US places Pakistan on religious-freedom watch list

Pakistan added to state department’s watch list for ‘severe violations’ in potential new blow to US-Pakistan relations.

Protest in Pakistan
The US administration has decided to withhold $255m in military assistance to Pakistan [Anadolu]

The US has placed Pakistan on a watch list for “severe violations” of religious freedom, a move Pakistan has rejected as “politically motivated”. 

The decision comes amid an escalating war of words between the two countries. 

In a statement, issued on Thursday, the US state department added Pakistan to a special watch list, while re-designating a group of other countries as being of “particular concern” on the issue of religious freedom.

“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,” Heather Nauert, state department spokesperson, noted in a statement.

“Today, a number of governments infringe upon individuals’ ability to adopt, change, or renounce their religion or belief.”

Under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the US annually designates countries of particular concern, and Thursday’s statement re-designated Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

“The secretary [of state] also placed Pakistan on a Special Watch List for severe violations of religious freedom,” Nauert said.

Pakistan said on Friday that it “rejects the US designation” and that the report is “not based on objective criteria”. 

“This placement on special watch list is a new categorisation and we would be seeking clarification from the US regarding its rationale and implications,” a statement from Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. 

“It is surprising that countries that have a well-known record of systematic persecution of religious minorities have not been included in the list,” the statement added. 

“This reflects the double standards and political motives behind the listing and hence lacks credibility.”

Blasphemy law

In a 2017 report, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom noted that the Pakistani government “continued to perpetrate and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations”.

The report singled out provisions such as the country’s blasphemy law, under which dozens of people have been sentenced to death or life imprisonment, and cited sectarian violence against religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis and Shia Muslims.

Earlier this week, Pakistan hit back at the US after President Donald Trump accused the country of providing a safe haven for “terrorists”.

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In response, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Pakistan’s prime minister, called a meeting of the National Security Committee, which issued a statement denouncing Trump’s remarks as “completely incomprehensible as they contradicted facts manifestly, struck with great insensitivity at the trust between two nations built over generations, and negated the decades of sacrifices made by the Pakistani nation”.

Late last month, Pakistan’s military warned the US against the possibility of taking unilateral action against armed groups on its soil, after Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, urged Pakistan to do more to “defeat terrorist organisations”.

Over the summer, the US said it was withholding $255m in military assistance to Pakistan until the country increased efforts to crack down on internal “terrorist” groups.

Pakistan’s foreign affairs ministry issued a statement on Friday noting that it was engaging with the US on the issue of security cooperation.

“It, however, needs to be appreciated that Pakistan has fought the war against terrorism largely from its own resources which has cost over $120bn in 15 years,” the statement said.

“We are determined to continue to do all it takes to secure the lives of our citizens and broader stability in the region … Arbitrary deadlines, unilateral pronouncements and shifting goalposts are counterproductive in addressing common threats.”

Source: Al Jazeera