US State Department: Pakistan's religious freedom record a 'particular concern'

US State Department: Pakistan's religious freedom record a 'particular concern'

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Courtesy of the Department of State.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Courtesy of the Department of State.

.- Religious freedom problems in Pakistan have led the US Department of State to designate the country as of “particular concern,” with nine others, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said Tuesday.

“I recognize that several designated countries are working to improve their respect for religious freedom; I welcome such initiatives and look forward to continuing the dialogue,” Pompeo said Dec. 11.

In addition to Pakistan, Pompeo listed Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. This means he believes they have engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, (and) egregious violations of religious freedom.” The designation took place Nov. 28, Pompeo said.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom makes recommendations to the State Department about the list. Its April 2018 report examined religious freedom threats in Pakistan and around the world.

In December 2017, Islamic State group-affiliated suicide bombers attacked a church in Quetta, killing nine people. The run-up to the national elections in July 2018 exacerbated religious tensions in the country. According to the USCIRF report, approximately 40 people sentenced under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were awaiting the death penalty or serving life sentences.

“In far too many places across the globe, individuals continue to face harassment, arrests, or even death for simply living their lives in accordance with their beliefs,” Pompeo said Tuesday. “The United States will not stand by as spectators in the face of such oppression. Protecting and promoting international religious freedom is a top foreign policy priority of the Trump administration.”

“Safeguarding religious freedom is vital to ensuring peace, stability, and prosperity,” he continued. “These designations are aimed at improving the lives of individuals and the broader success of their societies.”

CNA contacted USCIRF for comment but did not receive a response by deadline.

In April, USCIRF Chair Daniel Mark told CNA he was particularly concerned about Pakistan.

“Matters concerning Pakistan are very sensitive on account of the fact that they are a partner of ours in combating terrorism around the world in the war in Afghanistan and so on,” Mark said. “But, given the rise of extremism in Pakistan... we really do think that pressure should be kept up, notwithstanding the cooperation that our two countries need.”

“Pakistan is a world leader in imprisonment and convictions, prosecutions for blasphemy and apostasy, and those sorts of things,” said Mark.

Asia Bibi, a Christian mother and field laborer, was among those facing blasphemy prosecution, spending eight years in prison despite her protestations of innocence. The Pakistan Supreme Court acquitted her of blasphemy charges in late October. The acquittal prompted protests and death threats. Her life is still in danger, as the ruling is under government review as part of a deal to appease groups that were leading riots in the streets.

Bibi’s family has sought asylum for her in the U.S., the U.K., or other countries in Europe. Italy has offered to help her find asylum.

Mark said conditions in Pakistan are bad at the legal level, such as the second-class citizenship treatment of the Ahmadi religious minority. There is also a growing “culture of impunity” in society, with vigilante mobs attacking people on the basis of blasphemy accusations.

Pompeo placed Comoros, Russia, and Uzbekistan on the special watch list for having engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom.” In January the State Department had named Uzbekistan a country of particular concern.

The special watch list is a new designation, created by Congress’ 2016 amendments to the International Religious Freedom Act. Pakistan was first named to the watch list in December 2017.

Another list, entities of particular concern, includes al-Nusra Front, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaida, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, the Islamic State Group, the Islamic State Group in Khorasan, and the Taliban.

Pompeo noted his work as Secretary of State in hosting the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July, which brought together 85 governments and 400 NGOs that aimed to advance religious freedom.

“The United States remains committed to working with governments, civil society organizations, and religious leaders to advance religious freedom around the world,” Pompeo said.