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WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced on Tuesday that he had added Pakistan to a list of countries that violate religious freedom.

Others on the list include Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. “I designated (these states) as Countries of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations of religious freedom,” Secretary Pompeo said.

Last year, Mr Pompeo had placed Pakistan on a special watch list — a step short of the designation — which is used to persuade the targeted nation into introducing reforms suggested in annual US reports for religious freedom.

Move that may lead to sanctions being seen as part of efforts to persuade Pakistan to bring Taliban to negotiating table

The designation is based on these annual reports and opens the door for further actions, including US economic sanctions. The United States has already imposed strict economic sanctions on Pakistan for its alleged refusal to follow the Trump administration’s Afghan strategy.

The US media insisted that Tuesday’s designation shows Washington’s concerns about the treatment of minorities in Pakistan, including Shias, Ahmadis and Christians.

The media also questioned the timing of the full designation, noting that it came weeks after Pakistan moved to resolve its most high-profile case, releasing Aasia Bibi — a Christian woman on death row for eight years for blasphemy.

Secretary Pompeo said he made the designation on November 28 but it was announced on Tuesday.

“I also placed Comoros, Russia, and Uzbekistan on a Special Watch List for governments that have engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom,” he added. Pakistan was on this watch list for several years.

The designation also includes al-Nusra Front, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaida, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, Isis, Isis-Khorasan, and the Taliban as entities of particular concern.

“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,” Mr Pompeo noted.

“The United States will not stand by as spectators in the face of such oppression. Protecting and promoting international religious freedom is a top foreign policy priority of the Trump administration.”

Since last year, when Pakistan was first informed that it could be declared a violator of religious freedom, Islamabad was quietly trying to avoid the designation.

At one stage, the Pakistani ambassador in Washington was made to believe that the designation could be avoided.

Diplomatic observers, however, believe that Tuesday’s order might also be linked to the US-led efforts to persuade Pakistan to bring Taliban to the negotiating table.

In recent statements, senior US officials have said that they believe Pakistan has enough influence on Taliban leaders to persuade them to conclude a peace deal with the Afghan government, but is refusing to do.

They also accuse Pakistan of continuing to allow Afghan Taliban groups to launch cross-border attacks into Afghanistan, a charge Pakistan strongly denies.

Recently, Pakistan freed some Taliban prisoners on US request to help the Afghan peace process, but apparently that was not enough to satisfy Washington as it decided to put more pressure on Pakistan with the latest designation.

Diplomatic observers in Washington, however, warn that the latest US move could backfire by further isolating Pakistan. They worry that it could further complicate efforts to move Aasia Bibi to a safe location.

Published in Dawn, December 12th, 2018