Pakistan's Religious Freedom Problem Severe, Says Commission

USCIRF urges Hillary Clinton to declare Pakistan ‘country of particular concern’

Observing that Islamabad has failed to protect freedom of religion or belief, the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom on Thursday demanded Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declare Pakistan a “country of particular concern.”

"As human-rights concern with serious security implications, the need for greater respect for religious freedom and related rights should be an integral issue in the U.S. bilateral relationship with Pakistan," USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo and its commissioner Felice Gaer said in an op-ed in The Hill. "We have identified this as a problem, and the U.S. should be devising and demanding solutions. While it is complicated and awkward to do so in the case of an ally, the abuses and threats posed by a growing religious extremism threaten both countries," they wrote.

USCIRF said designating Pakistan “a 'country of particular concern' will help the U.S. to turn its efforts to new solutions and practices to address Pakistan's endemic religious freedom problems." The assassinations of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, and federal minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti underscored Pakistan's failure to protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience or religion for even its most prominent citizens.

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Bhatti, known internationally, also opposed the blasphemy laws and said he was “speaking for the oppressed, marginalized and persecuted Christians and other minorities.” Although a few brave Pakistanis embraced the two men in death, many more, including in Taseer’s own ruling Pakistan People’s Party, stayed silent while extremists praised the murderers.

Both Bhatti and Taseer had angered extremists by demanding a review of the controversial blasphemy law in light of the case of Asia Bibi – the first woman to be sentenced to death under the blasphemy law in Pakistan. Bibi, a Christian mother of two and stepmother to three others, was accused of blasphemy against Islam’s prophet. Although she has denied speaking ill of the Muslim prophet, she was beaten and has been imprisoned since June 2009. Bibi is still in prison and waiting for a court hearing date for her appeal.

While Taseer’s killer was arrested soon after the assassination, Bhatti’s killers have yet to be traced. After repeated complaints that the police was not pursuing the case efficiently, Bhatti’s brother Paul Bhatti, currently an adviser to Pakistan's government on religious minorities told the Catholic Fides news agency, that investigations into his brother’s homicide were finally on the right track."

"It was committed by the Taliban and Islamist fanatics. Now, we are waiting for the capture of the perpetrators, who are in Dubai," he said. He added that investigators have determined that al-Qaida's "Brigade 313," led by feared militant leader Ilyas Kashmiri, asked a Taliban commander based in Pakistan’s Punjab province named Asmatullah Mawaia to kill his brother. There were people who tried to suggest the official was killed by those close to him, but, "the truth has emerged," Paul Bhatti said. "We were convinced that he had been killed for his work, for his defense of human rights (and) the rights of Christians. ... The investigation has proved us right," he added.

In recent years, armed radicals have escalated attacks against Sufi Muslims and Shias and especially against religious minorities, including Ahmadis and Christians.

Noting that USCIRF has reported on a long chain of religiously related murders and violence dating back to 2001, Leo and Gaer said on September 1, 2010, bombers attacked a Shia procession in Lahore, killing at least 40 and wounding as many as 200. Two days later, bombers attacked a similar procession in Quetta, murdering at least 70 and wounding 160. Scores of Ahmadis were gunned down in May 2010 in Lahore during Friday prayers.

In July of that year, 40 Sufis were slain and hundreds wounded in the bombing of a shrine, also in Lahore. In 2009, violence in the village of Gojra was unleashed against Christians, killing eight and injuring 18, and two churches and 75 homes were set on fire, they wrote.

"Not only does Pakistan typically fail to prevent or successfully prosecute such crimes, it fuels them through its harmful laws, including mandates that criminalize Ahmadis' practice of their religion and a blasphemy law that commonly is used to intimidate religious minorities or others with whom the accusers disagree or have unrelated conflicts," the op-ed said. They wrote, "These measures embolden religious extremists, fostering a climate conducive to vigilantism and other violence against unpopular religious minorities, women and even members of Pakistan's religious majority."

The seemingly unchecked growth of religious extremism in Pakistan has led to heinous acts of violence being committed among the minority Christian population in the country. Of the 1,060 people charged under the nation's predominantly Muslim blasphemy laws from 1986 to 2011, 46 have been killed either by angry mobs or by individuals. The Christian community has had their churches and homes attacked in recent years.

In a detailed study released last year, Freedom House concluded: “Although many other countries have laws against blasphemy, the situation in Pakistan is unique in its severity and its particular effects on religious minorities.” The extremist Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party has even proposed banning the Bible as “blasphemous.”

The majority of those prosecuted for blasphemy are Muslim, but the law is disproportionately deployed against Christians, who also often find themselves targets of vigilante violence. At least 35 Christians charged with blasphemy have been murdered since 1986. Many others have endured brutal rapes and beatings, while churches, homes and businesses have been ransacked, looted and burned.

Unfortunately, even before the Taseer and Bhatti murders, the situation in Pakistan was deteriorating. Last November, the U.S. State Department declared: “the number and severity of reported high-profile cases against minorities increased” and “organized violence against minorities increased in Pakistan.”

Thousands of Pakistanis who think and believe differently than mainstream Muslims are at risk of being slandered under the blasphemy law, and those who live in poverty or are illiterate are particularly vulnerable. Personal vendettas from neighbors, co-workers and rivals are the most common reasons blasphemy law cases are filed, according to Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.

“Most victims are Muslims, but non-Muslims or minority Muslims suffer disproportionally,” said Marshall. “Ahmadis [an unorthodox Islamic sect] are probably proportionally the greatest victims. There are more victims from mobs and vigilantes than from the government itself, but the government bears responsibility because it does not protect the victims.”

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