The US Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a report Tuesday recommending a “binding agreement” between the United States and Pakistan, with the goal of encouraging Pakistan to improve its treatment of religious minorities.
Laws against blasphemy in Muslim-majority Pakistan have led to death sentences for many religious minorities, and the extrajudicial killing by mobs of many more accused of blasphemy.
This includes Servant of God Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic politician from Pakistan who the Taliban killed in 2011.
The US State Department has designated Pakistan a “country of particular concern” since 2018 for its record on religious freedom violations.
CPC designations can carry sanctions under U.S. law, but in 2018 and 2019 the State Department granted waivers to Pakistan that exempt them from any meaningful actions related to the CPC designation, USCIRF says.
USCIRF— which makes policy recommendations but does not create laws— recommended that the US set defined, concrete benchmarks for Pakistan to provide “greater clarity to a path off the CPC list and help improve religious freedom conditions, especially for the country’s religious minorities.”
Such a “binding agreement” to encourage countries to take steps to get off the CPC list has been used only once, which the US entered into with Vietnam in 2005 and which led to Vietnam’s removal from the list.
Pakistan’s state religion is Islam, and around 97 percent of the population is Muslim.
The country’s blasphemy laws, introduced in the 1980s, are reportedly used to settle scores or to persecute religious minorities; while non-Muslims constitute only 3 percent of the Pakistani population, 14 percent of blasphemy cases have been levied against them.
USCIRF urged the repeal of these laws.
The report also report recommended eliminating the practice of listing a person’s religion on their identification documents.The forced identification of a person’s religion on their ID has led to widespread discrimination and singling out of non-Muslims.
USCIRF urged Pakistan to begin an expedited review of all blasphemy cases, and to enforce proper handling of blasphemy cases according to existing due process rights.
It also advocated that those accused of blasphemy be treated humanely, that those accused be allowed to post bail, and enforcing criminal penalties for people who give false evidence against someone accused of blasphemy.
USCIRF said Pakistan must remove material denigrating religious minorities from educational curricula and train teachers on the importance of religious tolerance, as well as establish and train a special police task force to protect religious minority communities and their houses of worship.
In 2015, the Pakinstani government banned Ahmadiyya religious texts. Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims, but Pakistan’s constitution does not recognize the Ahmadis as such.
There are about 500,000 Ahmadis in Pakistan. Some observers estimate the Ahmadi population in Pakistan is higher, but persecution encourages Ahmadis to hide their identity. USCIRF recommended the ban on the texts be lifted.
There are at least 80 people currently imprisoned in Pakistan for their religious beliefs. Many of those accused of blasphemy are murdered, and advocates of changing the law are also targeted by violence.
A recent high-profile case involved a Catholic woman, Asia Bibi, whom authorities sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 for blasphemy. She spent nine years on death row, but left Pakistan for Canada in 2019 at the age of 53 after her death sentence was overturned in October 2018.
Though the Pakistani Supreme Court in January 2019 upheld the decision to overturn her conviction, the verdict and her subsequent release from prison sparked protests from Islamic hardliners who support strong blasphemy laws.
In 2009, a mob of Muslims looted and burned a Christian neighborhood, killing six Christians by burning them to death. The attacks took place in reaction to a rumor that the Quran was desecrated in a nearby village.
In Punjab province last year, a mob attacked a Christian community after a mosque broadcast over loudspeaker a claim that the Christians had insulted Islam. In another incident in Karachi, false blasphemy accusations against four Christian women prompted mob violence that forced nearly 200 Christian families to flee their homes, the USCIRF said.
In 2013 the then-governing party of Pakistan, the Pakistan Muslim League, promised a quota for jobs in the educational institutes and the public sector for members of religious minorities. The Pakistan Peoples Party discussed an Equality Commission to monitor job quotas in Sindh.
Both parties are now in the opposition in the national parliament, and the proposed safeguards have not been put into action.
In May, Pakistan established a long-delayed National Commission for Minorities, which the country’s Supreme Court had called for in 2014. Hard-line Islamist groups threatened to protest the commission, while Catholic leaders called the commission “toothless.”
Catholic and other religious leaders in the country have repeatedly spoken out against the country’s treatment of minorities.
In August 2019, a number of Pakistani religious leaders signed a joint resolution encouraging the Pakistani government to adopt policies to protect religious minorities.
The conference to sign the resolution, organized by Aid to the Church in Need – Italy and by local advocate Tabassum Yousaf, was attended by Fr. Saleh Diego, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Karachi, who represented Cardinal Joseph Coutts.
Representatives of the country’s Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Baha’i communities also were present and signed the resolution.
In a Jan. 21, 2020 letter written on behalf of Philadelphia’s Pakistani Catholic community, then-Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput encouraged Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to shape a culture of religious freedom.