(CNSNews.com) – As the Obama administration moves towards designating, for the first time, “countries of particular concern” for religious freedom violations, it faces fresh calls to include Pakistan on the blacklist, amid growing awareness about the deadly consequences of its blasphemy laws.
A group of leading religious freedom advocates, including Christians, Muslims and others, called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Tuesday to designate Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” (CPC).
Recognizing that the designation alone “could merely aggravate our deteriorating relations,” they urged Clinton at the same time to “stress to the Pakistani authorities the value of advancing religious freedom in order to undermine extremism and terrorism sanctuaries.”
“The negative CPC designation should be supplemented with positive foreign policy actions that assist in the development of legal, educational and cultural institutions and procedures that can change state and societal behavior in Pakistan,” they wrote.
The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent statutory body, has been urging the State Department every year since 2002 to designate Pakistan as a CPC – to no avail.
The call took on new urgency this year, when the assassination of two politicians critical of the blasphemy laws highlighted an issue that has cost the lives of scores of Pakistanis and the freedom of many hundreds more.
CPC designation under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) provides the U.S. government with tools, including sanctions, to promote an end to religious persecution in countries found to be “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” violators.
Currently eight countries (Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan) are designated, all holdovers from previous administrations. When the USCIRF released its annual report late last month, it noted with concern that the Obama administration had not made a single CPC designation, new or otherwise.
That is expected to change in the coming days, with one well-placed source saying Tuesday an announcement was likely before Memorial Day.
Pakistan is not the only country the USCIRF says should be designated along with the eight current CPCs. It has recommended the same action in the case of Nigeria, Turkmenistan, Iraq, Vietnam and – for the first time this year – Egypt.
“It’s obvious to anyone who follows Pakistan that it is responsible for systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations against Muslims and non-Muslims,” USCIRF chairman Leonard Leo said Tuesday.
“As documented in our 2011 annual report, it undoubtedly meets the ‘country of particular concern’ threshold and should be designated a CPC,” he added. “Pakistan is arguably the most glaring omission to the State Department’s CPC list, as the government is both responsible for and tolerates egregious violations of religious freedom.”
‘Change Islamabad’s political calculations’
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws provide for “life imprisonment” or the death penalty for those found guilty of insulting Mohammed or the Qur’an.
Although in place in their current form since the 1980s, they have drawn increasing attention, and opposition, in recent years. More than 900 people, Muslims, Christians and others, were indicted under the laws between 1986 and 2009 and hundreds are serving prison terms. Although no actual executions have taken place, dozens of people accused under the laws have been killed by individuals or mobs angered by the allegations.
Late last year a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death for “blaspheming” Mohammed.
Among those in Pakistan who advocated for her release and for amendments to the law, were Salman Taseer, a liberal Muslim who served as governor of Punjab province; and Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in the federal cabinet, whose portfolio was minorities affairs.
Taseer was shot dead in January by a member of his bodyguard, who said he had killed the governor because he opposed the blasphemy laws. The killer was praised by lawyers and others, feted at public rallies as a hero.
Two months later, Bhatti was gunned down in Islamabad by unknown assailants who left pamphlets accusing him of blasphemy.
Tentative steps taken by members of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party towards amending the blasphemy laws were halted, and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani assured Muslim leaders that the government would leave the laws alone.
“The events of recent weeks make clear the need to press the Pakistanis to divorce themselves from violent extremists groups and to enforce human rights and the rule of law,” Leo said Tuesday. “The CPC designation could help do just that.”
In their appeal to Clinton, the religious freedom advocates said that since the two assassinations “the Pakistani government has not only avoided, but has run away from, any serious effort to reform the blasphemy law or to prevent further attacks.”
“A CPC designation would help to change the political calculations of Islamabad and encourage the Pakistanis to move forward, not backward,” they argued.
Signatories included representatives of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, Freedom House, China Aid Association, the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, Institute for Gulf Affairs, American Islamic Forum for Democracy, Evangelical, Baptist, Methodist, Hindu and Uighur organizations.
Joining them was Thomas Farr, who served as the first director of the State Department’s office of international religious freedom, set up under the IRFA.
Earlier this month, the co-chairs of the U.S. congressional religious freedom caucus, Reps. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), made a similar appeal to Clinton.
Also citing the Bhatti and Taseer killings, they said the Pakistani government “has indicated it will continue to ignore these issues and leave them unaddressed.”
“We fully understand the crucial role Pakistan plays in U.S. foreign policy in the region,” Franks and Shuler wrote. “It is because of this understanding that we believe it is critically important that you make the hard decision and designate Pakistan as a ‘country of particular concern.’”