A shocking case in Sudan has returned the anachronistic charge of "apostasy" to the front pages. A Sudanese woman gave birth to her child this week in prison. She has been sentenced to death by hanging under sharia law for having married a Christian man and converted to his religion. The sharia court refused to recognize her marriage so it also convicted her of adultery, with an additional sentence of 100 lashes before her execution. The U.S. and rights groups have condemned the court's verdict and lawyers are still petitioning for clemency.
Apostasy laws remain on the books of a minority of countries -- 11 percent of the world, according to Pew -- most of which happen to be predominantly Muslim. (The map above is from 2012 shows them all--punishments range from fines to loss of citizenship to imprisonment to death.) A host of other nations, including many non-Muslim ones, also maintain blasphemy laws. (See map below.)
The distinction is a complex one: apostasy is equivalent to heresy, an act of betraying or forsaking one's religious community for that of an "enemy" other. Blasphemy, on the other hand, is in theory less a social act and more a direct, profane offense against the divine.
But, in practice, apostasy and blasphemy laws achieve the same effect--the repression of minority religions and the censoring of free expression. Blasphemy laws fuel myriad outrages in Pakistan: after targeting Christians and Hindus, a leading TV station now faces censure.
Many countries that maintain blasphemy laws don't actively prosecute on these old-fashioned grounds. But too many still do.