In a press statement released last week, the State Department announced it has re-designated Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as Countries of Particular Concern under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. In a first, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also announced January 4 that the State Department added Pakistan to the Special Watch List for religious freedom violations. The Special Watch List – created by the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016 – seeks to provide a way to monitor countries that do not meet all criteria of the CPC designation, but still commit ongoing religious freedom violations.
The press release acknowledged:
“In far too many places around the globe, people continue to be persecuted, unjustly prosecuted, or imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief … The protection of religious freedom is vital to peace, stability, and prosperity. These designations are aimed at improving the respect for religious freedom in these countries. The United States remains committed to working with governments, civil society organizations, and religious leaders to advance religious freedom around the world.”
The addition of Pakistan to the Special Watch List was encouraging to many in the international religious freedom community. For the past 15 years, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended that the Secretary of State designate Pakistan as a CPC. In its own press release, USCIRF wasn’t as complimentary:
“Given the strong stance that President Trump has taken on Pakistan recently, the failure to designate Pakistan as a CPC this year comes as a surprise and disappointment.”
Some of Pakistan’s abuses include strict blasphemy laws, anti-Ahmadi Muslim provisions, forced conversions and a climate of impunity for terrorist groups that violate religious freedom laws. Pakistan is also home to Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. She remains imprisoned in an eight-by-10-foot prison cell.
In the fall, Members of both the House and Senate wrote letters to the Administration requesting that Pakistan’s CPC designation be made. 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative President Randel Everett and Distinguished Senior Fellow Frank Wolf also wrote a letter encouraging the same.
While the addition of Pakistan to the Special Watch List does not go as far as some may have hoped, it is a step in the right direction after a decade-and-a-half of inaction.
Abigail Berg Director of Government Relations
1. One of the leading experts on Pakistan in the U.S. is the country’s former parliamentarian, Farahnaz Ispahani. Read her book, “Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities (Oxford University Press, 2017).
2. Write to President Donald Trump, urging him to advocate on behalf of Asia Bibi.
3. Sign the petition to free Asia Bibi: https://beheardproject.com/asia-bibi.