US expresses concern over religious freedom of minorities in Pakistan
Washington, June 22: The US has asked Pakistan to release more than 40 members of the religious minorities facing blasphemy charges and also to appoint an envoy to address the various religious freedom concerns in the country.
Speaking at the release of the annual report on the International Religious Freedom of the State Department for the year 2018, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted how the Pakistan's Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Catholic, of blasphemy, sparing her the death penalty after she spent nearly a decade in prison.
"More than 40 others remain jailed for life, or face execution on that very same charge. We continue to call for their release, and encourage the government to appoint an envoy to address the various religious freedom concerns," Pompeo said as the Congress mandated annual report portrayed a grim picture of religious freedom in Pakistan.
Last year Pakistan was put in Special Watch List category on International Religious Freedom mainly because of the deterioration in religious freedom in the country. And early this year it was put on the list of Countries of Particular Concern.
"The report we're putting out today, then we will make other determinations off of this report.But we put them on the special watchlist," Sam Brownback, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, told reporters. He said that harm on various religious communities have taken place in Pakistan.
"I visited them, went to Pakistan earlier this year - we were in frequent contact with them, I've met with embassy officials - to cite the issues that are going on in Pakistan. Unfortunately, there's been a lot of harm to various religious communities that have taken place in Pakistan. It's a country I've worked with often in the past, and it's my hope we're going to start to see some progress," Brownback said in response to a question.
Referring to his talks with senior Pakistani leadership, Brownback hoped to some key negotiations with Pakistan to try to move them forward on protecting their religious minorities.
"We have got a keen eye focused on them and hope to work with them, and to get them off the special watchlist. But they're going to have to take actions themselves," he said.
According to the annual report of the State Department, there were at least 77 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 28 of whom had received death sentences, although the government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy.
"Some of these cases began before the beginning of the year but were not previously widely known," it said. Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders and human rights organisations continued to express concerns that the government targeted Ahmadi Muslims for blasphemy, and they continued to be affected by discriminatory and ambiguous legislation that denied them basic rights, the report said.
"Visiting US government officials met with minority community representatives, parliamentarians, human rights activists, and members of the federal cabinet to highlight concerns regarding the treatment of the Shia, Ahmadiyya, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, and other minority communities, the application of blasphemy laws, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion, it said.
Pompeo during the occasion also announced the elevation of the Offices of International Religious Freedom and the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism within the State Department, saying that the American President Donald Trump has promoted religious freedom like never before in America's foreign policy agenda.
He said that Brownback will continue to report directly to him and the reorganisation will provide the two offices with additional staff and resources, and enhance partnerships.