religion" bills that target the religious customs of the Rohingya, a small Muslim sect.

How are the laws enforced?

In March 2015, three nightclub managers were sentenced to two-and-a-half years of hard labor for violating Myanmar's religion act after posting an online advertisement depicting Buddha wearing headphones.

Uighur ethnic minority worshipers take part in Friday noon prayers in Urumqi, China, Friday, July 17, 2009. Security in Urumqi has tightened ahead of Friday Muslim prayers with riot police and paramilitary soldiers patrolling the streets of the city. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel)


China has removed crosses and bulldozed churches and continues to implement an occasionally violent suppression of its Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists.

What's its problem?

The Chinese government carries a deep and sometimes deadly suspicion of people who represent politically undesirable religious groups. Last July, when authorities conducted raids on human rights defenders and religious freedom advocates, nearly 300 people were arrested, detained or just disappeared.

How are the laws enforced?

When the Buddhist leader Tenzin Delek Rinpoche died in prison last July while serving a 20-year sentence for "separatism and terrorism," his supporters, who maintained he was falsely accused, suspected foul play. There were reports that police opened fire on a group of mourners who gathered in his memory.

Orthodox worshippers originally from Eritrea dance outside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, during Orthodox Christmas celebrations in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, early Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)


This East African nation's government is one of the world's most repressive regimes, responsible for torture, ill-treatment of religious prisoners, arbitrary arrests and detentions without charges.

What's its problem?

The Eritrean government chooses the nation's Muslim leader and suppresses the religious activities of all those who oppose his rule. The situation is particularly grave for Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses.

How are the laws enforced?

Eritrea's Constitution, which was ratified in 1997, provides for freedom of religion, but that constitutional right has never been implemented or enforced. Instead, religious persecution is so bad that an estimated 6 percent of Eritrea's population has fled the country during the past two years.

Iranian worshippers perform their Friday prayer at the Tehran University campus in Tehran, Iran, Friday, April 29, 2016. Iranians voted Friday in the country's parliamentary runoff elections, a key polling that is expected to decide exactly how much power moderate forces backing President Hassan Rouhani will have in the next legislature. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)


Shiite Islam is the predominant religion of Iran, whose constitution states that all laws must be based on the official Shiite interpretation of Shariah law.

What's its problem?

Relying on its own interpretation of Islam, the Iranian government subjects its people - from Shiite, Sunni and Sufi Muslim dissenters to Baha'is and Christian converts - to harassment, arrest and imprisonment. Some citizens have even been sentenced to death for "enmity against God" - or blasphemy

How are the laws enforced?

According to the U.S. State Department, at least 24 people were executed in Iran in 2014 on charges of "enmity against God." Last fall, Iranian courts decided that activist Soheil Arabi must spend seven years in prison for "insulting the Prophet" on Facebook, and must prove his faith and knowledge of Islam in monthly meetings. This was an improvement over his earlier sentence: death.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves at a parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015. Kim declared that his country was ready to stand up to any threat posed by the United States as he spoke at the lavish military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the North's ruling party and trumpet his third-generation leadership. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)

North Korea

Because North Korea is a closed society, it's hard to know just how many religious prisoners are held there, but it's estimated that thousands of believers and their families are imprisoned in the country's labor camps.

What's its problem?

For decades, North Korea has indoctrinated its people to worship the ruling Kim family as their supreme leaders, leaving no room for the expression of any kind of individualized thought, including religion.

How are the laws enforced?

The North Korean government controls all political and religious expression and actively punishes anyone who questions the regime. People who engage in religious activities are subject to arrest, torture, imprisonment and execution if they're caught. In 2013, North Koreans caught possessing Bibles were executed by firing squad in a stadium filled with 10,000 people.

A Muslim pilgrim prays as she circumambulate the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, during the minor pilgrimage, known as Umrah, in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, March 10, 2016,. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is one of the world's wealthiest nations and a close trading partner of the United States, but its government continues to use charges of apostasy and blasphemy to silence dissidents. Both crimes are punishable by death.

What's its problem?

Saudi Arabia's national religion is a state-defined version of Sunni Islam. The government does not allow any other religions or belief systems - including atheism, which the government deemed in March 2014 to be a form of terrorism that can be punishable by death.

How are the laws enforced?

