Pakistani Christians experience an increase in violence such as a suicide attack on the Bethel Methodist Church in Quetta in December last year that killed more than ten and injured dozens of people. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
A suicide-bombing attack on the Bethel Methodist Church in Quetta in December last year left at least ten dead and dozens more injured. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

Pakistan is among the ten countries that appear on the US State Department’s latest list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) for religious-freedom violations, Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, announced in a press statement on Tuesday, 11 December.

China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan are accused of “having engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations of religious freedom”.

“Safeguarding religious freedom is vital to ensuring peace, stability, and prosperity. These designations are aimed at improving the lives of individuals and the broader success of their societies,” Pompeo said.

One of the reasons Pakistan has been added to this year’s list was the significant impact of the country’s blasphemy laws, said the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, during a special press briefing on Tuesday.

“[Of] the world’s population of people that are in prison for blasphemy, half of them are in Pakistani prisons, including Asia Bibi recently, who was recently released and is now awaiting a re-hearing of sorts by the supreme court of Pakistan,” he said, though he added that there had been “some encouraging signs … how they’ve handled some of the recent protesting against the blasphemy laws, and we continue to watch very carefully what’s happening to Asia Bibi”.

Aasiya Noreen, a Pakistani Christian woman commonly known as Asia Bibi, was acquitted by the country’s highest court in October of a blasphemy charge carrying the capital punishment.

Pakistan’s listing as a CPC puts the country at risk of potential sanctions under the International Religious Freedom Act, but Brownback said the US would waive sanctions because they would not be in the US’s “national interest”.

Each CPC country “presents unique challenges, as well as a different potential for change”, Pakistani newspaper Dawn quoted a US Embassy spokesperson as saying.

Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a press release called its “blacklisting” by the US a “unilateral and politically motivated” move and said it did not need to be told “how to protect the rights of its minorities”.

Its statement said Pakistan is a “multi-religious and pluralistic society where people of diverse faiths and denominations live together … Ensuring equal treatment of minorities and their enjoyment of human rights without any discrimination is the cardinal principle of the Constitution of Pakistan”.

US Senators had called for Pakistan to be designated a “country of particular concern” in October last year, but a Pakistani journalist said at the time that adding her country to the list would be “ineffective” as it was “unlikely that a designation would motivate Pakistan to check the blatant violation of religious minorities’ rights”.

Uzbekistan no longer of ‘particular concern’

Three countries that did not make the CPC list this year but were added to the Special Watch List are Comoros, Russia and Uzbekistan, whose governments were accused of having “engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom”.

It is the first time since 2006 that Uzbekistan is not designated a CPC. “They’ve made substantial changes, and they’re doing it because they want to grow their nation,” Brownback said. “They want to see less terrorism, and they see this as a key route to really improving the livelihood of people throughout their nation, which we agree with, and we’re working with them.”

However, as World Watch Monitor has reported, religious minorities like Christians continue to be harassed and detained by Uzbek authorities for having religious books in their possession, lacking state permission for their meetings or for teaching religious beliefs without specialised religious education.

The US also designated nine organisations – Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, ISIS, ISIS-Khorasan, and the Taliban – as Entities of Particular Concern, with Brownback saying “some of these non-state actors are some of the most egregious violators of religious freedom”.