A disputed reckoning

May 07, 2023

A US report says religious persecution is increasing in Pakistan; proposes targeted sanctions

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he latest report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom categorises Pakistan, along with some other countries including the neighbouring India, as a country of particular concern.

The annual report says the religious freedom situation in Pakistan has deteriorated over the previous months.

The USCIRF, a bipartisan entity of the US government, monitors the situation of religious freedoms worldwide. Its latest report says that over the last year religious minorities and marginalised sections of the society faced frequent attacks and threats like accusations of blasphemy, targeted killing, lynching, mob violence, forced conversion, sexual violence against women and girls and desecration of places of worship and cemeteries. The report says that the country’s blasphemy laws have emboldened radical religious groups, which operate with impunity, openly targeting religious minorities and those with differing beliefs.

It says, “Members of the Shi’a Muslim, Ahmadiyya… Christian, Hindu and Sikh communities faced the continued threat of persecution via harsh and discriminatory legislation, such as anti-Ahmadiyya and blasphemy laws, as well as increasingly aggressive societal discrimination amid a rise in radical Islamist influence.”

It says, “The new government under Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, which took office in April, weaponised the country’s blasphemy laws against former prime minister Imran Khan and his cabinet members.”

It says, “Blasphemy cases remained a significant threat to religious freedom, as did the sort of mob violence that has long accompanied such accusations.”

The commission has re-designated Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” for what it calls systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act. This designation requires that the waiver releasing the administration from taking otherwise legislatively mandated action be lifted. The commission aims to enter into a binding agreement with the government of Pakistani under Section 405(c) of IRFA to encourage substantial steps to address religious freedom violations with benchmarks.

The commission has suggested that targeted sanctions be imposed Pakistan government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom. This could include freezing the assets of these individuals and/ or barring their entry into the US under human rights-related financial and visa authorities, citing specific religious freedom violations. The commission has stressed the need for the US Congress to incorporate religious freedom concerns into its policy making decisions.

The report says radical religious groups are allowed to operate with impunity, openly targeting religious minorities and those with differing beliefs.

The commission has suggested that the US Congress incorporate religious freedom concerns into its larger oversight of the US-Pakistan bilateral relationship through hearings, letters and congressional delegations. The commission has also advocated the release of Junaid Hafeez, Asif Pervaiz, Notan Lal, Zafar Bhatti and Aneeqa Ateeq, designated as prisoners of conscience.

The government of Pakistan has responded by describing the findings and recommendations as “unilateral” and “detached from ground realities.“ It has pointed out that religious freedom and minority rights are guaranteed by the Constitution of Pakistan and implemented through legislative and administrative measures.

The US has long described Pakistan’s stability and security as a foreign policy priority. Islamabad has received more than $32 billion in US assistance over the last two decades, including aid following the 2022 floods and assistance to combat the Covid-19 epidemic.

In October, it hosted Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, the outgoing chief of army staff, weeks after announcing plans to move forward with a $450 million deal to support the Pakistani Air Force’s F-16 programme.

The USCIRF report states that on November 30, the US Department of State re-designated Pakistan as a country of particular concern. However, as in previous years, it also issued a national interest waiver that exempted Pakistan from sanctions or other significant penalties.

The report for 2023 designates 17 countries as CPCs. These include China, Russia, North Korea, Syria, Cuba and Iran.

Of the 11 countries placed on the special watch list, nine are Muslim majority countries: Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey and Uzbekistan. The remaining two, Central African Republic and Sri Lanka, have sizable Muslim populations.

During a recent online dialogue hosted by the International Association of Religion Journalists (IARJ) on religious extremism in South Asia, the panel had concluded that religious extremism is on the rise in major countries of the region due to compromised political will and a fearful and polarised media lacking neutrality and facing various forms of censorship.

The writer is a member of staff. He may be reached at vaqargillanigmail.com and waqargillani on Twitter

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