(CNSNews.com) – For 16 consecutive years, the State Department under three administrations has rejected advice from an independent statutory watchdog to blacklist Pakistan for religious freedom violations – until now.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Tuesday that he has designated the world’s second most-populous Islamic nation as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for egregious abuses of religious freedom.
Under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), the federal government identifies countries that have engaged in or tolerated ”systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom” as CPCs, a designation that provides for sanctions or other measures designed to encourage improvements.
Pompeo also named nine other CPCs – Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Every year since 2002 the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a body established by the IRFA to advise the executive and legislative branches, has called for CPC designation for Pakistan.
And each year since 2002 the State Department has declined, despite continuing concerns over arguably the world’s most notorious blasphemy laws, which have disproportionately targeted non-Muslim minorities.
No reasons have been given for disregarding the annual recommendation, but Pakistan since 9/11 has been viewed as an important – if often truculent – ally in the war against terrorism. For that reason it has been a major recipient of U.S. military and other aid, receiving more than $33 billion in direct aid or as reimbursements for counterterrorism efforts.
(That, too, has shifted under the Trump administration. Last January the Pentagon said $300 million in aid was being withheld until Pakistan ensured terrorists no longer found safe haven on its soil. Eight months later the suspended funds were “reprogrammed” to other priorities.)
USCIRF Chairman Tenzin Dorjee on Tuesday welcomed Pompeo’s announcement, and singled out the Pakistan decision.
“We are particularly gratified that, after years of documenting systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom in Pakistan, the State Department has finally added that country to the list of the world’s worst violators for the first time,” Dorjee said.
Pakistani governments have long resisted calls to annul or amend the blasphemy laws.
Ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom Sam Brownback told reporters Tuesday that of those incarcerated around the world for blasphemy offenses, “half of them are in Pakistani prisons.”
The laws were spotlighted again recently after Asia Bibi, the first Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, was acquitted by Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
Six weeks have passed, but Asia Bibi’s fate remains uncertain, as authorities refuse to allow her to travel to safety abroad, to escape Muslim radicals demanding her death.
Brownback said the administration “continue[s] to watch very carefully what’s happening to Asia Bibi.”
Christians are not the only minority persecuted in Pakistan. Ahmadis are members of a Muslim sect considered heretical by mainstream Muslims, and Pakistan’s penal code criminalizes Ahmadi worship.
Brownback noted the plight of Ahmadis, and added the Pakistan’s government also “often fails to hold accountable perpetrators of killings and violence against members of religious minorities targeted on account of their religious beliefs or affiliations.”
Pakistan Christian Congress president Nazir Bhatti welcomed the U.S. move and urged other Western democracies also to apply pressure on Pakistan to improve.
Bhatti, who is based in the U.S., said thousands of Christian and Hindus have fled Pakistan for safety in neighboring countries where they face “miserable conditions as refugees.”
He also accused the government of clamping down on his group and its affiliated Pakistan Christian Post publication, blocking access to both websites inside Pakistan in a bid to stop a “powerful voice” advocating for religious freedom. Attempts to access them bring up the message, “This website is prohibited in the territory of Pakistan.”
Despite the concerns, Pakistan’s CPC designation will not have an immediate practical effect: Brownback said sanctions against Islamabad would be waived for “national interest” reasons.
Of the other nine CPCs, sanctions against Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have also been waived, for the same reasons.
(Despite appeals from the USCIRF, Saudi Arabia has received a pass since first being listed as a CPC in 2004, with administrations each year invoking annual “national interest” waivers.)
When Congress reauthorized IRFA in 2016, lawmakers voiced frustration over what many saw as the overuse of presidential waivers.
The reauthorization legislation limits waivers to 180 days, after which time they may be extended provided the president reports to Congress either that the government concerned “has ceased the violations,” or that “the important national interest of the United States requires the exercise of such waiver authority.”
It also expresses the sense of Congress that “ongoing waivers do not fulfill the purposes” of the IRFA.