Foreign Ministry rejects US assessment of religious freedom in Pakistan
The latest annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), has once again designated Pakistan as a country of particular concern (CPC) for its poor situation in terms of faith-based liberty. Islamabad, however, considers the American index “arbitrary and selective”.
The US secretary of state, each year, identifies “governments and non-state actors, who, because of their religious freedom violations, merit designation under the International Religious Freedom Act. In a recent statement, Secretary Antony J Blinken said Pakistan and some other countries were designated CPC for allegedly “having engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom”. The Donald Trump administration had placed Pakistan on this list in December 2018 and retained it in 2020. The Biden administration, which took over in January this year, has also retained it.
Blinken also ‘designated’ China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia for having engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom last week. Other countries like Algeria, Comoros, Cuba and Nicaragua have been placed on a Special Watch List. Simultaneously, a list of entities of particular concern (EPC) has been announced. It includes, among others, Al Shabab, Boko Haram, the ISIS and the Taliban.
The latest USCIRF annual report says that religious freedom conditions in Pakistan continued to worsen in 2020. “The government systematically enforced blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws and failed to protect religious minorities from abuses by non-state actors.” It adds: “There was a sharp rise in targetted killings, blasphemy cases, forced conversions and hate speech targetting religious minorities including Ahmadis, Shia Muslims, Hindus Christians and Sikhs.”
The report says that “Pakistan’s treatment of religious minorities is best assessed through the prism of its treatment of the Ahmadiyya community, who continued to face severe official and societal persecution for their beliefs and self-identification as Muslims.” It reads that Pakistan’s religiously discriminatory legislation, such as the blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, used in combination with new media rules, contributed to egregious human rights abuses and fostered an overall atmosphere of intolerance for religious minorities that often leads to violence and discrimination. In August 2020 alone, it cites, over 40 blasphemy first information reports (FIRs) were registered, mostly targeting the Shia minority during the month of Muharram. Other religious communities were also targetted with blasphemy charges. In 2020, there reportedly were 30 Christians jailed in Pakistan on charges of blasphemy, including seven on death row. The issue of abduction, forced conversion to Islam, rape, and forced marriage remained an imminent threat for religious minority women and children, particularly for those from the Hindu and Christian faiths.
In 2018, Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, an Islamabad High Court judge, directed the government to adopt stricter measures in letting people declare their religion at the time of accepting government jobs and getting official identity documents. The court ruled that citizens must declare their religious affiliation before joining the civil service, military or judiciary. All birth certificates, identity cards, passports and voting lists must also indicate the person’s faith.
Article 27 of the Constitution of Pakistan assures safeguard against discrimination in services. “No citizen otherwise qualified for appointment in the service of Pakistan shall be discriminated against in respect of any such appointment on the ground only of race, religion, caste, sex, residence or place of birth,” the article reads.
“The re-designation of Pakistan is completely against the realities on the ground and raises serious doubts about the credibility of this exercise. It is arbitrary and selective. Pakistani society is multi-religious and pluralistic with a rich tradition of inter-faith harmony. Pakistan believes that redress of the rising trend of intolerance, discrimination, xenophobia, and Islamophobia requires global efforts based on the principles of cooperation and mutual understanding,” says Asim Iftikhar, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson
In December 2019, the Attock assistant commissioner, Jannat Hussain Nekokara, a Muslim by faith, had to apologise after making some comments about equal treatment of citizens including the Ahmadis.
In October this year, the Punjab Assembly passed a resolution recommending addition of the Khatam-i-Nabbuwat oath to marriage (nikah) documents.
A few days ago, Kamran Ahmad, an Ahmadi citizen, was shot dead in Peshawar. In recent months, five Ahmadis have become victims of target killings and religious persecution.
This year, mobs desecrated and attacked a couple of temples in the country. The attacks were followed by the apex court interventions. The number of blasphemy cases, particularly, through cybercrime, is also on the rise. Recently, a blasphemy case was lodged in Rawalpindi against a Christian woman for running a preaching group on WhatsApp. Four Muslims (a man and his three sons) face blasphemy charges for allegedly pressing the local mosque administration to make an announcement regarding the funeral of a Christian neighbour.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has rejected the US State Department’s assessment, saying, “the re-designation of Pakistan is completely against the realities on the ground and raises serious doubts about the credibility of this exercise. It is arbitrary and selective.”
“Pakistani society is multi-religious and pluralistic with a rich tradition of inter-faith harmony,” Asim Iftikhar, the MOFA spokesperson says. He adds that Pakistan believes that “redress of the rising trend of intolerance, discrimination, xenophobia, and Islamophobia requires global efforts based on the principles of cooperation and mutual understanding.”
Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Interfaith Harmony and Middle East Hafiz Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi has also criticised the designation, terming the assessment a “biased decision”. Talking to reporters, he said that the Muttahida Ulema Board, after evolving consensus among stakeholders had rejected the US assessment and called it contrary to the facts. He said the assessment was not in line with the on-ground realities. He said that only two tragic incidents of religious violence had been reported from across the country last year and that these had been followed by quick action by the government.
The USCIRF annual report recommends that the American administration “enter into a binding agreement, under Section 405(c) of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) with the Pakistani government to encourage substantial steps to address religious freedom violations with benchmarks, including the release of prisoners of religious persecution and consider repealing blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws; and until enacting broader reforms make blasphemy a bailable offence, require evidence by accusers, ensure proper investigation by senior police officials, allow authorities to dismiss unfounded accusations and enforce existing Penal Code articles criminalising perjury and false accusations.
The report also urges Pakistan to seriously “address extremist rhetoric often preceding attacks on minorities, while protecting freedom of expression; hold accountable individuals who incite or participate in vigilante violence, targetted killings, forced conversions and other hate crimes. It also calls for reforming public educational textbooks, curriculum, and teacher training materials to ensure that content is inclusive of and not discriminatory toward religious minorities; and remove requirements for self-identification of religion on identity documents.”
On August 11, 1947, founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had declared in a historic address to the Constituent Assembly. “You are free. You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed - that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”
The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @waqargillani