Pakistan Passes Obama's 'Religious Freedom' Test—After Sentencing Christian to Death

Terence P. Jeffrey | September 16, 2011 | 2:19pm EDT
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A November 2010 protest rally in Lahore, Pakistan, against the Pakistani blasphemy law that was used to impose a death sentence on Pakistiani Christian mother of five, Aasia Bibi. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

( - Pakistan, which has issued a death sentence to a Christian mother of five for allegedly blaspheming the prophet Mohammed, and which regularly prosecutes Christians for allegedly blaspheming Islam, has passed the religious freedom test imposed by the Obama administration.

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released the U.S. government's Annual Report on International Religious Freedom this week, Pakistan was not listed among the so-called “Countries of Particular Concern”

“Secretary Clinton designated eight countries as CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan,” said the report. “The Secretary applied CPC sanctions to six of these: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, and Sudan.”

As U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook pointed out on Tuesday when Clinton released the religious freedom report,  the International Religious Freedom Act “calls on the U.S. government to designate the worst violators of religious freedom as Countries of Particular Concern or 'CPCs.'"

“The President's authority to designate CPCs has been delegated to the Secretary of State,” Cook said.

Clinton did not designate Pakistan even though the State Department’s own report stated that Pakistani law calls for the death penalty for people who commit “blasphemy” against Islam or who convert from Islam to another religion--and even though the report listed multiple instances of the Pakistani government using the law to persecute Christians.

(To see a related story about the religious freedom report click here.)

“The [Pakistani] constitution and other laws and policies restricted religious freedom and, in practice, the government enforces these restrictions,” says the State Department report.

“Freedom of speech was subject to ‘reasonable’ restrictions in the interest of the ‘glory of Islam,’ as stipulated in sections 295(a), (b), and (c) of the penal code,” says the report.

“The consequences of contravening the country’s blasphemy laws were death for defiling Islam or the prophets; life imprisonment for defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Qur’an; and 10 years imprisonment for insulting ‘another’s religious feelings,’” says the report.

Christians are the top target of these Pakistani laws. “Laws prohibiting blasphemy continued to be used against Christians,” says the State Department report.

In the latter half of 2010, the report says, 24 blasphemy cases were registered in Pakistani courts. Ten were brought against Christians, seven against Hindus, three against Ahmadis and only four against Muslims.

Also, according to the State Department, the government schools in Pakistan denigrate members of non-Muslim religions, including Jews.

“The public school curriculum included derogatory remarks in textbooks against minority religious groups, particularly Ahmadis, Hindus and Jews, and the teaching of religious intolerance was widespread,” says the State Department report.

The most notorious blasphemy case against a Christian in Pakistan last year was concluded in November, when a Pakistani court sentenced a mother of five to death for “blasphemy” she allegedly committed in the course of an argument with some Muslim women.

“On November 8 a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, was sentenced to death for blasphemy, the first such sentence of a woman in the country, by a district court in Nankana Sahib, Punjab,” says the State Department report.

“Aasia was accused of committing blasphemy in June 2009 when she was reportedly fetching water while working in the fields," says the report. "Following an argument with a group of Muslim women, the women went to a local cleric and alleged that Asia had made derogatory remarks about the Prophet. The cleric lodged a complaint with the police."

Pakistani President Zardari has refrained from pardoning Bibi—and she remains in prison.

“An appeal at the Lahore High Court by Bibi's family is pending, and she remains in police custody,” says State's report.

But Bibi was not the only Christian prosecuted for "blasphemy" in Pakistan last year.

According to the State Department report, 24 blasphemy cases were registered in Pakistani courts in the second half of 2010--and Christians were the top target of these prosecution. In fact, 10 cases were brought against Christians, seven against Hindus, three against Ahmadis and only four against Muslims.

Pakistan, according to the State Department, is 95 percent Muslim.

In March 2010, according to State, “Qamar David, a Christian man, was sentenced to life imprisonment and fined 101,000 rupees ($1,187) for making blasphemous remarks about the Qur'an and the Prophet Mohammad.”

David appealed his conviction, but in March of this year he was found dead in his prison cell.

According to the Guardian of London, Pakistani authorities said David died of a heart attack, a conclusion his lawyer disputed.

"This is not a natural death," the lawyer, Aslam Chaudhry, said. "He was fine the last time I saw him. He never informed me of any heart condition or blood pressure. This is a false story of the prison authorities."

In the brief remarks she made on Tuesday when she released the religious freedom report, Secretary of State Clinton did not mention Pakistan.

The report itself described how the administration is dealing with Pakistan’s persecution of non-Muslims—by discussing the issue with the Pakistani government.

“The U.S. government discusses religious freedom with the Government of Pakistan as part of its overall policy to promote human rights,” says the report. “During the reporting period, U.S. embassy officials closely monitored the treatment of religious minorities, worked to eliminate the teaching of religious intolerance and promote interfaith dialogue, and encouraged the amendment or repeal of the blasphemy laws.”

The State Department report on religious freedom released this week only covered incidents that occurred through the end of 2010. However, in an addendum to the report, the State Department indicated that since that time Pakistan has not reformed its blasphemy law.

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