In November 2014, a Saudi court sentenced Mikhlif al-Shammari, a Sunni writer and activist, to two years in prison and 200 lashes for promoting reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite Muslims through social media. A year later, Ashraf Fayadh, a Saudi poet and artist, was sentenced to death for apostasy - questioning religion through his poetry.

Sudanese Christians hold Christmas mass in Khartoum, Sudan, Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Abd Raouf)


The predominantly Muslim nation of Sudan has suffered years of continuous internal conflict and is one of the top exporters of refugees and asylum seekers in the world.

What's its problem?

In 2005, Sudan's Interim National Constitution mandated religious freedom. But the government's criminal code is based on Shariah law, and Sudanese authorities engage in widespread religious discrimination.

How are laws enforced?

Apostasy is punishable by death, and blasphemy is punishable by six months in jail, flogging or a fine. In 2014, Sudan sentenced a 27-year-old pregnant woman to hang for apostasy for refusing to renounce her family and the Christian faith in which she was raised.

Priests carry the casket containing the remains of Paul Emile Nzale, a priest who was killed during the attack of Fatima's Church last Wednesay, during his funeral at the Cathedral in Bangui, Central African republic Thursday June 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Central African Republic 

Since 2013, when a coup led to merciless sectarian fighting between Christians and Muslims, 80 percent of this nation's Muslim population has fled to neighboring countries, and 417 of the country's 436 mosques have been destroyed.

What's its problem?

The coup resulted in the collapse of government control, and sectarian violence has only escalated since. Last year, more than 1 million refugees and migrants attempted a perilous Mediterranean crossing or sought other avenues to apply for asylum in Europe.

How are the laws enforced?

Last September, in the capital of Bangui, a Muslim taxi driver was killed and his body was left near a mosque in the city's Muslim enclave. Violence erupted, leaving 77 dead and 40,000 displaced. Continuing violence through mid-November left more than 100 dead.

FILE - In this Tuesday, March 24, 2015 file photo, Afghan women, demand justice for a woman who was beaten to death by a mob after being falsely accused of burning a Quran last week, during a protest in downtown Kabul, Afghanistan. A leading international rights group on Thursday, March 10, 2016 slammed Afghanistan's justice system over the case of a woman beaten to death by a frenzied mob last year, saying the system had bitterly failed Farkhunda when it cut the sentences of the 13 men convicted of her murder. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)


Freedom of religion has been protected in this predominantly Sunni country since 2002, following the U.S.-led invasion that kicked out the Taliban. 

But while the Afghan constitution says people are free to exercise their faith, it also states that, "No law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam." Blasphemy and apostasy remain crimes that are punishable by death under Afghanistan's Islamic law.

What's its problem?

You can live in Afghanistan and not practice Islam, but the danger comes when the public is told that a Muslim has stopped believing. In most areas of the country, strict Islamic law still governs, and sometimes people take the law into their own hands.

How are the laws enforced?

Last year, in an incident that was recorded on cellphones, a mob beat a woman named Farkhunda Malikzada to death for allegedly burning a Quran, and then police watched as her body was set on fire. Public outrage prompted the Afghan court to indict 49 people, including 19 police officers, eight of whom had their cases thrown out. The other 11 were given the lightest penalty possible - to refrain from traveling and to continue working their assigned districts. Four men were convicted of murder, but their sentences were overturned. Malikzada's family, fearing the killers would be released, fled the country.

Nurmala Hutapea prays during Christmas advent services at her church in a Jakarta office building on Sunday, Dec. 19, 2004. Many Indonesian Christians have makeshift services in offices or shopping malls as it is difficult to obtain permits to build churches in the world's most populous Muslim nation. (AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett)


More than 87 percent of the nearly 256 million people in Indonesia identify as Muslim, giving the island nation the largest Muslim population of any country in the world.

What's its problem?

Radical Muslim groups perpetrate discrimination and violence against Indonesia's religious minorities, usually Christians and non-Sunni Muslims whose practice of Islam falls outside what the groups consider an acceptable faith. Typically, the attacks are isolated and localized in certain provinces.

How are the laws enforced?

Last October, protesters in Indonesia's Aceh Singkil District demanded the local government close 10 of the district's churches. Perceiving the government to be acting too slowly, a mob reported to number in the hundreds set fire to two of the churches, and one man was killed.

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