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U.S. State Department Refuses to Put Pakistan on Watch List, Despite Religious Liberty Abuses

In its newly released International Religious Freedom Report for 2014, the U.S. State Department has once again failed to place Pakistan on the list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC), despite its status as one of the worst violators of religious freedom in the world.

The State Department report acknowledges a “general failure” on the part of the Pakistani government “to investigate, arrest, or prosecute those responsible for religious freedom abuses,” and that this dereliction of duty “promoted an environment of impunity that fostered intolerance and acts of violence.”

Nonetheless, the State Department has doggedly refused to place Pakistan on its list of the worst violators of religious freedom. The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act calls for the president to make CPC designations annually for countries that have “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” The Act also calls for the president to take various actions against such countries.

By contrast, the independent, bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), in its 2015 report, stated bluntly that “Pakistan represents one of the worst situations in the world for religious freedom for countries not currently designated by the U.S. government as ‘countries of particular concern.’”

Noting that Pakistan’s “repressive blasphemy laws” continue to “violate religious freedoms and to foster a climate of impunity,” the USCIRF recommended to the State Department that Pakistan be designated a “country of particular concern,” a move it has been pushing since 2002. That recommendation has once again fallen on deaf ears.

Moreover, this past week, the international news agency Fides reported that in 2014, Pakistan had registered a new record of more than 1,400 recorded cases of blasphemy.

Pakistan is home to some of the most severe blasphemy laws in the world, where freedom of speech is severely curtailed. Those guilty of “defiling the Prophet Muhammad” face the death penalty, while life imprisonment is given for damaging the Qur’an. “Insulting another’s religious feelings” can result in up to ten years in jail.

Islam is the official state religion in Pakistan, and its Constitution states, “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam” (art. 19, emphasis added).

Human rights groups increasingly assert that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are easily abused by extremists. False charges are often brought against minority groups to settle personal scores or even to seize property or businesses.

USCIRF reports that Pakistan’s selective and often arbitrary enforcement of the blasphemy law exceeds that of any other nation, and is often used to target Christians and other religious minorities. Accusations of blasphemy have also served as a pretext to incite mob violence, with people acting as vigilantes and taking the law into their own hands.

Pakistani Christians have long protested the lack of government protection from terrorist attacks and religious persecution. A Taliban attack on two Christian churches in March resulted in the death of at least 14 people, with many dozens wounded. A lack of police presence was credited with abetting the violence.

According to eyewitnesses, “Some of the policemen who were supposed to be guarding these churches were in a bar watching a cricket match instead.”

Last November, a Christian couple was beaten and burned alive in a brick kiln by a Muslim mob in the wake of rumors that they had burned pages from the Qur’an.

The couple had been kidnapped and held hostage for two days inside the clay-baking factory where they worked. The two were beaten severely and finally pushed into the brick kiln. The wife was pregnant.

According to one report, as the Christian couple was burning and protesting their innocence, the mob was shouting, “Allah hu Akbar,” “Death to blasphemers,” and “Kill the infidel Christians,” at which Christian residents nearby fled their homes to safety.

One wonders how many more will have to die before the U.S. State Department deigns to recognize Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” regarding religious freedom.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.

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