Pakistan’s inclusion on the US blacklist of “countries of particular concern” for religious freedom violations has provoked ire in Islamabad, where it was condemned as arbitrary, detached from reality, biased and unfair.
The State Department’s designation of Pakistan is “unilateral and arbitrary,” Pakistan’s Foreign Office said in a statement on Tuesday. “This pronouncement is not only detached from ground realities of Pakistan but also raises questions about the credibility and transparency of the entire exercise.”
The designation is reflective of selective targeting of countries, and thus unlikely to be helpful to the professed cause of advancing religious freedom.
Pakistan was first placed on the list in 2018, accused of engaging in or tolerating “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.” The US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a government-funded body operating separately from the State Department, said it was “particularly gratified” by the designation.
Washington specifically referenced the case of Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman jailed in 2009 under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and sentenced to death. She was eventually released in 2018 after the Supreme Court voided her conviction.
Despite Bibi’s release, the US did not remove Pakistan’s designation in the 2019 update to the list. Islamabad thus found itself in the same company as China, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Myanmar, as well as “entities” such as Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS), the Taliban, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
However, Pakistan did manage to avoid sanctions envisioned under the designation, which were waived on grounds of “national interest” – as was also the case with Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
The US has maintained a religious freedom blacklist under a 1998 law, passed at the peak of the “humanitarian interventionism” by the Clinton administration. The law also established the CIRF, which recently drew the ire of India by criticizing New Delhi’s new citizenship rules.
Though opposed on almost every issue since the 1947 partition, Pakistan and India thus find themselves agreeing that US meddling in their affairs on the pretext of caring about “religious freedom” is unwelcome and worthy of condemnation.