The United States said on Tuesday it has added Pakistan to its blacklist of countries that violate religious freedom, ramping up pressure over the treatment of minorities in the country.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had designated Pakistan among “countries of particular concern” in a congressionally mandated annual report, meaning the US government is obliged to exert pressure to end freedom violations.
Pompeo a year earlier had placed Pakistan on a special watch list — a step short of the designation — in what had been seen as a US tactic to press Islamabad into reforms.
“In far too many places across the globe, individuals continue to face harassment, arrests or even death for simply living their lives in accordance with their beliefs,” Pompeo said in a statement.
“The United States will not stand by as spectators in the face of such oppression,” he said.
Nine countries remained for another year on the list of Countries of Particular Concern — China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. They are accused of having engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations of religious freedom”.
The US removed one country from the list — Uzbekistan — but kept it on the watch list.
Pompeo also put on the watch list Russia, adding another item of contention to the relationship between the two powers.
Russia has increasingly drawn concern in the US over its treatment of Jehovah's Witnesses, the heterodox Christian group known for proselytization.
Also on the watch list was the Comoros, the Indian Ocean archipelago that is almost exclusively Sunni Muslim.
'Suppression of rights'
In January, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that Pakistan be designated as a “country of concern” because of its alleged “serious violations of religious freedom”.
Although it was a long-standing USCIRF demand, the US State Department had never previously so designated Pakistan, but it does highlight the commission’s findings in its annual reports on religious freedom.
The report for this year complained that religious minorities in Pakistan continued to face attacks from extremist groups and society at large. It also noted that “abusive enforcement of the country’s strict blasphemy laws result[s] in the suppression of rights for non-Muslims, Shia and Ahmedis”.