US playing politics over religious freedom in Pakistan, minorities say

In this Nov. 14, 2011, photo, people from the Pakistani Christian community attend the Sunday service at St. Peter's church in Karachi, Pakistan. Pakistan's tiny and underfire Christian community thought big when constructing its latest church _ a domed, three-story building that towers over the sprawling slum it serves and is the largest yet in the violent, Muslim country. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)
  • Ahmadiyya community’s spokesperson says Pakistan needs to put its own house in order

  • Prof Kalyan says US move will isolate minorities instead of making their lives better

  • Jibran Nasir calls move to place Pakistan on the list a ‘pressure tactic’

  • Bishop Alexander Malik demands representatives of minorities to consult communities before speaking at international forums

LAHORE: Members of the minority communities and human rights activists have condemned the United States move of placing Pakistan on the Special Watch List for “severe violations” of religious freedom, calling the designation a “joke” in the backdrop of current political scenario.

Pakistan on Thursday was placed on the Special Watch List, making it the only country to be put under the newly-formed list.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced re-designation of 10 countries as ‘Countries of Particular Concern’ (CPC). “The secretary also placed Pakistan on a Special Watch List for severe violations of religious freedom,” State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said.

The countries are designated on the recommendation of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in line with the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). IRFA requires the US government to designate as CPC any country whose government engages in, or tolerates, particularly severe religious freedom violations that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious.

The List is for countries that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom but may not rise to the level of the CPC. It is being seen as a step below designating it as CPC, which would have automatically kicked in economic and political sanctions.

Pakistan, notably, is the first ever country to be placed on this list, which is a new category created by the Frank R Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016.

Talking to Pakistan Today, Jibran Nasir, a human rights activist, said that the move to place Pakistan on the list is a “pressure tactic”.

“The USCIRF has been making the same recommendation since 2002 but the US decided to place Pakistan in the list only now when the relation between the two countries has taken a bitter turn.”

“The US wants to coerce Pakistan into doing what it wants; the move is political and undermines all the efforts we have made so far to make the country somewhat religiously tolerant,” he added.

The designation will do nothing for minorities in the country; in fact, Pakistan has garnered sympathy from around the globe.

“Turkey, Russia, China and Japan are expressing solidarity with Pakistan, US has made a joke of the human rights issue,” said the activist.

It is pertinent to mention here that the report, this year too, recommended placing Pakistan in countries of particular interest along with Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Central African Republic, Nigeria, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.

The report stated: “At least 40 individuals have been sentenced to death, or are serving life sentences for blasphemy, including two Christians who received death sentences in June 2016. During the year, an Ahmadi and a Shia Muslim were convicted and imprisoned for five years, and four Ahmadis were charged under the anti-Ahmadiyya provisions. Religious minority communities, including Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis, and Shia Muslims, also experience religiously motivated and sectarian violence from both terrorist organisations and individuals within [the] society; the government’s longstanding failure to prevent or prosecute such violence has created a deep-rooted climate of impunity that has emboldened extremist actors.”

The report went on to say that the constitutional provisions and legislation, such as the blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, continue to result in prosecutions and imprisonments in Pakistan.

Jammat-e-Ahmadiyya’s Spokesman Saleemuddin blamed the discriminatory legislation in the country for the reason to be placed on the list, saying, “It is our government’s job to provide protection to us and if it had done its job from the beginning, we wouldn’t be facing humiliation at international forums.”

The spokesman asserted that instead of pointing fingers at others, Pakistan needs to put its own house in order first.  “There is no doubt that religious freedom is being curbed in the country besides the usurping of fundamental human rights,” he said in reply to a question.

Commenting on Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s address in Ghotki, Sindh on Saturday, Saleemuddin lamented: “The prime minister says that people from every religious community are in parliament, but I haven’t seen any Ahmedi lawmaker as of yet.”

