Pakistan Fumes After US Keeps It on Religious Freedom Blacklist

By Patrick Goodenough | December 26, 2019 | 5:00am EST
A Pakistani policeman stands guard in Multan on Saturday as a court sentences a university lecturer to death for blasphemy. (Photo by SS Mirza/AFP via Getty Images)
A Pakistani policeman stands guard in Multan on Saturday as a court sentences a university lecturer to death for blasphemy. (Photo by SS Mirza/AFP via Getty Images)

( – The Trump administration’s decision to keep Pakistan on a blacklist of religious freedom violators is irking the world’s second most-populous Islamic nation, which slammed the move as “unilateral and arbitrary” and complained that its archrival India had not been similarly targeted.

“The designation is reflective of selective targeting of countries, and thus unlikely to be helpful to the professed cause of advancing religious freedom,” Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Aisha Farooqui said in a Christmas Day statement.

“Pakistan is a multi-religious and pluralistic country where people of all faiths enjoy religious freedom under constitutional protections,” she said.

In fact, Pakistan oversees the world’s most notorious blasphemy laws, with Christians, Ahmadis and other minorities disproportionally affected by provisions that carry the death penalty for disparaging Mohammed; life imprisonment for defiling the Qur’an; and shorter jail terms for insulting Mohammed’s wives, relatives or “companions.”

Aside from the legal perils, Pakistanis professing various faiths have been targeted by murderous vigilante mobs or individuals determined to punish purported “blasphemers” in cases where the authorities have not yet acted.

As recently as last weekend, a U.S.-educated Pakistani university lecturer in the city of Multan, Junaid Hafeez, was sentenced to death for blasphemy after being accused of insulting Mohammed on Facebook.

Hafeez had been imprisoned, mostly in solitary confinement, for six years while awaiting finalization of his trial. His first lawyer was shot dead in 2014 for defending a client accused of blasphemy.

After the sentence was delivered, the BBC reported, prosecution lawyers handed out candy to their colleagues “who chanted ‘Allahu akbar’ and ‘death to blasphemers.’”


According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent statutory body, at least 80 individuals are currently imprisoned or in death row in Pakistan after being convicted of blasphemy.

Citing the blasphemy laws and other concerns, the USCIRF from 2002 to 2018 called on the State Department each year to designate Pakistan a “country of particular concern” (CPC) under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), but to no avail.

It was only in late 2018 that the Trump State Department broke with the Obama and Bush administrations, blacklisting Pakistan as a CPC despite its purported status as an important counter-terror ally.

Last Friday Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the renewal of CPC designations for Pakistan and eight other “egregious” violators of religious freedom.” (The others are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.)

It was that decision that the Pakistani foreign ministry was condemning on Wednesday.

“This pronouncement is not only detached from ground realities of Pakistan but also raises questions about the credibility and transparency of the entire exercise,” Farooqui said.

Despite the designation, Pakistan does not face any immediate consequences for its poor record.

Along with Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, it has been spared sanctions as a result of “national interest” waivers invoked by the State Department.

Other CPCs, already facing U.S. sanctions for other reasons, are deemed also to be sanctioned for their CPC status, and so face no additional measures.

While it welcomed Pompeo’s announcement, the USCIRF called on the administration to go beyond designation and use the tools provided for by the IRFA to compel violators to improve their records.

“We urge the State Department to fully utilize the range of tools available to ensure strong consequences for the most egregious violators, and not rely on waivers or pre-existing sanctions,” said the commission’s vice chair, Gayle Manchin.

“The CPC-designated countries must know that the United States will not only call them out but also impose costs for violations of this most sacred right.”

Why not India?

In her statement of protest, Pakistan’s Farooqui also wanted to know why India had not been designated a CPC, saying this was evidence of the “subjectivity and bias of the State Department’s designations.”

She called India “the biggest violator of religious freedom,” pointing to its policies in Kashmir, and the recent passage of controversial citizenship legislation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government last summer controversially changed the status of the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir – a divided Muslim-majority region claimed by both India and Pakistan – ending the autonomy the area had enjoyed for decades.

Last week, India’s parliament approved the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a law that provides a path to citizenship for religious minorities fleeing persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. It limits eligibility to six religions – and Islam is not one of them.

India’s 200 million Muslims comprise the third-largest population of Muslims anywhere, but are nonetheless a minority in a country of 1.3 billion people, the vast majority Hindus.

India has never been added to the CPC list, although the USCIRF in the early 2000s called for several years for it to be designated as such, following bloody Muslim-Hindu clashes in Gurajat in 2002 that cost more than 1,000 mostly Muslim lives.

(Modi was chief minister of Gujarat at the time, and was accused of not acting to stop the violence. Accordingly he was denied a visa to the U.S. from 2005 until 2014, when the restriction was lifted after he became prime minister.)

Every year since 2009, the USCIRF has placed India on its “tier two” watch list of countries that in its view do not rise to CPC status but do need to be monitored. An amendment to the IRFA in 2016 created a “special watch list” (SWL) requirement for the State Department as well, although the department has not added India to that list.

Currently on the SWL are the Comoros, Cuba, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Russia, Uzbekistan and Sudan.


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