US Move to Blacklist Pakistan for Religious Freedom Violations Sparks Fear

human rights commission of pakistan
Pakistani Christians demonstrate against terrorism and religious oppression. Photo: Shakil Adil, AP

KABUL, Afghanistan — The move by the U.S. to place Pakistan on a “Special Watch List” for “severe violations of religious freedom” – during a growing rift between the two longtime allies – is feared to cause negative repercussions for the already oppressed minorities in the South Asian country of over 190 million.

After blacklisting Pakistan on January 4, the U.S. State Department noted in a statement that the protection of religious freedom is vital to peace, stability, and prosperity. It added that the new designations were aimed at improving the respect for religious freedom in Pakistan and ten other countries added to the list.

A drastic cut in security aid to Pakistan was also announced by the U.S. on the same day. The funds will be frozen until Islamabad takes action against terrorist organizations, including the Haqqani Network, making many in Pakistan see this as a political move rather than the one based on human rights.

Pakistan immediately asked Washington for clarification. “It is, however, important to acknowledge that Pakistan is firmly committed to promotion and protection of human rights including the right to religious freedom, under its Constitution,” Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry said in a statement on January 7.

There have been, however, many incidents to prove that alongside the religious minorities, the members of the majority religious group – Muslims – have been on the receiving end of the wrath unleashed by intolerance for years.

Blasphemy is a crime in Pakistan, which results in penalties ranging from a fine to death. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a voluntary organization that has been documenting blasphemy cases for decades, Muslims constitute the majority of those booked under these laws, closely followed by the Ahmadi community. Data provided by National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) shows a total of 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmedis, and 187 Christians and 21 Hindus have been accused under various clauses of the blasphemy law since 1987.

Despite many incidents of persecution of Christians, Hindus, and minority Muslims sects, there are many voices and movements for justice and equality. Some people in Pakistan fear that the U.S. move will make such forces suspicious in the eyes of common people, since public sentiments towards the West are already pretty negative.

Ibn Abdur Rehman, also known as I. A. Rehman, has been the head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) since 1990 and is widely considered as one of the most prominent human rights activists.

“The negative reaction [to the U.S. move of placing Pakistan on the watch list] can take two forms. One, the U.S. may become more unpopular [among] the country’s conservative population. The other form could [lead to an] increase in violation of minorities’ rights. Both are possible… but unlikely”, Mr. Rehman said cautiously talking to The Globe Post.

He noted that religious intolerance is at quite a high level in Pakistan and is likely to go even higher because the state is coming under increasing pressure of extremist militants.

At the same time, there are some liberal forces trying to turn the tide. Last year, a provincial assembly enacted a landmark law against forced conversions in Pakistan. The bill passed by the Sindh Assembly recommended a five-year punishment for perpetrators and facilitators of forceful religious conversions in the southern province that homes one of the biggest Hindu populations in the country.

The bill, dubbed “The Sindh Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill of 2015,” prevents the forced conversion of minors, and even puts newly converted adults under observation for a period of 21 days to ensure they are converting without any pressure.

Nevertheless, even minority leaders from the Sindh province have spoken against the latest U.S. move. Kheel Daas Kohistani, an active member of the Hindu community in Sindh, and Secretary General of the ruling party’s Minority Wing is one of them. He told The Globe Post the decision by the U.S. is a “punishment” to Pakistan for opposing Washington’s decision to relocate its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“We are free to celebrate our religious festivals and perform prayers,” Mr. Kohistani asserted.

Along with Pakistan, the State Department has also re-designated ten other nations as “countries of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act. They were included in the renewed list for having engaged in or tolerating egregious violations of religious freedom. The re-designated countries were China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.