Speaking to Hindu community’s representatives, the premier had expressed discontent at Pakistan’s inclusion in the US’s list, saying Pakistan had always stood for the protection of religious freedom of all minorities.

Professor Kalyan Singh, a notable member of the Sikh community, voiced the same concern as Saleemuddin, saying that the problem is internal and must be solved internally. He said such action will isolate Pakistani minorities even more and will act as a tool of propaganda for the rival forces.

Backing Kalyan’s opinion, MNA Asia Nasir said that Pakistan was being treated unfairly in this regard.

“I have noticed that Pakistan has to face extraordinary criticism for little things; however, many countries, particularly the Arab, get a free pass.”

However, the move is not surprising as the USCIRF has backed up their stance using the discrimination against minorities prevalent in the curriculum, forced conversions etc. Recommending designation of Pakistan as a CPC, it stated: “Provincial textbooks with discriminatory content against minorities remain a significant concern. Reports also continue of forced conversions and marriages of Hindu and Christian girls and women, although the Pakistani government took some positive steps on this issue and made other encouraging gestures toward religious minorities.”

Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, a member of the National Assembly, said there are laws regarding religious freedom in the country, but they are not being implemented in spirit due to some hurdles.

In the case of the forced conversions’ act, there is always a ‘cleric’ sitting in the session, who objects to the act or adds something to it.

Commenting on revising the curriculum, he said, “We still haven’t revised course curriculum in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), despite passing the law.”

Professor Kalyan Singh too questioned the textbooks’ curriculum saying that the syllabus contains nothing but seeds of potential hatred towards minorities, as it depicts Hindus, Sikhs, and other minorities of the country in a ‘particular way’.

The minority representatives Pakistan Today talked to lamented the fact that there was no actual representation of minorities in the legislative assemblies of the country.

Dr Vankwani said, “We [Hindus] don’t have actual representation in the assemblies as there are ‘black sheep’ in our midst too.”

The same concern was echoed by Bishop Alexander John Malik who demanded that the communities should be aware of what their representatives are saying about their conditions in the United Nations and other international forums.

Kalyan Singh, pleading to the international forums not to use religion as a political tool, said that there is a difference between political and religious freedom. “We do have religious freedom here, but not the political freedom.”

However, Diep Saeeda, a member of civil society, welcomed the US move of placing Pakistan in the watch list.

“I have heard disturbing accounts from members of various religious communities. A Hindu woman in Sindh once asked me: ‘Why has there never been a case of Hindu man converting to Islam? Why are only girls becoming Muslims?’” she recalled.

“Placing Pakistan in the list is justified, this might put some pressure on the government [to take serious measure] to improve minorities’ situation,” she concluded.


USCIRF also categorises 12 countries as Tier 2, in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and characterised by at least one of the elements of the “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” CPC standard.

This year, the USCIRF placed the following 12 countries on Tier 2: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, and Turkey.

The last section of the report briefly describes, based on USCIRF’s ongoing global monitoring, religious freedom issues in eight other countries—Bangladesh, Belarus, Ethiopia, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Nepal, and Somalia—as well as in the Western Europe region.

This section of the report typically includes countries previously recommended for CPC designation or on Tier 2 and in which USCIRF continues to monitor ongoing concerns; countries USCIRF visited during the reporting year but did not find to meet the CPC or Tier 2 standards; and countries where USCIRF saw emerging issues or troubling trends that merited comment but did not rise to the CPC or Tier 2 level. Nepal and Mexico are new additions to this section this year.


The US can take following actions against the countries engaging in religious persecution:

  • A private or a public demarche;
  • A private or public condemnation;
  • The delay or cancellation of scientific or cultural exchanges;
  • The denial, delay, or cancellation of working, official or state visits;
  • The withdrawing, limitation, or suspension of some forms of US aid;
  • Direction to public and private international institutions to deny assistance;
  • And sanctions prohibiting the US government from entering into imports or exports agreements with the designated governments.