State Dept. Gives Pakistan Pass on Religious Freedom Violations--for 14th Straight Year

By Patrick Goodenough | April 18, 2016 | 4:17am EDT
Pakistanis hold a vigil for the victims of a suicide bombing that targeted Christians in a Lahore park on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016, killing at least 70 people. (AP Photo/Shakil Adil, File)

( – For a record 14th year in a row, the State Department has overruled the advice of an independent statutory watchdog and decided not to blacklist Pakistan for religious freedom abuses.

The decision not to designate Pakistan a “country of particular concern” under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) comes despite its government’s continuing rejection of calls to amend or rescind the world’s most notorious blasphemy laws – which carry the death penalty and are frequently used to target Christians and other minorities.

It also comes just days after a new U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report highlighted dozens of instances of intolerance of religious minorities being promoted in public school textbooks in the Islamic country.

This year’s “country of particular concern” (CPC) designations, announced by State Department spokesman John Kirby on Friday, are little different than those listed every year of the Obama administration.

The core of eight countries – Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan – remains unchanged since 2007. In 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry added Turkmenistan to the list, and this year he has made one additional designation, Tajikistan.

The USCIRF, which like the CPC designation itself is a creation of the IRFA, has called on the current administration and its predecessor every year since 2002 to designate Pakistan – to no avail.

The U.S. potentially wields significant leverage over Pakistan. It is the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, with the administration requesting $742 million in aid for the country in fiscal year 2017.

Pakistanis hold a vigil for the victims of a suicide bombing that targeted Christians in a Lahore park on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016, killing at least 70 people. (AP Photo/Shakil Adil, File)

Pakistan’s omission is not the only disappointment for the USCIRF. It called in its last annual report for an additional seven countries not listed by the State Department to be designated CPCs. Of those seven recommendations only one, Tajikistan, has now been accepted. (The other six are Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria and Vietnam.)

Still, the commission, whose mandate is to advise the administration and Congress on promoting religious freedom abroad, says Pakistan is the single worst case among countries not currently listed as CPCs.

On its 2016 watch list of the world’s 50 worst persecutors of Christians, the religious freedom advocacy group Open Doors has Pakistan at number six this year – the highest ranking it has reached in the 13 years the annual list has been compiled.

(Other countries on the Open Doors’ top 10 that are not designated CPCs by the State Department are Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and Libya.)

‘National interest’

The executive branch’s application of the IRFA has long been source of frustration among religious freedom advocates, including those on Capitol Hill.

The IRFA provides for the imposition of sanctions or other measures against governments which violate citizens’ religious freedom or allow non-state groups or other parties to do so.

But even where countries have been named CPCs, the administration has frequently withheld taking action, invoking waiver authority built into the law.

This has been especially the case for Saudi Arabia, which like Pakistan is viewed as a key U.S. ally in a troubled region.

The USCIRF recommended CPC status for the kingdom every year since the law first came into effect in 1999, but neither the Clinton nor Bush administration did so until Secretary of State Colin Powell took the step in 2004.

Ever since that designation in 2004, both the Bush and Obama administrations have waived CPC-related action against Saudi Arabia, despite appeals by the USCIRF.

Kirby confirmed on Friday that Saudi Arabia will once again be subject to a waiver, along with the three Central Asian republics on the blacklist.

“We have waived application of presidential actions with respect to Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan following determinations that the important national interest of the United States required exercising this waiver authority,” he said.

“Presidential actions” have been implemented for the remaining CPCs (Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea and Sudan), he said.

Even in these cases the actions, whether sanctions or other steps, are not new or additional. Instead, they underline existing measures, which can include limitations to military aid or visa restrictions.

“This is another layer of validity to our concerns over that particular country,” Kirby said.

‘Ongoing and persistent waivers’

In an attempt to strengthen the implementation of IRFA, U.S. lawmakers have drafted bipartisan legislation that is due to be marked up by the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

The Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (H.R. 1150) includes a sense of Congress clause stating that “ongoing and persistent waivers” in the case of CPCs “do not fulfill the purposes of this Act,” and calling on the administration to “find ways to address existing violations, on a country-by-country basis,” through specified actions.

Among other provisions, the bill will allow CPC designation to be broadened to cover non-state actors, such the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Boko Haram.

It requires the State Department to maintain publically-available lists of people forced to renounce their faith, or who are imprisoned, detained, placed under house arrest or tortured for religious reasons – whether by governments or by non-state groups.

The legislation also requires incoming foreign service officers to undergo mandatory international religious freedom training.

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