Creation of U.S. Special Envoy on Religious Freedom Raises Hopes of Pakistani Christians

Patrick Goodenough | August 5, 2011 | 5:13am EDT
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Gunmen shot and killed the Christian Pakistani government minister for religious minorities on Wednesday, March 2, 2011. It was the latest attack on a high-profile figure who advocated reform of harsh blasphemy laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

( – Christian activists in Pakistan have welcomed a congressional initiative to establish a special envoy to promote religious freedom in the Middle East and South Asia, voicing hope that the move may lead to more U.S. pressure on Pakistan to end the persecution of non-Muslim minorities.

At the forefront of their concerns is the question of blasphemy laws under which Christians and other minorities have been disproportionately targeted for prosecution, harassment and, in some cases, mob violence and death. Pakistan’s government has assured Islamic parties that it has no plans to amend the laws.

The Obama administration has expressed deep misgivings about the blasphemy laws, especially after two prominent opponents of the laws were assassinated early this year. But the State Department has not designated Pakistan a “country of particular concern” under U.S. law, despite appeals by religious freedom advocates.

Now, U.S. plans for a special envoy to focus on religious freedom violations have prompted anticipation that Washington will bring fresh pressure to bear on Islamabad, said Naveed Walter, president of Human Rights Focus Pakistan (HRFP) a non-governmental organization advocating against the blasphemy laws.

The House of Representatives voted on July 29 for legislation creating an envoy to promote religious freedom for minorities in parts of the Middle East and South-Central Asia in general, but focusing in particular on four countries – Pakistan, Egypt, Iran and Afghanistan. The Senate has yet to vote on a related bill.

Among other things, the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act calls on the envoy to work with foreign governments to address discriminatory laws, and to recommend to the U.S. government appropriate responses to violations.

Walter said Thursday the development was “a wonderful addition” to existing U.S. support for religious freedom in Pakistan.

He expressed the hope that “the blasphemy laws can be repealed by strong lobbying” and that minorities could be “uplifted” through the support of the U.S. and the rest of the international community.

Asif Aqeel, director of the Center for Law and Justice-Pakistan – an affiliate of European Center for Law and Justice and the American Center for Law and Justice – also welcomed news of the special envoy plans, saying he hoped the person appointed to the post would be empowered to achieve the stated goals.

“For example, will the envoy’s report affect the foreign policy towards that country of particular concern, or will financial assistance be linked with the level of safeguarding of minorities’ rights?” he asked.

Aqeel recalled that a Roman Catholic cardinal in Britain earlier this year criticized the British government for planning to increase in foreign aid to Pakistan without obtaining commitments on religious freedom.

“To increase aid to the Pakistan government when religious freedom is not upheld and those who speak up for religious freedom are gunned down is tantamount to an anti-Christian foreign policy,” Cardinal Keith O’Brien said in March.

(U.S. aid to Pakistan, regarded as a key partner in combating terrorism, has risen continually since 9/11. A recently-released Congressional Research Service report says “the U.S. provided a total of $4.5 billion for Pakistan for FY2010 alone, making it the second-highest recipient after Afghanistan.”)

‘Cross and crescent struggle’

Christians in Pakistan – as in several other Islamic countries – have long found themselves in the firing line over a perceived association with the “Christian” West, especially with regard to actions or policies viewed by some Muslims as hostile towards Islam.

Asked whether the U.S. special envoy plans could in this way add to difficulties already facing Christians, Aqeel agreed that “persecution of Christians in Pakistan has increased since 9/11, and the reason is obvious.”

He recalled that, in a documentary on the destruction of more than 100 homes of Christians in a town called Gojra in 2009 – reportedly triggered by allegations of Qur’an desecration – a Christian victim recounted that some in the marauding Muslim mob had been shouting, “kill these American dogs” during the attacked.

“It shows how the Pakistani Christians are tagged with the U.S. The Muslims vent out their anger against the U.S. by targeting the local Christians,” Aqeel said, noting that Assyrian Christians in Iraq faced the same predicament.

Because of this situation, he said, even though the legislation covers all religious minorities the creation of a special envoy will likely be seen by Islamists as “the U.S. coming for its coreligionists.”

“The creation of this envoy will not affect the Hindus of Bangladesh, for example, but it will affect Christians of Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan due to the historic context of the cross and crescent struggle,” he said.

Despite any fears of a possible “backlash,” however, Aqeel said the appointment of a special envoy would unquestionably be worthwhile.

“I hope they will be able to safeguard security of the minorities through this envoy,” he said. “I am saying this because the Christians in Pakistan have a feeling that the Western countries should come to their aid and I believe the creation of this envoy will give this feeling of security.”

Asked about the issue of radical Muslims linking Pakistani Christians with the West, Walter of the HRFP said that Christians and other minorities were facing persecution long before the special envoy development.

“How much [more] reactions can come from militants when they already attack our churches and temples and are killing and burning alive minorities in many cases?”

He believed the creation of a special envoy to focus on the issue was a “good strategy.”

“If the U.S. can support to Pakistan in a lot of other matters, like in democracy, in rehabilitation, in education, in human rights, then why not in religious freedom?” he asked. “Minorities’ uplifting is necessary for Pakistan’s uplifting and for true democracy.”

HRFP is planning a demonstration outside parliament in Islamabad on August 11, Pakistan’s “Minorities Day,” aimed at focusing attention on the plight of Christians, Hindus and other non-Muslim minorities.

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