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Pakistan tops worst list for religious freedom

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Religious freedom is under attack in Pakistan and the situation next door in Afghanistan is not that much better, despite an improvement since the country was ruled by the Taliban, a U.S. government advisory commission said in a report released Tuesday.

"Pakistan represents the worst situation in the world for religious freedom for countries not currently designated as 'countries of particular concern' by the U.S. government," the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in its annual report. "The government of Pakistan continues to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief."

The report found that violations reached unprecedented levels because of growing incidents of sectarian violence against Shiite Muslims. The government also failed to protect Christians, Ahmadis and Hindus, it said.

Knox Thames, the commission's director of policy and research, said the situation in Pakistan is "reaching crisis proportions."

The commission repeated a recommendation it has made since 2002 that Pakistan be designated a "country of particular concern."

"The U.S. naming Pakistan as a country of particular concern would bring these challenges to the forefront of the U.S.-Pakistani bilateral relationship and hopefully move Pakistan to make concrete improvements," Mr. Thames said.

Because the commission's role is advisory, the State Department is under no obligation to enforce its recommendations.

The report says Pakistan's anti-blasphemy law is often used to intimidate religious minorities.

Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S., Sherry Rehman, is the subject of an anti-blasphemy lawsuit.

The law, which came into effect during the dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul Haq in the 1980s, prescribes the death penalty for those perceived to have insulted Islam or Prophet Muhammad.

While the government has not carried out any death sentences, extremists often take it upon themselves to execute those accused in blasphemy cases.

In 2011, two prominent Pakistanis — Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic and Cabinet minister for minorities, and Salmaan Taseer, governor of Pakistan's Punjab province — were assassinated for their criticism of the blasphemy law.

A Pakistani Embassy spokesman in Washington did not comment on the report.

On Afghanistan, the commission noted that compared with the brutal rule of the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, conditions for religious freedom have improved markedly.

"However, comparisons to the abusive actions of the Taliban provide an incomplete and misleading picture," the report says. "Dissenting members of the majority faith and minority religious communities continue to face significant restrictions on the free practice of religion. Governmental and non-state actors have taken action against individuals for activity deemed to be 'un-Islamic.'"

"In addition, the Afghan government remains unable to protect citizens against violence and intimidation by the Taliban and other armed groups," it adds.

Moreover, the report says, Afghan President Hamid Karzai undercut the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission when he dismissed three of its nine commissioners in December 2011.

Janan Mosazai, a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Kabul, said the Afghan government is "fully committed to ensuring religious freedom for followers of all religions in Afghanistan, something our constitution is very clear about."

"We also need to compare conditions in Afghanistan today with the suffering and brutality that people of all faiths were subjected throughout the 1990s — first during the civil war and then under the Taliban regime," Mr. Mosazai said in an email.

In light of the withdrawal of most coalition combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the commission recommended that the U.S. government increase and strengthen diplomatic, development and military engagement to promote human rights, especially religious freedom in the country.

Afghanistan is at a critical junction, Mr. Thames said.

"President Karzai's recent call to crack down on 'un-Islamic' television programming demonstrates the tenuous nature of freedom of thought, conscience and religion," he said. "To ensure the government does not adopt a Talibanesque system repressing independent thought, the United States should increase its promotion of human rights, especially religious freedom."

The report recommends that the secretary of State redesignate Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan as countries of particular concern.

In addition to Pakistan, six other countries — Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam — should be designated as countries of particular concern, it says.

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