WASHINGTON: The US State Department has not included Pakistan in a list of eight “countries of particular concern” whose governments have engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.
The omission, however, angered another federal government agency, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which demanded on Wednesday to put Pakistan on the list.
The eight countries on the list are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.
Assistant Secretary Michael H. Posner, while releasing the annual report on international religious freedom, said the United States was concerned about the blasphemy law in Pakistan, and about the murder of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti.
“We have great concern about the overall situation of extremism and intolerance in Pakistan, and we stand ready to work with the government to try to address that,” he said.
But USCIRF chairman Leonardo Leo urged the State Department to correct “glaring omissions” of countries like Pakistan which he believed deserved to be on the list.
“Pakistan continues to be responsible for systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief. Two high-profile members of the ruling party were assassinated during the reporting period for their advocacy against Pakistan’s repressive blasphemy laws,” said the commission’s report on international religious freedom in 2011.
“In light of these particularly severe violations, USCIRF again recommends in 2011 that Pakistan be designated a country of particular concern.” Since 2002, USCIRF has recommended Pakistan be named a CPC, but the US State Department has not followed that recommendation.
The commission dedicated its 2011 report to the memory of the former Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, Mr Bhatti.
“Shahbaz was a courageous advocate for the religious freedoms of all Pakistanis, and he was assassinated on March 2 by the Pakistani Taliban for those efforts,” the report noted.
At the State Department briefing, Assistant Secretary Posner noted that the government of Pakistan had not yet reformed a blasphemy law which had been used to prosecute religious minorities and, in some cases, Muslims who promoted tolerance or to settle personal vendettas.
“This year, there have also been several assassinations of those who called for reform of the blasphemy laws, including Governor Taseer and Mr Bhatti, whom Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and I met in February before he was killed,” he said.
Mr Posner, however, pointed out that the government of Pakistan had taken steps to address these rising concerns. For example, in March, Shahbaz Bhatti’s brother, Paul, was appointed a special adviser on religious minorities to the prime minister.
In July, the government created a ministry of national harmony, which will have oversight for protecting religious minorities at a national level. And in August, President Zardari celebrated National Minorities Day and committed his government to support protection of minority religious rights.