The South Asia Channel

Shrinking Religious Freedom in South Asia

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has long highlighted the link between freedom of religion or belief and a country's political and social stability, as well as its national security. Simply put: Countries that ensure the right of their citizens to peacefully practice any faith or none tend to be more stable and prosperous. While the U.S. government often pays much strategic attention to the Middle East and North Africa, one cannot forget that South Asia is another region where religion plays a major role in society and governance, and violent religious extremism is a daily reality.

South Asian nations are critically important to the United States: India and Pakistan are nuclear countries; the international community has been fighting in Afghanistan for over a decade; U.S. imports from Bangladesh totaled $5.4 billion in 2013; and along with Sri Lanka, their combined populations are nearly one-fifth of the world's total. These are just some of the reasons that more policymakers should share USCIRF's concern about shrinking religious freedom in South Asia. (All five of these nations are included in USCIRF's recently released 2014 Annual Report, which covers 33 countries where religious freedom is endangered.)

Pakistan stands apart from the other countries in South Asia due to the astonishing scale and severity of abuses to religious freedom. Similar to past reports, USCIRF again concluded that Pakistan has the worst religious freedom situation among nations the U.S. government has yet to designate as "countries of particular concern" (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act. Chronic sectarian- and religiously-motivated violence targeting Shiite Muslims, but also Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus continued throughout the past year. Militants and terrorist organizations have targeted with impunity Shiite processions and mosques, as well as social gathering places. The Christian All Saints Church in Peshawar, and Christian villages in the Punjab province were attacked in 2013. Allegations that Hindu women are kidnapped, forced into marriages with Muslim men, and converted to Islam continue to surface.

In each of these situations, the response by the Pakistani government has been grossly inadequate and USCIRF has concluded that the U.S. government should designate Pakistan as a CPC.

Legal problems also abound. Pakistan's constitution declares the Ahmadiyya community to be "non-Muslims," and Ahmadis continue to be murdered in religiously-motivated attacks. Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws are especially detrimental to the country's religiously faithful. Pakistan leads the world in the number of people jailed for this "crime," with USCIRF aware of at least 35 individuals either currently on death row or serving life sentences.

While Pakistan's religious freedom record is the region's worst, India's is just as troubling given its status as a secular democracy with a pluralistic and robust civil society. USCIRF has long listed India among its "Tier 2" countries, the category for countries not warranting a CPC recommendation but still violating international standards of religious freedom. In the last several years, USCIRF has reported on India's lack of progress in achieving justice for past communal violence and concerns over ongoing violence and harassment of religious minorities, particularly Christians in states with anti-conversion laws.

The most disconcerting finding of this year's report was the allegations from NGOs and religious leaders, including from the Muslim, Christian, and Sikh communities, that some Indian politicians used religiously divisive language to shore up their voting base in the lead-up to the general election. More than just rough and tumble electioneering, their statements incited violence. One example was the August 2013 communal violence in the Muzaffarnagar district in Uttar Pradesh that left between 40 and 60 people dead; at least a dozen women and girls raped, often by gangs; nearly 100 people injured; and upwards of 50,000 people displaced. Some 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, are still displaced, living in deplorable conditions, and fear returning to their homes. While 16 local government officials were arrested and charged with incitement, it is troubling that politicians will play the religion card to deadly affect.

In Afghanistan, religious freedom challenges continue for dissenting Sunni Muslims, as well as Shiite Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and Baha'is. The Afghan constitution falls short, lacking individual protections for freedom of religion or belief. USCIRF has observed how it and other laws have been applied in ways violating international human rights standards. Outside of government control, the Taliban continues to kill persons involved in activities they deem "un-Islamic." Despite Afghan security forces performing well during the recent presidential election, the Afghan government remains unable to protect citizens against violence and religious intimidation. While there were no large-scale attacks against Shiite Muslims and the government took no restrictive actions against Christians or other religious minorities in the last year, the recent attack on a Christian-run hospital was a graphic reminder of the violence that can occur. Indeed the future for religious freedom and rights for minority groups and women in Afghanistan is still precarious at best.

Elsewhere in South Asia, developments in the last year in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are increasingly troubling. In both of these countries, government officials and local police allegedly fomented religiously-motivated violence and harassment of religious minority communities. In the case of Bangladesh, and not unlike in India leading up to the election, Bangladeshi NGOs, religious leaders and communities observed a rise in religiously-motivated violence, particularly against Hindu and Buddhist communities. They attributed this to religiously-divisive language and political posturing by both the ruling Awami League, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and opposing political parties, including the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the main Islamist Party, Jamaat-e-Islami.

In the last year, Sri Lanka has also seen an increase in attacks against religious minority communities, including Muslims, Hindus, and Christians, by extremist Buddhist monks and laity affiliated with Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena and Sinhala Ravaya. However, what led USCIRF to include Sri Lanka in its 2014 Annual Report were the numerous reports that government officials and police not only failed to stop religiously-motivated attacks, they even participated in them in some cases, they did not provide adequate protection for minority communities, and they harassed religious minority communities at their houses of worship.

USCIRF's reporting on South Asia is not imposing an American view of human rights. Rather, it is to advocate for religious freedom or belief and uphold international standards of human rights found in documents like the U.N.'s Universal Declaration for Human Rights. USCIRF's recommendations to the U.S. government focus on how religious freedom can be protected and promoted. For example, it recommends that the U.S. government should designate Pakistan as a CPC and work toward a binding agreement with the Pakistani government on steps to be delisted, such as legal reform and arrest of perpetrators of violence. Such an agreement should be accompanied by resources for capacity-building through State Department and USAID funding, and a portion of U.S. military assistance should be used to help local police officers implement an effective plan for protecting religious minority communities and their places of worship. In India's case, USCIRF recommends that the State Department work to include human rights and religious freedom issues in the U.S.-India Bilateral Strategic Dialogue.

The shrinkage of religious freedom in South Asia is deeply troubling, given the region's deep religious diversity and strategic importance to the United States. The countries of South Asia should view their religious diversity as a strength, and demonstrate to the rest of the world how to balance religious identity and nationality. Yet if growing limitations on the free practice of religion continue to be imposed and attacks on the religious "other" increase in frequency, South Asia will struggle to prosper and find durable stability.

Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research and Sahar Chaudhry is a Policy Analyst at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Any personal views expressed are their own and may or may not reflect the views of the commission. Follow them on Twitter: @Thames22 and @ChaudhryUSCIRF.

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