The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is answering the recently released State Department report on the status of religious liberty worldwide. It’s praising the bulls eyes, but urging a stronger condemnation of countries, including Pakistan, that persistently allow grave violations of religious freedom.
Both the State Department and the USCIRF employ the designation of “Countries of Particular Concern” (in lieu of the earlier “watch list”) to describe those governments that “engage in or tolerate” systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.
In a press release Wednesday, USCIRF chairman Robert P. George acknowledged the State Department’s current nine CPC designations, while urging it to enlarge its list to comprise other glaring offenders of religious liberty.
“We also urge the State Department to further expand its CPC list to reflect the severe violations occurring in other countries, such as Pakistan, which USCIRF has called the worst situation in the world for religious freedom for countries not currently designated by the U.S. government as CPCs,” George said.
In its International Freedom Report (IRF), the U.S. State Department currently recognizes nine countries as CPCs, a number that the bipartisan USCIRF considers deficient. It recommends eight additional designations: Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, and Vietnam.
Of these, however, USCIRF is pushing particularly hard on the question of Pakistan, which it considers to be an especially flagrant example of religious freedom abuses.
“The just-released IRF Report leaves no doubt that the egregious nature of the violations in Pakistan warrant a CPC designation,” George said.
“Now that the IRF Report has been released, the next step is for the State Department to promptly designate the worst violators as CPCs and to leverage those designations to press for much-needed reforms in those countries,” he said.
The State Department report does acknowledge 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.”
Nevertheless, the State Department has persistently refused to place Pakistan on its list of the worst violators of religious freedom despite constant prodding from the USCIRF since 2002.
By contrast, USCIRF, in its 2015 report, noted straightforwardly the grievous situation of religious freedom in Pakistan, once again designating it as a CPC.
Last 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 truncated. Those guilty of “defiling the Prophet Muhammad” face the death penalty, while life imprisonment is conferred for damaging the Qur’an. “Insulting another’s religious feelings” can result in jail sentences up to ten years.
USCIRF reported that Pakistan’s selective and often arbitrary enforcement of blasphemy laws 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 vigilante violence, with lynch mobs 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.
In 2014, a young Christian couple were burned to death by a Muslim mob in the Punjab province, after having been accused of committing blasphemy.
They were kidnapped, held hostage for two days and then beaten and pushed into a brick kiln. The wife was pregnant.
The blasphemy charge was later found to be spurious, motivated by personal interest, but the couple was already dead.
Until now, the State Department has seemed unwilling to recognize the grave religious freedom abuses in a number of Muslim-dominated countries that the USCIRF considers CPCs: Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Tajikistan.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome