Robert P. George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, has urged the Obama administration to designate more countries, particularly Syria and Pakistan, as "Countries of Particular Concern" due to their "worst religious freedom environment."
"Pakistan represents the worst religious freedom environment for a country not designated as a CPC," George said in his remarks to the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"In the past year, religious freedom conditions reached an all-time low due to chronic sectarian violence targeting mostly Shi'a Muslims but also Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus," he added. "The previous and current governments failed to provide adequate protection or arrest perpetrators."
George, who testified before the subcommittee Thursday, said Pakistan's "repressive blasphemy laws" are widely used to violate religious freedoms and foster a climate of impunity. "USCIRF has recommended that Pakistan be named a CPC since 2002," he pointed out.
The blasphemy laws, embedded in Sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code, are frequently misused to target religious minorities and allows Islamist extremists to justify killings. There is no provision in the law to punish a false accuser or a false witness of blasphemy.
George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, also highlighted the "horrible and tragic" sectarian conflict in Syria, where a civil war has been waging for three years between the supporters of Bashar al-Assad's regime and rebel forces seeking to overthrow his government.
"The crisis in Syria has devolved largely into a sectarian conflict, exacerbated by the actions of the Bashar al-Assad regime, with particularly severe violations of religious freedom affecting all Syrians," he said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday it has documented 162,402 deaths in the conflict.
"Extremist and U.S.-designated terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), target because of their faith religious minority communities, including Christians and Alawites, and internationally-recognized opposition military groups have committed religious freedom violations when working with other groups to secure strategic areas."
About 10 percent of Syria's population is Alawite, a Shiite offshoot, while about 70 percent of the people are Sunni Muslim. Assad is an Alawite and being supported by Iran as well as Lebanon's Hezbollah among other Shi'a groups. Those seeking his ouster are Sunni Muslims from diverse backgrounds and include Islamists from other countries.
This year, USCIRF recommended for the first time that Syria be designated a CPC.
A country is designated as CPC for "systematic, ongoing and egregious" violations of religious freedom. The State Department is due to issue its annual International Religious Freedom Report by early September.
In its 2014 Annual Report, USCIRF recommended that the State Department re-designate Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan as CPCs. USCIRF also determined that eight other nations – Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam – meet the CPC threshold.
The USCIRF chief also recommended that the International Religious Freedom Act be amended a bit to include non-state actors, such as the Nigerian Islamist terror group Boko Haram, in the CPC list.
George highlighted the importance of religious freedom, which he said "means the right of all human beings to think as they please, believe or not believe as their conscience leads, and live out their beliefs openly, peacefully, and without fear."
In an interview with The Christian Post last year, George said it is the job of USCIRF to be America's conscience.
"There are significant threats to religious liberty around the world," he said. "In the name of secularism, the freedom of religious believers can be violated … and it is violated in some parts of Europe when Muslim girls are forbidden to wear the headscarf or when Christian and Jewish girls are forbidden from wearing a cross or a Star of David on a chain around their necks."