Pakistan rejects U.S. blacklist for religious freedom violations
Pakistan on Wednesday rejected Washington's decision to place it on a blacklist of countries that violate religious freedom, branding the move "politically motivated" and defending its treatment of minorities.
The U.S. move to designate Pakistan "among countries of particular concern" comes at a difficult time for relations between the nations, with the Trump administration accusing Islamabad of failing to act against Islamist militants on its soil.
"Pakistan does not need counsel by any individual country (on) how to protect the rights of its minorities," a statement from the foreign ministry said, adding that Islamabad "rejects" the designation.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the move to blacklist Pakistan in a congressionally mandated annual report released on Tuesday. The measure means the US government is obliged to exert pressure, including imposing sanctions if necessary, to end freedom violations.
However, a spokesman with the U.S. embassy in Islamabad clarified on Wednesday that Pompeo had issued a waiver over potential sanctions against Pakistan as required by "the important national interest of the United States".
Blasphemy is an inflammatory charge in Pakistan, and high-profile vigilante murders and mob lynchings have been carried out in the past. In October, a Pakistani court exonerated Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who had spent eight years on death row for blasphemy.
She remains in protective custody in an unknown location after violent protests against her acquittal, and a hardline cleric has been charged with terrorism and sedition over the demonstrations. Bibi is currently seeking asylum abroad. Her family claims her life will be in danger if she remains in Pakistan.
The foreign ministry statement did not mention Bibi, or the issue of blasphemy.
"Pakistan is a multi-religious and pluralistic society where people of diverse faiths and denominations live together," it said. It also warned that honesty would have required Washington to examine the "exponential rise in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the U.S.".
Pakistan says around four percent of its total population comprises citizens belonging to Christian, Hindu, Buddhists and Sikh faiths.
Human rights advocates have long voiced alarm about the treatment of religious minorities in Pakistan including Shias and the Ahmadis, whom Islamabad forbids from identifying as Muslim.
The State Department had earlier held off on condemning Pakistan, a vital gateway for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But it last year placed Pakistan on a special watch list – a step short of the designation – and Washington has separately curbed military assistance.
Relations between Washington and Islamabad have soured in recent years, with U.S. officials repeatedly accusing Islamabad of ignoring or even collaborating with groups like the Afghan Taliban, which attack Afghanistan from alleged safe havens along the border between the two countries.
The troubled relationship hit another snag last month after Trump declared he had cancelled assistance worth hundreds of millions of dollars because Islamabad does not do "a damn thing" for the United States.
Nine countries remained for another year on the U.S. list of "countries of particular concern" – China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The United States removed one country from the blacklist – Uzbekistan – but kept it on the watch list. (AFP)