New Delhi, April 22 (IANS) The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has asked the Biden administration to impose targeted sanctions on Pakistani government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom.
In its annual report released on Wednesday, the Washington-based commission redesignated Pakistan as a 'country of particular concern' (CPC), for engaging in systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom of minorities.
The USCIRF has recommended to the US government to freeze certain Pakistani individuals' assets and/or barring their entry into the US under human rights-related financial and visa authorities, citing specific religious freedom violations.
Last year, the report had said, religious freedom conditions in Pakistan continued to worsen.
"The government systematically enforced blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws and failed to protect religious minorities from abuses by nonstate actors.
There was a sharp rise in targeted killings, blasphemy cases, forced conversions, and hate speech targeting religious minorities including Ahmadis, Shia Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs."
Pakistan's treatment of religious minorities is best assessed through the prism of its treatment of the Ahmadiyya community, who continued to face severe official and societal persecution for their beliefs and self-identification as Muslims, the report said.
The year saw a surge in targeted killings of Ahmadis. Between July and November, five Ahmadis were murdered, including 57-year-old Tahir Naseem, an American citizen accused of blasphemy who was shot in a courtroom in July.
The report pointed out that in May, the government formed the National Minorities Commission (NMC) required by a 2014 Supreme Court decision, however Ahmadis were excluded.
During debates surrounding their possible inclusion, Noor
Haq Qadri, Pakistan's Minister for Religious and Inter-faith Harmony Affairs, publicly stated, "Whoever shows sympathy or compassion towards [Ahmadis] is neither loyal to Islam nor the state of Pakistan."
The government did not address statements made by Qadri or other officials who incited hatred and intolerance towards Ahmadis and other religious minorities, the USCIRF.
Pakistan's religiously discriminatory legislation, such as the blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, used in combination with new media rules, contributed to egregious human rights abuses and fostered an overall atmosphere of intolerance for religious minorities that often leads to violence and discrimination.
In August alone, over 40 blasphemy First Incident Reports (FIRs) were registered, mostly targeting the Shi'a minority during the month of Muharram.
Other religious communities, the report said, were also targeted with blasphemy charges. In 2020, there reportedly were 30 Christians, including seven on death row, jailed in Pakistan on charges of blasphemy. They include Asif Pervaiz, a 37-year-old Christian garment factory worker whom a Lahore court sentenced to death in September.
The issue of abduction, forced conversion to Islam, rape, and forced marriage remained an imminent threat for religious minority women and children, particularly from the Hindu and Christian faiths.
During 2020, USCIRF documented incidents of forced marriages, more than half involving minors. The government did little to ensure minor girls' safety and return to their families, the Commission said.
Authorities often do not take any action, and in abduction cases that are brought to the courts, officials have claimed that victims willingly converted to Islam.
The head of the Parliamentary Committee on Forced Religious Conversions, Senator Anwarul Haq Kakar, claimed that most cases of forced conversion "have some degree of willingness on the part of the girl."
Pakistani courts systematically failed to protect and provide justice to victims, who are often forced to testify that they converted voluntarily to protect themselves and their families from further harm.
In April, Myra Shahbaz, a 14-year-old Christian schoolgirl, was abducted at gunpoint. Despite Myra telling police she was drugged, raped, and forced to sign papers her abductor later used to allege that she was 19 and had voluntarily married and converted, the court ordered that she be returned to her abductor, the report highlighted.
The USCIRF has recommended to the Biden administration to redesignate Pakistan as CPC 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.
It has asked the US government to 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.
The Commission has asked the Biden administration to ask Pakistan to release blasphemy prisoners and other individuals imprisoned for their religion or beliefs.
The USCIRF has asked the US government to ask Islamabad to 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.
Pakistan must also address extremist rhetoric often preceding attacks on minorities, while protecting freedom of expression.
The country should hold accountable individuals who incite or participate in vigilante violence, targeted killings, forced conversions, and other hate crimes. The Islamic Republic must reform public educational textbooks, curriculum, and teacher training materials to ensure content is inclusive of and not discriminatory toward religious minorities.
Above all, Pakistan must remove requirements for self-identification of religion on identity documents.
The US Congress should advocate for the release of religious prisoners of conscience in Pakistan, including Junaid Hafeez, Ramzan Bibi, Shafqat Emmanuel, and Shagufta Kausar, the USCIRF has recommended.
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