Administration’s List of Religious Freedom Violators Excludes Pakistan, Despite Blasphemy Laws

Patrick Goodenough | September 16, 2011 | 4:30am EDT
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USCIRF chair Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, on a trip to Vietnam. (Photo from USCIRF Web site)

( – Almost 32 months after taking office, the Obama administration has for the first time designated “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for religious persecution.

But despite urging from religious freedom advocates, it did not add several countries accused of egregious violations. Instead, it designated the same eight countries that were named as CPCs the last time such designations were made, four days before President Bush left the White House.

The countries designated this week as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released the annual report on international religious freedom were Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

CPC designation and the annual report are requirements under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which was designed to make the promotion of religious freedom around the world part of U.S. foreign policy.

Countries designated as CPCs – because their governments perpetrate or condone “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” abuses – face U.S. actions, including sanctions and diplomatic pressure to encourage improvements, although punitive actions may be waived.

The IRFA also established an independent, bipartisan body, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), to advise the executive and legislative branches.

USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo commended the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Office and ambassador-at-large for religious freedom Suzan Johnson Cook for their efforts, and he urged the administration to follow the release of the annual report “with vigorous U.S. diplomatic activity to seek improvements with respect to this fundamental human right.”

But Leo voiced disappointment that the administration had not heeded the commission’s recommendation to add to the CPC list Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

“Repeating the current list continues glaring omissions, such as Pakistan and Vietnam,” he said. “Since CPC designations can be made at any time, we respectfully urge Secretary Clinton to consider the six additional countries we recommended for designation.”

Of those six, Iraq and Vietnam were previous designated CPCs. The Bush administration removed Iraq in 2004, following the fall of the Baathist regime; and Vietnam in 2006, citing improvements as a result of active lobbying of the communist authorities in Hanoi.

Pointing to abuses against Buddhists, Catholics and evangelicals, religious freedom advocacy groups opposed the removal of Vietnam from the outset. And they say the plight of religious minorities – especially Christians – in Iraq has been getting steadily worse for several years, with the authorities neither protecting the vulnerable nor bringing perpetrators to justice.

The USCIRF says that since 2008 Egypt has witnessed a dramatic increase in violence targeting the Coptic Christian minority, while in Nigeria the government “has failed even to attempt to stem” escalating cycles of violence between Christians and Muslims. In Turkmenistan, “official harassment of religious adherents persist.”

‘Millions of Pakistani Christians surprised’

The administration’s failure to designate Pakistan as a CPC is particularly troublesome, given the recent spotlight on the country’s blasphemy laws and the murder early this year of two prominent opponents of the laws.

During the State Department’s release of the report on Tuesday, assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner was asked about the Pakistan decision.

Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was shot dead in Islamabad on March 2, 2011. (Photo: Pakistan Minorities Ministry)

He conceded that the Pakistani government has done nothing to reform the blasphemy laws, but said several times that it has taken “positive steps” since the assassinations earlier this year of two outspoken critics of the laws, Federal Minorities Minister Shabhaz Bhatti, the only Christian in the cabinet, and Punjab state governor Salman Taseer, a liberal Muslim.

Among those steps, Posner said, was the appointment in March of Bhatti’s brother as a special adviser to the prime minister on religious minorities; the creation in July of a government Ministry of National Harmony; and the marking on August 11 of National Minorities Day.

“We will continue to engage with the government of Pakistan to address these issues, to promote tolerance, and to improve religious freedom.” Posner added.

The Pakistan Christian Congress on Thursday voiced dismay at Pakistan’s exclusion from the CPC designations, a decision PCC president Nazir Bhatti said had “surprised millions of Pakistani Christians.”

“The blasphemy law still prevails in Pakistan targeting religious minorities and dozens of accused of blasphemy law are behind bars waiting their fate,” he said.

Bhatti dismissed the appointment of an advisor to the prime minister as a “political move,” and characterized the Ministry of National Harmony as a “dummy” institution.

The establishment of the new ministry – which replaced the Minorities Ministry headed by Shabhaz Bhatti before his assassination – was not without controversy.

For one thing, Bhatti was a fully-fledged “federal minister” whereas the head of the replacement ministry is a “minister of state,” a second-tier position in the cabinet.

Some minority activists also saw the move as an attempt to weaken an institution which, under Bhatti, had made an impact in drawing international attention to the plight of minorities in general, and blasphemy law abuses in particular.

“Why is it necessary to have a new name for the ministry responsible for minorities?” Naveed Walter, president of Human Rights Focus Pakistan, asked in a statement in early August.

“The answer, we believe, is that the voice of minorities was raised prominently in international forums via the Minorities Ministry platform during Mr. Bhatti’s time in the post, and the government would like to kill that voice.”

Walter said even though a non-Muslim had been appointed as the first head of the new ministry – a Christian has the post – there was no guarantee that future ministers would be members of a minority.

“We believe the Minorities Ministry has fallen victim to pressure brought by fundamentalists who were angered by the bold steps taken and strong voice raised by Mr. Bhatti, particularly with regard to advocating repeal of the blasphemy laws,” he said.

In late July the U.S. House of Representatives passed by a 402-20 vote legislation creating an envoy to promote religious freedom for minorities in the Middle East and South-Central Asia, focusing in particular on four countries – Pakistan, Egypt, Iran and Afghanistan. A related bill is before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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