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U.S. Designates Pakistan Among Concern Countries for Religious Freedom Violations

According to a report by Christian Daily International, Persistent violence against religious minorities in Pakistan undermines the government’s assertion of championing religious freedom and safeguarding non-Muslims, as highlighted by rights activists. 

In a significant move, on January 4, the U.S. State Department designated Pakistan among “Countries of Particular Concern,” aligning it with nations such as Burma, China, and Iran, all facing serious allegations of violating religious freedom. 

The State Department called on governments to cease communal violence, protect religious minorities from attacks, and avoid imposing extended prison sentences for peaceful expression.

Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry expressed dismay over the designation, calling it biased and detached from ground realities. The ministry insisted that Pakistan is a pluralistic country with a tradition of interfaith harmony, citing measures taken to promote religious freedom and protect minority rights. However, senior church leaders and rights advocates highlighted ongoing abuses, challenging the government’s assertions.

Bishop Azad Marshall, president of the Church of Pakistan, cited several incidents, including violent attacks on churches and homes in Jaranwala, Faisalabad District, on Aug. 16. The attacks were triggered by false blasphemy allegations against Christians, leading to the burning of 20 church buildings and the ransacking of Christian homes and businesses by Muslim mobs. Despite the gravity of the situation, law enforcement remained passive, and the provincial government refused to launch a judicial inquiry.

Marshall emphasized the government’s failure to criminalize false blasphemy allegations, resulting in a surge of fake cases that unfairly land Christians in jail. Additionally, the lack of legislation against forced conversions and marriages of underage Christian and Hindu girls further jeopardizes their safety. Marshall expressed hope for change with the upcoming general election on Feb. 8, calling for a government that addresses the challenges faced by religious minorities.

Samson Salamat, chairman of the Movement for Equality, echoed Marshall’s concerns, pointing to signs indicating a significant squeeze on religious freedom in Pakistan. He criticized hollow statements by government officials and cosmetic measures, emphasizing the need for constitutional amendments, a parliamentary debate on blasphemy laws, and a crackdown on extremist outfits like Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan.

Salamat called for a reset of policies to improve religious freedom, stressing the necessity of constitutional amendments to ensure equal citizenship for religious minorities. He urged a parliamentary debate to prevent misuse of blasphemy laws, a strategy to curb religiously-motivated violence, zero tolerance for hate speech, and effective crackdowns on extremist outfits.

Notably, Pakistan ranked seventh on the 2023 World Watch List of the most challenging places to be a Christian, highlighting the increasing difficulties faced by religious minorities. 

The call for policy changes and protection for minority rights resonates as activists emphasize the urgency of addressing these issues to improve Pakistan’s global image and safeguard the well-being of religious minorities in the country.

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