WASHINGTON: More than 700 people have been killed in sectarian attacks in Pakistan during the past 18 months, says a US report released on Thursday.

The findings “paint a grim and challenging picture for the new government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif,” warns the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which conducted the study.

The commission urges Islamabad to take “concrete, resolute action” to curb religious violence and emphasises the need to “ensure that perpetrators of violence are arrested, prosecuted and jailed”.

The findings are based on 203 publicly-reported incidents resulting in more than 1,800 casualties, including over 700 deaths.

“The findings are sobering,” says the commission while once again urging the Sharif government not to shy away from punishing groups and individuals responsible for these attacks if it wants to stem the rising tide of violent religious extremism.“The Shia community bore the brunt of attacks from militants and terrorist organisations, with some of the deadliest attacks occurring during holy months and pilgrimages,” the report notes.

The commission, which is a bipartisan US federal government body created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, monitors religious freedom across the world and also publishes an annual report. But the statistics on Pakistan are from a special project it initiated for monitoring religious violence in the country.

“While Shias are more at risk of becoming victims of suicide bombings and targeted shootings, the already poor religious freedom environment for Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus has continued to deteriorate, with a number [of] violent incidents occurring against members of these communities,” says the report.

Between January 2013 and June 2013, there have been 77 attacks on the Shias, 54 against Ahmadis, 37 against Hindus, one against Sikhs and 16 against other groups.

As many as 635 Shias have been killed in these attacks while 834 have been injured.

The Ahmadis are second on the list with 22 dead and 39 injured. The Christians are third with 11 dead and 36 injured. Two Hindus were also killed and four injured. The Sikhs lost one person while other groups lost 46 people.

The report notes that while banned militant groups and private citizens are responsible for the majority of attacks on religious communities, “government actors are not blameless”.

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