The South Asia Channel

Pakistan's abysmal religious tolerance score

Today, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued its 2013 Annual Report, focusing on Pakistan and 28 other countries around the world, including Afghanistan.  As an independent U.S. government advisory body separate from the State Department, USCIRF's Annual Report identifies violations of religious freedom, as defined by international conventions, and provides policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and the Congress. 

Based on our monitoring over the past year, we have concluded that the situation in Pakistan is one of the worst in the world. 

The report found that "sectarian and religiously-motivated violence is chronic, especially against Shi'a Muslims, and the government has failed to protect members of religious minority communities, as well as the majority faith."  An array of repressive laws, including the much abused blasphemy law and religiously discriminatory anti-Ahmadi laws, foster an atmosphere of violent extremism and vigilantism.  The growth of militant groups espousing a violent religious ideology that undertake attacks impact all Pakistanis and threatens the country's security and stability. 

In the face of increasing attacks against Shi'as and consistent violence against other minorities, Pakistani authorities have failed to provide protection and have not consistently brought perpetrators to justice or taken action against societal actors who incite violence. 

In light of these particularly severe violations, USCIRF recommends that Pakistan be designated a "country of particular concern," or CPC, by the U.S. Department of State for these systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.  The CPC designation is a special blacklist created when Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed in 1998 the International Religious Freedom Act. Unlike some other ‘blacklists,' the CPC designation does not carry any specific penalties for the countries on the list. What it does do is assign a framework through which U.S. officials can encourage the designated country's government to address the egregious violations of religious freedom.  This can come in the form of a binding roadmap of agreed actions, a waiver, or punitive steps if progress is lacking.

Countries currently named by the State Department include: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. Pakistan represents the worst situation in the world for religious freedom for countries not currently designated as "countries of particular concern," and USCIRF has concluded it overwhelmingly meets the threshold established in the Act. 

The facts speak for themselves.  As the report states:

The Pakistani government failed to effectively intervene against a spike in targeted violence against the Shi'a Muslim minority community, as well as violence against other minorities.  With elections scheduled for May 2013, additional attacks against religious minorities and candidates deemed "unIslamic" will likely occur. Chronic conditions remain, including the poor social and legal status of non-Muslim religious minorities and the severe obstacles to free discussion of sensitive religious and social issues faced by the majority Muslim community.  The country's blasphemy law, used predominantly in Punjab province but also nationwide, targets members of religious minority communities and dissenting Muslims and frequently results in imprisonment.  USCIRF is aware of at least 16 individuals on death row and 20 more serving life sentences.  The blasphemy law, along with anti-Ahmadi laws that effectively criminalize various practices of their faith, has created a climate of vigilante violence.  Hindus have suffered from the climate of violence and hundreds have fled Pakistan for India.  Human rights and religious freedom are increasingly under assault, particularly women, members of religious minority communities, and those in the majority Muslim community whose views deemed "un-Islamic." The government has proven unwilling or unable to confront militants perpetrating acts of violence against other Muslims and religious minorities. 

Designating Pakistan as a CPC would make religious freedom a key element in the bilateral relationship and start a process to encourage Islamabad to undertake needed reforms. 

There are a range of issues that should be on the bilateral agenda, whether or not Pakistan is designated a CPC. The U.S. government should include discussions on religious freedom and religious tolerance in U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogues and summits, as well as urge Pakistan to protect religious minorities from violence and actively prosecute those committing acts of violence against Shi'as, Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus, and others; unconditionally release individuals currently jailed for blasphemy; repeal or reform the blasphemy law; and repeal anti-Ahmadi laws.   The United States can also highlight to the new government how the Federal Ministry for National Harmony is an institution unique among other nations, and maintaining it would keep a partner to discuss ways to promote religious tolerance and freedom.  For sure, none of these are easy, so naming as a CPC would cut through the distractions and help create the political will to act.

The situation in Pakistan is acute, with the increasing violence against diverse religious communities and a system of laws that violate human rights.  With a new government soon coming to power, there is a unique opportunity to work together to confront these threats to Pakistan.  At the same time, negative pressures could tilt the new government in the wrong direction.  For instance, the Pakistani Taliban's targeting of "secular politicians" could give traction to their offer from late 2012 to cease violence in exchange for constitutional amendments to install their religious vision over the country. The CPC process would support Pakistanis who want a better future for their country and counterbalance these pressures -- if the Pakistani government fails to address these issues concretely, penalties could follow after a CPC designation. 

The United States is Pakistan's only friend that has the heft and desire to encourage it to tackle these difficult challenges.  For sure, the U.S.-Pakistani relationship is complicated and designating a CPC would likely complicate things further.  However, to protect all Pakistanis, these issues cannot be ignored and must be confronted and addressed. 

Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.  Any personal views expressed are his own and may or may not reflect the views of the commission. He can be followed on Twitter @thames22.

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

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