The United States of America Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is aware of at least 40 individuals currently sentenced to death or serving life sentences for blasphemy in Pakistan, including two Christians, a Qaiser and an Amoon Ayub, who were sentenced to death in December 2018.
Based on particularly severe violations, USCIRF had concluded that the government of Pakistan has not effectively addressed the spread of sectarian or religiously motivated intolerant speech, nor has it adequately prosecuted perpetrators of violent crimes against religious minorities. It therefore recommends that Pakistan should be designated as a “country of particular concern,” (CPC), under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 2002. In November 2018, the U.S. Department of State designated Pakistan as a CPC for the first time, and issued a waiver against any related sanctions on Pakistan. This year however, USCIRF has recommended that the State Department re-designated Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” under IRFA and lift the waiver.
USCIRF is an independent commission of the U.S. Federal Government that was created in 1998 to monitor the situation of religious liberty outside of the United States. Its annual international report is regarded as one of the most authoritative assessments of the status of religious freedom around the world. The 2019 report was unveiled on April 29 in Washington DC, and not surprisingly, it included Pakistan within the group of the most egregious violators of religious freedom in the world, alongside China.
Pakistan’s constitution prohibits public discrimination on the basis of faith, guaranteeing all citizens the right to practice their religion and have access to religious education. The constitution also mandates that 10 seats in the national parliament be reserved for non-Muslim community leaders. However, the second amendment to Pakistan’s constitution has prohibited Ahmadiyya Muslims from self-identifying as Muslims or calling their places of worship mosques. This reveals an underlying discriminatory legal structure that has systematically diminished the rights of Ahmadiyya Muslims to practice their faith.
Extremist groups in Pakistan have created a chilling effect for members of the Sunni majority faith who wish to advocate on behalf of religious minority communities but fear doing so due to extreme threats against themselves and their families. Overall, Pakistan’s security has improved since 2015, with fewer casualties attributed to extremist groups’ attacks. However, groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), and Tehrik-e-Taliban (Pakistani Taliban) continue to challenge national security. These groups have particularly directly threatened religious minority communities, particularly Hazara Shi’as in Quetta, and have also targeted community leaders who have advocated for religious freedom.
In 2018, religious freedom conditions in Pakistan generally worsened despite the Pakistani government taking some positive steps to promote religious freedom and combat religiously motivated violence and hate speech. During the year, extremist groups and societal actors continued to discriminate against and attack religious minorities, including Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Ahmadis, and Shi’a Muslims. The government of Pakistan has failed to adequately protect these groups, and it has perpetrated systematic, ongoing, egregious religious freedom violations.
With the lead up to the 2018 national elections in Pakistan, various political parties and leading politicians promoted intolerance against religious minorities. Many international observers were optimistic that reforms would occur under the new government of Prime Minister Imran Khan. However, the country has seen the entry of extremist religious parties into the political arena which has led to increased threats and hate speech against religious minorities. Abusive enforcement of the country’s strict blasphemy laws has continued to result in the suppression of rights for non-Muslims, Shi’a Muslims, and Ahmadis. Forced conversions of non-Muslims has also continued.
USCIRF has recommended to the US Government that it encourage the government of Pakistan and the Standing Committee on Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to create a National Commission for Minorities’ Rights. This action has already been mandated by a decision in 2014 by the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s 2014. They also recommended the National Commission for Minorities’ Rights to enter into a binding agreement, with the government of Pakistan, to encourage substantial steps to address violations of religious freedom with benchmarks. Such recommendations are hoped to result in the release of prisoners accused of blasphemy and other individuals imprisoned for their religion or belief. It is also recommended that the government of Pakistan repeal its blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws and assign a portion of existing State Department programs to help Pakistan protect at-risk religious minority community leaders, both with physical security and personnel, as well as by creating partnerships with government bodies, such as the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, to ensure that extremist rhetoric that precedes attacks on minorities is addressed.
The international community is beginning to speak with one voice on Pakistan’s violation of international conventions. This report is timely and comes out the day before fifty one Members of the European Parliament sent a letter to the Prime Minister of Pakistan calling on his government to cease the persecution of religious minorities. His failure to stop such abuses could result in the European Parliament calling for the European Commission to suspend project and trade subsides.