Pakistan added to US blacklist for 'religious freedom violations'

Pakistan added to US blacklist for 'religious freedom violations'
The US has added Pakistan to a list of religious freedom violators.
3 min read
12 December, 2018
Ahmadi mosques have been destroyed in Pakistan [Twitter]
Pakistan was added to a US blacklist of countries that violate religious freedom on Tuesday, ramping up pressure over the uneasy ally's treatment of minorities.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Pakistan was among "countries of particular concern" in a congressionally mandated annual report.

It means that the US government is obliged to exert pressure, including imposing sanctions if necessary, to end freedom violations.

Pakistan, a vital gateway for US forces in Afghanistan, had earlier avoided being added from the list.

But it last year placed Pakistan on a watchlist - one step from being put on the blacklist - and Washington has separately curbed military assistance.

Human rights advocates have long voiced alarm about the treatment of religious minorities in Pakistan, including Shia, Christians and the Ahmadi Muslims, whom Islamabad forbids from calling themselves Muslim.

Pakistan had recently moved to release Asia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row for eight years for alleged blasphemy.

Islamabad also charged hardline cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, with terrorism and sedition after he led violent protests against Bibi's acquittal.

Sam Brownback, the US ambassador at large for religious freedom, voiced guarded hope for the direction under Pakistan's new Prime Minister Imran Khan but said that the country's record remained dismal.

Of "the world's population of people that are in prison for blasphemy, half of them are in Pakistani prisons", Brownback told reporters on a conference call, noting that Bibi was still awaiting release.

"The government often fails to hold accountable perpetrators of killings and violence against members of religious minorities," he said.

"I hope that the new leadership in Pakistan will work to improve the situation. There are some encouraging signs seen recently."

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.

The US removed Uzbekistan from the blacklist but kept it on the watch list.

Brownback hailed the Central Asian country for moving in the right direction, saying that religious liberty made countries less prone to terrorism.

Religious freedom has been a key priority for President Donald Trump, who was elected with strong support from evangelical Christians, even as he has openly downplayed the importance of human rights in dealing with close allies such as Saudi Arabia.

"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.

Russia was also added to the watch list, as Moscow had "engaged and tolerated really severe violations of religious freedom" since it passed a 2016 law criminalising unapproved missionary work.

Citing NGO figures, Brownback said that Russia has targeted missionaries including Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons in 156 cases and that Russia is holding 145 people for their religious beliefs, most of them Muslims.

Brownback, a former governor of Kansas close to conservative Christians, voiced special alarm about the direction of China.

A UN report said that one million Muslim Uighurs are under detention in a sweeping crackdown in the west of China.

Brownback called the treatment of Uighurs in the western Xinjiang region "one of the, just really, worst human rights situations in the world".

He said that China appeared to be taking its tactics elsewhere and voiced worries for Tibetan Buddhists, practitioners of the Falungong spiritual movement and underground Christians, with a major unofficial Protestant church raided this week in Chengdu.

"China isn't backing away from religious persecution. It seems to be expanding. This is obviously very troubling to the administration," Brownback said.

Also on the watch list was the Comoros, the Indian Ocean archipelago that is almost exclusively Sunni Muslim.