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ISLAMABAD / WASHINGTON: Pakistan on Wednesday denounced the United States’ move to designate it as a “country of particular concern” with regards to religious freedoms, saying it was a politically motivated move.

“Pakistan rejects the US State Department’s unilateral and politically motivated pronouncement released today in the context of its annual religious freedom report. Besides the clear biases reflected from these designations, there are serious questions on the credentials and impartiality of the self-proclaimed jury involved in this unwarranted exercise,” the Foreign Office said in a statement.

The statement was issued in response to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to include Pakistan among “countries of particular concern (CPC)” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

Countries are listed in this category for allegedly engaging in or tolerating “systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations of religious freedom”. Other countries designated as CPCs include Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

American official says Pakistan will not face mandated economic sanctions despite being among ‘countries of particular concern’

The listed countries can face punitive sanctions, but Pakistan was spared on the grounds of national interest.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its 2018 annual report, which was released earlier this year, had recommended Pakistan’s inclusion in CPC for failing to adequately protect religious minorities in the country, including Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Ahmadis, and Shias, against attacks and discrimination from extremist groups and society at large. The report further alleged that the Pakistan government perpetrated systematic, ongoing, egregious religious freedom violations.

This has been USCIRF’s longstanding demand, but the State Department in the past avoided designating Pakistan. Last year Pakistan was put on a newly created “Special Watch List”, which was a notch lower than CPC listing.

The US deputy head of mission was also summoned to the Foreign Office to receive a protest over Pakistan’s designation as a CPC.

“Pakistan does not need counsel by any individual country how to protect the rights of its minorities,” the US government was conveyed.

The FO statement recalled that as a multi-religious and pluralistic society Pakistan ensured equal treatment of minorities and their rights. This, it said, was a cardinal principle of the country’s Constitution.

Mentioning the steps taken to ensure representation of the minorities, the statement said special seats had been reserved for minorities in parliament. Moreover, the National Commission on Human Rights addresses concerns about violation of the rights of minorities. This, it added, had been a priority of the successive governments and higher judiciary of the country had also delivered several landmark decisions to protect the properties and places of worship of minorities.

The statement regretted that the “proponents of human rights” had, however, “closed their eyes on systematic persecution of minorities subjected to alien domination and foreign occupation such as in the occupied Jammu and Kashmir”.

“An honest self-introspection would also have been timely to know the causes of exponential rise in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the US,” it added.

Meanwhile, Minister for Human Rights Dr Shireen Mazari said it was apparent that the US was using this as a brazen political tactic to pressure Pakistan to mitigate US failures in Afghanistan.

“The timing of the US move smacks of pure political blackmailing because it comes in the wake of Pakistan opening the Kartarpur corridor to ease access for the Sikhs of India to their religious places as well as assisting Hindu groups to enter Pakistan for religious purposes when India has sought to prevent Muslims from Pakistan visiting Ajmer for religious purposes,” she maintained.

National interest waivers

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, although placed on a US list of violators of religious freedom, would not face the mandated economic sanctions, a senior US official said. They have been given national interest waivers.

“Saudi Arabia is in the waived category, along with Pakistan, on a national interest area,” US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel D. Brownback said at a Tuesday afternoon news briefing in Washington. “Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are both waived as well under national interest.”

Asked why Pakistan was proscribed after it took steps to improve religious freedom, such as releasing Christian woman Aasia Bibi, Ambassador Brownback said the country was warned last year that “if they didn’t change their behaviour”, they would be declared a CPC.

Former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who issued the warning, had also put Pakistan on a list of countries watched specifically for violation of religious freedom.

“It includes a number of things, unfortunately, that have happened in Pakistan — laws that criminalise blasphemy. And in the world’s population of people that are in prison for blasphemy, half of them are in Pakistani prisons,” said Ambassador Brownback while explaining what caused Secretary Pompeo to take the final step.

“Also, the Pakistani government criminalises the identification of Ahmadis as Muslims, and then — this one has really been difficult and troubling for a lot of people — the government often fails to hold accountable perpetrators of killings and violence against members of religious minorities targeted on account of their religious beliefs or affiliations,” he added.

Ambassador Brownback recalled that Aasia Bibi — who is now awaiting a rehearing by the Supreme Court — was among those arrested under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. “And we continue to watch very carefully what’s happening to Aasia Bibi,” he added.

The US official expressed the hope that the new leadership in Pakistan would work to improve the situation. “There were some encouraging signs seen recently on how they’ve handled some of the recent protesting against the blasphemy laws,” he added.

Defending the decision to place Burma on the list and also to impose violation-related sanctions against the country, Ambassador Brownback said the US administration had been speaking very strongly against the situation in Burma.

“The Vice President, the Secretary [of State], Ambassador [Nikki] Haley at the UN, myself… I’ve been there to Bangladesh to the refugee camps. We recently sanctioned five Burmese generals and two military units,” he said.

Ambassador Brownback recalled that former secretary Tillerson designated the killing of Burmese Muslims as ethnic cleansing.

“It continues to be a highly watched and very keen area of interest, what’s taking place to the Rohingya and to other religious communities,” he said. “All those together are reasons we obviously put them as a Country of Particular Concern on the list.”

Published in Dawn, December 13th, 2018

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