Once again, the U.S. has failed to fully confront Pakistan in its annual report on international religious freedom by not labeling it a “Country of Particular Concern.” Over the past year, Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan have seen their situation go from bad to worse. Attacks on religious minority communities continue to escalate in number and violence, blasphemy laws continue to be used to abuse religious minorities and the government of Pakistan continues to ignore the plight of its minority citizens. Without change soon, Pakistan will likely abuse its religious minorities into nonexistence.
8/6/2014 Pakistan (Huffington Post) – The world is aflame. Religious minorities are among those who suffer most from increasing conflict. Pakistan is one of the worst homes for non-Muslims. The U.S. government should designate that nation as a “Country of Particular Concern” for failing to protect religious liberty, the most basic right of conscience.
Religious persecution is a global scourge. Many of the worst oppressors are Muslim nations. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Bahrain, Iraq and Egypt are all important international actors. All also mistreat, or acquiesce in the mistreatment of, anyone not a Muslim. A few of them even victimize Muslims — of the wrong variety.
Islamabad is another frequent offender. The State Department’s report on religious liberty in Pakistan noted that “The constitution and other laws and policies officially restrict religious freedom and, in practice, the government enforced many of these restrictions. The government’s respect for and protection of the right to religious freedom continued to be poor.”
Minority faiths face violent attack. Believers are killed, churches are bombed, buses are attacked, homes are destroyed, social gatherings are targeted. Warned the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its recent report: “In the past year, conditions hit an all-time low due to chronic sectarian violence targeting mostly Shia Muslims but also Christians, Ahmadis and Hindus.” Last year the Commission cited a spike in violence against Shiites as well as “numerous attacks against innocent Pakistanis” of other religions.
Although Islamabad did not launch these assaults, it did little to prevent or redress them. Even when scores or more are killed at a time there often is no response. Indeed, top government officials have been gunned down for defending freedom of conscience with no one arrested, let alone convicted. Explained State: “The government’s limited capacity and will to investigate or prosecute the perpetrators of increasing extremist attacks against religious minorities and on members of the Muslim majority promoting tolerance, allowed the climate of impunity to continue.”
The most common tool of persecution may be a charge of blasphemy. Said USCIRF: “The country’s blasphemy laws, used predominantly in Punjab province, but also nationwide, target members of religious minority communities and dissenting Muslims and frequently result in imprisonment.” Two years ago a mentally handicapped 12-year-old Christian girl was charged; after an international outcry even the authorities became embarrassed and the case was dismissed, an unusual outcome.
The blasphemy laws are made for abuse. Explained the Commission, “The so-called crime carries the death penalty or life in prison, does not require proof of intent or evidence to be presented after allegations are made, and does not include penalties for false allegations.” In fact, courts hesitate to even hear evidence, lest doing so also be considered blasphemy. With evidence unnecessary, the charge has become a weapon routinely used in personal and business disputes, including a means to exact revenge for imagined offenses.
Between 1986 and 2006 695 people were charged with blasphemy. Today 16 people are on death row and another 20 are serving life sentences. Three Christians have been sentenced to death in the last few months. Many other Pakistanis are in prison waiting for trial, including English professor Junaid Hafeez, accused of blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed. Penalties are not limited to the law. Explained the group Freedom House: “Regardless of the motives behind their charges and the outcome of their cases, those accused of blasphemy are subject to job discrimination, ostracism from their communities and neighborhoods, and even physical violence and murder at the hands of angry mobs, forcing many to live in fear.” Since 1990 at least 52 people charged with blasphemy have been killed before reaching trial.
Judges who acquitted defendants and politicians who talked of reforming the blasphemy laws also have been assassinated. In May gunmen killed Rashid Rehman, a human rights lawyer who was defending Hafeez. Previously fellow attorneys threatened Rehman, “You will not come to court next time because you will not exist anymore.” A pamphlet circulated after the murder asserting that Rehman met his “rightful end.” He was the first defense lawyer killed. He probably won’t be the last.