WASHINGTON: Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced on Monday that the United States had designated Pakistan, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Nigeria, North Korea, Myanmar and Eritrea as “countries of particular Concern” (CPC) under its International Religious Freedom Act.
The statement accused these countries of “engaging in or tolerating “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom”.
Secretary Pompeo also announced placing the Comoros, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Russia on a special watch list for governments that engage in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom”.
The commission’s 2020 report noted that religious freedom conditions across Pakistan had continued to trend negatively.
“The systematic enforcement of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadia laws, and authorities’ failure to address forced conversions of religious minorities — including Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs — to Islam, severely restricted freedom of religion or belief,” it added.
The report noted that nearly 80 individuals remained imprisoned for blasphemy in Pakistan, with at least half facing a life sentence or death.
After spending five years in solitary confinement for allegedly posting blasphemous content online, Junaid Hafeez was given the death sentence in December last year, the report added.
The report, however, acknowledged that last year they also noted “some high-profile acquittals” in Pakistan.
Additionally, the United States designated Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Hayat Tahrir al Sham, the Houthis, ISIS, ISIS-Greater Sahara, ISIS-West Africa, Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, and the Taliban as well.
Placing Taliban among these entities surprised observers in Washington who predicted that this could complicate US efforts to finalise a peace deal with them.
“We have not renewed the prior Entity of Particular Concern designations for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS-Khorasan, due to the total loss of territory formerly controlled by these terrorist organisations,” Secretary Pompeo said.
The chief US diplomat also announced removing Sudan and Uzbekistan from the special watch list “based on significant, concrete progress” undertaken by them over the past year.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which recommends the designations, had downgraded India to its lowest ranking of “countries of particular concern” (CPC) in its 2020 report, issued in April.
The report, released in Washington by the federal government commission that functions as an advisory body, placed India alongside China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
India was categorised as a “Tier 2 country” in last year’s listing. But the State Department notification, issued on Tuesday, does not name India among countries of particular concern.
The commission’s report noted that last year, religious freedom conditions in India experienced a drastic turn downward, with religious minorities under increasing assault. It also noted that the BJP government allowed violence against minorities and their houses of worship to continue with impunity and tolerated hate speech and incitement to violence.
Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2020