US group calls Pakistan blocking of aid to Christians, Hindus 'reprehensible'

A young girl lights a candle at a Marian Grotto in Pakistan Credit Magdalena Wolnik CNA 12 17 14 A young girl lights a candle at a Marian grotto in Pakistan. | Magdalena Wolnik.

The U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom has called on the Pakistani government to ensure aid for the COVID-19 pandemic is being justly distributed to religious minorities, after receiving reports that aid organizations were barring Christians and Hindus from receiving food assistance.

"These actions are simply reprehensible," USCIRF Commissioner Anurima Bhargava said in an April 13 statement. "As COVID-19 continues to spread, vulnerable communities within Pakistan are fighting hunger and to keep their families safe and healthy. Food aid must not be denied because of one's faith. We urge the Pakistani government to ensure that food aid from distributing organizations is shared equally with Hindus, Christians, and other religions minorities," she said.

According to the commission, recent reports have shown that in Karachi a non-government aid organization, the Saylani Welfare International Trust, has been denying food assistance to Christians and Hindus, telling them that the aid was reserved for Muslims. Pakistan's state religion is Islam, and around 97 percent of the population is Muslim.

The authorities of Pakistan have consistently failed to implement safeguards on behalf of religious minorities, despite numerous policies in favor of economic and physical protections for members of non-Muslim religions.

For example, the country has promised to provide quotas for employment to ensure that religious minorities are granted equal access to jobs, but so far it has not done so.

Additionally, strict blasphemy laws in the country are reportedly used to settle scores or to persecute religious minorities. While non-Muslims constitute only 3 percent of the Pakistani population, 14 percent of blasphemy cases have been levied against them.

In a recent highly publicized case, Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, spent eight years on death row on blasphemy charges after being accused of making disparaging remarks about Muhammad after an argument stemming from a cup of water. Amid strong international pressure, the Pakistan Supreme Court acquitted her in late 2018.

A 2019 report from USCIRF found that Christians and Hindus "face continued threats to their security and are subject to various forms of harassment and social exclusion," the USCIRF statement said.

The country was also designated by the US Department of State as a "Country of Particular Concern" in December 2018 for its poor religious freedom record.

USCIRF Commissioner Johnnie Moore noted in the April 13 statement that in a recent address to the international community, Prime Minister Imran Khan said that governments in developing countries must work to save people from starvation during the coronavirus pandemic.

Pakistan's health ministry has reported nearly 6,000 cases of coronavirus in the country of 212 million people as of April 15.

"This is a monumental task laying before many countries. Prime Minister Khan's government has the opportunity to lead the way but they must not leave religious minorities behind," he said. "Otherwise, they may add on top of it all one more crisis, created by religious discrimination and inter-communal strife."

A March 2020 report from USCIRF noted other countries who have had religious freedom problems in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, including in China, where the virus originated.

According to USCIRF, reports indicated that Chinese authorities forced Uighurs, a Muslim minority that has been forced into concentration camps since 2017, to work in factories to make up for the lack of workers during the country's coronavirus quarantine. Reports also indicated that some Uighur residents in the city of Ghulja had "limited access to food and local officials have demanded payments in order to bring supplies," USCIRF noted.

In South Korea, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a fringe Christian group that reported already facing "hostility" from mainline Protestants before the pandemic, faced additional pressures and harassment from the government and citizens after a 61-year-old female member of the church - known as Patient 31 - attended a church service with a fever before being diagnosed with coronavirus, and thus spreading the infection to thousands of others.

"The Shincheonji church has faced considerable criticism and even harassment from the South Korean government and society. Although some government measures appeared to be driven by legitimate public health concerns, others appeared to exaggerate the church's role in the outbreak," USCIRF reported, adding that members of the church have faced "discrimination at work and spousal abuse because of their affiliation with the church."

Other countries in which coronavirus is reportedly impacting religious freedoms include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Georgia, Italy and the Vatican (for government-mandated cancellation of religious services), the United Arab Emirates, Georgia, and Tajikistan.

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