'Arbitrary': Pakistan rejects US religious freedom designation

US State Department last week said it was re-designating Pakistan a 'country of particular concern' over violations.

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    On Saturday, a Pakistani court sentenced an academic to death for insulting Islam’s prophet in a Facebook post [File: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters]
    On Saturday, a Pakistani court sentenced an academic to death for insulting Islam’s prophet in a Facebook post [File: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters]

    Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan has rejected a US government move to designate the country "of particular concern" on religious freedom, with the Pakistani foreign ministry saying the label was "unilateral and arbitrary" and the result of a biased evaluation process.

    The US State Department announced last week that it was re-designating Pakistan a "country of particular concern" for having "having engaged in or tolerated 'systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations of religious freedom'".

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    Pakistan's Foreign Office, however, rejected the designation, saying it was a "selective targeting" of countries.

    "This pronouncement is not only detached from ground realities of Pakistan but also raises questions about the credibility and transparency of the entire exercise," said Foreign Office spokesperson Aisha Farooqui in a statement.

    "The designation is reflective of selective targeting of countries, and thus unlikely to be helpful to the professed cause of advancing religious freedom."

    Pakistan is home to roughly 207 million people, of whom the vast majority are Muslim. About 1.6 percent of the population is Hindu, with a further 1.59 percent Christian, according to a 1998 government census.

    Crimes targeting members of minority groups - including non-majority Muslim sects - occur sporadically, including targeted attacks against Christians, Shia Muslims, Ahmadiyya Muslims and others, and the disproportionate application of the country's strict blasphemy laws, which can carry a death sentence.

    The US designation is based on an evaluation carried out by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent body funded by Washington.

    In its 2019 report, the USCIRF said Pakistan had failed to adequately protect its minorities and failed to ensure religious freedom for all, including members of the majority.

    "The government of Pakistan failed to adequately protect these groups, and it perpetrated systematic, ongoing, egregious religious freedom violations," reads the report.

    The report makes special mention of the blasphemy laws, which criminalise insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad or its holy book, the Quran. Those crimes carry punishments of a mandatory death sentence and life imprisonment respectively.

    Blasphemy laws

    Increasingly, those accused of blasphemy have been killed in targeted attacks or by violent mobs. Since 1990, at least 75 people have been killed in such attacks, according to an Al Jazeera tally.

    At least 40 people remain on death row or serving life sentences for committing blasphemy in Pakistan, according to USCIRF.

    On Saturday, a court in the central city of Multan convicted an academic accused of insulting Islam's prophet in a Facebook post and sentenced him to death.

    Pakistan's foreign ministry, however, rejected assertions that the laws were applied unfairly, and said the US government process had failed to adequately censure neighbouring India.

    "The subjectivity and bias of the State Department's designations are further illustrated by the conspicuous omission of India, the biggest violator of religious freedom," said Farooqui.

    "In today's India, people belonging to minority communities are being lynched, persecuted and killed with impunity."

    In India, tens of thousands have rallied against a discriminatory new citizenship law since it was passed earlier this month, with many fearing it will marginalise the country's Muslim minority.

    Protests have turned violent in places, with at least 25 people killed since the demonstrations began.

    The Indian government has launched a widespread crackdown against the protests, shutting down internet access and imposing curfews in several areas and arresting thousands.

    Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera's digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News