Islamic countries top the list of states which routinely discriminate against and persecute atheists and agnostics as well as members of other religions, according to a newly-released report.
The 2013 Freethought Report was published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) - an organization of religious skeptics, agnostics, and atheists. The study was released ahead of International Human Rights day Tuesday, The Huffington Post reported.
The study covers all 192 United Nations member states and its authors consulted with lawyers and human rights experts from those countries to evaluate the state of religious freedom for the irreligious around the world.
The organization claims that the world systemically discriminates against atheists more than it does against any religion, and that the results show a need for more progressive thinking worldwide about extending religious freedom to the "non-spiritual. "
"This report shows that the overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of atheists and freethinkers although they have signed U.N agreements to treat all citizens equally," said IHEU President Sonja Eggerickx.
Reverend Paul Raushenbush, Huffington Post's Senior Religion Editor, claims that explorations of atheism as part of wider discussions about religious freedom will "be one of the big stories of the 21st century."
The study particularly noted the death sentences for atheism in 13 Muslim or Muslim-majority countries: Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Mauritania, Maldives, Somalia, Sudan, and United Arab Emirates.
According to Raushenbush, "the countries that have the most egregious fines against atheists are also the ones who are very harsh on people converting away from Islam and to Christianity, or against the Bahai people," and that "this is a big problem."
Riots, murders, and other crimes against non-Muslims are common in Islamic countries - particularly against Christians. Last summer, Egyptian Islamists beheaded and shot two Coptic Christians in the same week, one of them a priest. Syrian rebels also are openly waging war against Christians there, and they reportedly captured a Christian town and murdered resident nuns earlier this month. On the large scale, British think tank Civitas warned in 2012 that Christianity in the Middle East is close to extinction.
Closer to home, Muslim authorities continue to threaten a "religious war" over efforts to equalize prayer rights at the Temple Mount, which is Judaism's holy site.
Sectarian fighting between rival Muslim sects is also on the rise, such as in the Sunni-Shi'ite conflict in Syria and in Iraq. Over the past few years, numerous bombings and executions in Iraq have been linked to Sunni-Shi'ite tensions; the Syrian Civil War has mushroomed from local conflicts to an all-out Islamic holy war, with several Syrian rebel factions of Sunni origin hailing from neighboring countries "in the name of Islam."
Elsewhere: Religious Freedom Worldwide?
The study covers all types and sources of discrimination - not just in Islamic countries. For example, African countries were cited as having particularly severe violations against religious freedom. Muslim countries Libya, Egypt, and Morrocco topped the list - as did the Christian nations of Zimbabwe and Eritrea, according to the report.
Even the European Union is suspect; the report names Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Malta and Poland as countries with jail sentences for blasphemy, some for as long as three years. The findings are important for Jewish groups, as they coincide with data indicating a significant upswing in anti-Semitism in general and anti-Semitic violence in particular.
Other countries, like India and the US, have "sociocultural issues" with atheism - though not necessarily with freedom of other religions. India is named as problematic for its reluctance to investigate hate crimes against atheists and agnostics, whereas the US is accused of equating "being religious with being American."
The report also lists the "most" and "least" religious countries in the world.
According to the study the ten "most religious" are: Ghana, Nigeria, Armenia, Fiji, Macedonia, Romania, Iraq, Kenya, Peru, and Brazil. The "least religious" are: Ireland, Australia, Iceland, Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, South Korea, France, Japan, the Czech Republic, and China.