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A file photo of US secretary of state Rex Tillerson. Photo: AFP
A file photo of US secretary of state Rex Tillerson. Photo: AFP

US puts Pakistan on Special Watch List for violations of religious freedom

US places Pakistan on 'Special Watch List' for 'severe violations' of religious freedom, says State Department, making it the only country to be put under the newly-formed list

Washington: The US has placed Pakistan on a ‘Special Watch List’ for “severe violations" of religious freedom, the State Department on Thursday said, making it the only country to be put under the newly-formed list.

Secretary of state Rex Tillerson announced re-designation of 10 countries as ‘Countries of Particular Concern’ (CPC). “The secretary also placed Pakistan on a Special Watch List for severe violations of religious freedom," state department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said.

The Special Watch List is for countries that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom but may not rise to the level of the CPC. The Special Watch List designation is being seen as a step below designating it as Country of Particular Concern, which would have automatically kicked in economic and political sanctions.

Pakistan, notably, is the first ever country to be placed in this list, which is a new category created by the Frank R Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016. The 2016 Frank R Wolf International Religious Freedom Act amended the IRF Act to require the President to designate a ‘Special Watch List’ of countries deemed not to meet all of the CPC criteria but who engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom. IRF stands for International Religious Freedom.

The US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIS) which has been seeking to designate Pakistan as CPC, however, expressed its disappointment with the decision of Tillerson in this regard.

“Pakistan continues to harass its religious minorities, has state-sanctioned discrimination against groups such as the Ahmadis, and tolerates extra-judicial violence in the guise of opposing blasphemy," USCIRF chairman Daniel Mark said.

“As USCIRF has said for many years, Pakistan should be designated by the State Department as a CPC.Given the strong stance that President Trump has taken on Pakistan recently, the failure to designate Pakistan as a CPC this year comes as a surprise and disappointment," Mark said.

The State Department defended its decision. “The Secretary of State takes into consideration all of the information available in conducting his review. His most recent assessment is that Pakistan does not meet the criteria for CPC designation, but meets the Special Watch List criteria," a State Department Spokesperson told PTI.

“We strongly urge Pakistan to protect religious freedom for all individuals. CPC designations can be made at any time, as conditions warrant," the spokesperson said, leaving the door option for Pakistan.

“The governments that have been designated as CPCs are subject to ‘Presidential Actions’, such as sanctions, which may include economic or political measures directed against a government to encourage it to improve the state of religious freedom in its country," the spokesperson said in response to a question.

A former member of Pakistani Parliament Farahnaz Ispahani, welcomed the State Department’s decision to place her country on a Special Watch List. “Today, the Special Watch List designation status given to Pakistan by the US Secretary of State to Pakistan may help Pakistan’s religious minorities. For too long no one has really cared within the country. Perhaps its time for external pressure to help safeguard those Pakistani citizens who are persecuted solely on the basis of their faith," Ispahani said.

Earlier in the day, Tillerson in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, announced his designation of governments that have engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom as ‘Countries of Particular Concern’.

“Today, the Department of State announces that the Secretary of State re-designated Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as Countries of Particular Concern on 22 December 2017," she said.

Noting that the protection of religious freedom is vital to peace, stability, and prosperity, Nauert said these designations are aimed at improving the respect for religious freedom in these countries.

“We recognise that several designated countries are working to improve their respect for religious freedom; we welcome these initiatives and look forward to continued dialogue," Nauert said.

The US remains committed to working with governments, civil society organisations, and religious leaders to advance religious freedom around the world, she added.

In November, Congressmen Randy Hultgren and James P McGovern, Co-Chairs of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, in a letter to Tillerson had urged him to designate Pakistan as CPC alleging it has engaged in systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has been advocating for designating Pakistan as a CPC since 2002. PTI

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