US State Dept releases religious freedom rights reports in Pakistan

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The US State Department has released annual reports of US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRS) on religious freedom in Pakistan, India, China, Saudi Arabia and other countries. The Nation has published report on China in previous edition. This week, we are publishing report on Pakistan for the information of our valued readers without being party or biased. The USCIRS has also recommended some measures to the US Govt to take for what it says to streamline the overall situation. Pakistan has reportedly expressed no reaction albeit India has rejected the report saying not truth. (Editor)

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Religious freedom conditions across Pakistan continued

to trend negatively in 2019. Islamabad makes no comments

Nation special report

In 2019, religious freedom conditions across Pakistan continued to trend negatively. The systematic enforcement of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, and authorities’ failure to address forced conversions of religious minorities—including Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs—to Islam, severely restricted freedom of religion or belief.

While there were high-profile acquittals, the blasphemy law remained in effect. USCIRF is aware of nearly 80 individuals who remained imprisoned for blasphemy, with at least half facing a life sentence or death. After spending five years in solitary confinement for allegedly posting blasphemous content online, Junaid Hafeez was given the death sentence in December 2019. Many ongoing trials related to blasphemy experienced lengthy delays as cases were moved between judges.

Moreover, these laws create a culture of impunity for violent attacks following accusations. In March 2019, a student murdered Professor Khalid Hameed over perceived “anti-Islamic” remarks. Protestors in Sindh attacked and burned Hindu shops and houses of worship following two incidents: in the first, a cleric accused a Hindu veterinarian of wrapping medicine with paper printed with Qur’anic verses; in the second, a student levelled blasphemy charges against a Hindu principal. A mob also attacked a Christian community in Punjab after a mosque claimed over its loudspeaker that the community had insulted Islam.

In another incident, nearly 200 Christian families in Karachi were forced to flee their homes due to mob attacks after false blasphemy accusations against four Christian women. Ahmadis (in report word Muslim is written), with their faith essentially criminalized, continued to face severe persecution from authorities as well as societal harassment due to their beliefs, with both the authorities and mobs targeting their houses of worship. In October, for example, police partially demolished a 70-year-old Ahmadiyya mosque in Punjab.

In Hindu, Christian, and Sikh communities, young women, often underage, continued to be kidnapped for forced conversion to Islam. Several independent institutions estimated that 1,000 women are forcibly converted to Islam each year; many are kidnapped, forcibly married, and subjected to rape. Local police, particularly in Punjab and Sindh, are often accused of complicity in these cases by failing to investigate them properly. If such cases are investigated or adjudicated, the women are reportedly questioned in front of the men they were forced to marry, creating pressure to deny coercion.

In October 2019, the Sindh Government rejected a bill seeking to criminalize forced conversion. Religious minorities also faced broader social discrimination, with reports of economic boycotts.

Recommendations to US Govt

Re-designate Pakistan as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), and lift the waiver releasing the administration from taking otherwise legislatively mandated action as a result of the designation.

Enter into a binding agreement, under Section 405(c) of IRFA, with the Pakistani government to encourage substantial steps to address religious freedom violations with benchmarks, including but not limited to:

Release blasphemy prisoners and other individuals imprisoned for their religion or beliefs;

Repeal blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws; until repeal is accomplished, enact reforms to make blasphemy a bailable offense, require evidence by accusers, ensure proper investigation by senior police officials, allow authorities to dismiss unfounded accusations, and enforce existing Penal Code articles criminalizing perjury and false accusations;

Address extremist rhetoric often preceding attacks on minorities, while protecting freedom of expression, and remove from education curricula any content discriminatory to religious minorities;  

Create the National Commission for Minorities’ Rights as mandated by the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision; and Remove requirements for self-identification of religion on identity documents;  

Impose targeted sanctions on Pakistani government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States under human rights-related financial and visa authorities, citing specific religious freedom violations; and  

Assign a portion of existing U.S. Department of State programs to help increase security for at-risk religious communities and houses of worship.

Background

Background Pakistan’s population is 96.28 percent Muslim (85–90 percent Sunni, 10–15 percent Shi’a, and 0.22 percent Ahmadi), with smaller populations of Hindus (1.60 percent); Christians (1.59 percent); and Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’is, and Zoroastrians/Parsis (0.1 percent)

HYDERABAD: Members of Hindu community of Hosri (Sindh) demonstrating for their protection and rights. They demanded the government to take effective measures to stop abduction of Hindu women and girls their forced conversion to Islam and also protect them from barbarism of influential landlords.

Pakistan was established as an Islamic Republic in 1956 with special status for Islam (for example, only Muslims can serve as president and prime minister).

In October 2019, Pakistan’s National Assembly blocked a bill allowing non-Muslims to hold these positions. Pakistan’s constitution nominally protects religious freedom by prohibiting faith-based discrimination and guaranteeing the right to religious practices and access religious education. The constitution also reserves for religious minorities 10 seats in the National Assembly, four seats in the Senate, and 23 seats in four provincial assemblies. However, the constitution’s second amendment, added in 1974, declares Ahmadis non-Muslims.

Positive Developments

There were positive developments in 2019, such as the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor with India, allowing Sikh pilgrims to visit the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan’s Punjab Province; Prime Minister Imran Khan laying the foundation stone of Pakistan’s first Sikh university; and the reopening and renovation of a Hindu temple in Sialkot.

In January 2019, the Supreme Court upheld Asia Bibi’s acquittal from blasphemy charges, and she departed for Canada later in the year. Abdul Shakoor, an Ahmadi who was part of USCIRF’s Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project, was released from prison in March after being sentenced to eight years in 2015 on terrorism charges for sharing Ahmadiyya literature.

ISLAMABAD: Leaders and followers of Tehreek Nifaz-e-Fiqa Jafria (TNFJ) hold a rally in favour of meeting their demands. They were insisting for protection of their places of worship and religious rights.

In September, the Supreme Court acquitted Wajih-ul Hassan, who spent 18 years imprisoned with a death sentence under false blasphemy charges. The government has taken steps to address educational material with discriminatory content against religious minorities, including announcing in April that it would bring 30,000 madrassas under government control to combat religious extremism, despite earlier provincial governments’ failures to register madrassas comprehensively under the 2015 National Action Plan.

In 2019, the government also announced it would implement a common national curriculum beginning in 2021.

Key U.S. Policy

During 2019, Pakistan continued to be a key partner for U.S. security interests, particularly with the Afghanistan peace process. After President Donald J. Trump suspended military assistance to Pakistan in 2018 due to its unwillingness to confront certain terrorist groups, in particular the Haqqani network, this bilateral relationship saw improvement in 2019, especially with Prime Minister Khan making his first visit to the United States in July and the U.S. government seeking Pakistani support for talks with the Taliban.

Despite this progress, U.S. officials continued to raise concerns about religious freedom violations. In February, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel D. Brownback visited Islamabad to meet with Pakistani officials to push for positive change on religious freedom.

A number of senior U.S. officials also highlighted Pakistan’s religious freedom violations during the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom and President Trump met with Abdul Shakoor in the White House. Then Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice G. Wells further elaborated on these issues during an October hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Non-proliferation.

On December 18, the State Department re-designated Pakistan as a CPC under IRFA, but again issued a waiver on any related sanctions “as required in the ‘important national interest of the United States.’”