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Pakistan Reader
Blasphemy, Harassment of Religious Minorities Continue: Five Takeaways from USCIRF Annual Report on Religious Freedoms

  Dhriti Mukherjee

In May 2024, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its ‘2024 Annual Report’ in which it analysed “religious freedom violations and progress” in 28 countries during 2023, and suggested “independent recommendations for US policy.” It aims to list countries that the US State Department should designate as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) or place on its Special Watch List (SWL). USCIRF is an “independent, bipartisan U.S. government advisory body, separate from the State Department, that monitors and reports on religious freedom abroad and makes policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress.” It began making reports since May 2000, though the focus at that time was primarily on China, Russia, and Sudan.
 
In this report, the USCIRF noted that “religious freedom conditions in Pakistan continued to deteriorate” in 2023, with attacks on places of worship and religious minorities being targeted and subject to “mob violence.” The following are five key takeaways from the findings.
 
1. Blasphemy cases continued to be a substantial threat
Both blasphemy cases and associated mob violence significantly threatened religious freedom, with political parties leveraging blasphemy laws for political gains in the runup to elections. Despite an amendment being passed by the National Assembly in January 2023 to “strengthen punishment under the country’s blasphemy law;” in February, over 50 men stormed a police station in Punjab to kidnap a Muslim man accused of desecrating the Qur’an. Following this, a mob attacked the Christian community of Jaranwala in August, breaking dozens of churches and homes; in September, after a Shi’a cleric was accused of making blasphemous statements, there was a month of protests in Gilgit-Baltistan.
 
The report placed focus on the amendment made to the blasphemy law, which was unanimously passed after being introduced by Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). Currently, people can be charged with blasphemy if they use “derogatory remarks against Muslim holy personages,” defile, or desecrate the Qur’an, or insult the Prophet Muhammad. The report claimed that blasphemy allegations are used to “settle personal vendettas, with no punishment for those who offer false accusations or perpetrate vigilante violence.”
 
2. Harassment of religious minorities became more frequent
According to the report’s findings, religious minority groups such as Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, and Ahmadiyya Muslims faced “increased levels of harassment and violence.” Three Sikhs were killed by vigilantes in 2023, a Hindu temple in Sindh was attacked in July, while the Ahmadiyya community noted three dozen attacks on their places of worship. In Jaranwala, a mob of hundreds comprising “Muslims from outside Jaranwala” attacked the Christan community, with violence lasting for “ten hours without police intervention.” The report cited UN human rights experts who had expressed concern in January 2023 over the “reported increase in forced conversions of Christian and Hindu girls in Pakistan.”
 
Christians currently live in fear as smaller churches feel they “are unbale to provide sufficient protection.” The Ahmadis are living in a similar condition, as Pakistan’s Penal Code prohibits them from identifying as Muslims and forces them to “sign a declaration swearing they are non-Muslim to obtain the right to vote or receive national identification card.” Despite the Lahore High Court ruling in September that Ahmadiyya Mosques built before 1984 cannot be destroyed, “several structures have been vandalized and threatened.” For instance, vigilantes in April demolished minarets of the Ahmadiyya mosque in Ghooghiat, Punjab, while in May, a mob of 150 people vandalized another mosque in Halqa Rehman. Separately, Punjab’s Hindu community has alleged that “two Hindu temples were converted into mosques” in December.
 
3. Terrorist attacks against religious minorities increased
In 2023, there was a notable increase in terrorist attacks targeting religious minorities. The report cited several examples to back this statement. In January, a suicide bomber attacked a mosque in Peshawar and killed at least 100; in September, suicide bombings targeting two mosques in Balochistan. The report said that authorities used the increase in terrorist attacks “to justify the expulsion of 1.3 million Afghan refugees.” These refugees included minority Shi’a Hazara and Christian communities. Following Pakistan’s announcement of the decision, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had warned that these communities would “be at grave risk” of human rights violations by the Afghan Taliban government. Despite this warning, Pakistan went ahead with the repatriation; after the 1 October deadline, around 500,000 Afghan refugees were deported.
 
4. Pakistan’s stability remained a priority for US foreign policy
According to the report, the “stability and security” of Pakistan remained a “priority” for US foreign policy, which is why the US obligated USD 150 million for programmes in Pakistan in 2023. Major US officials, including the US ambassador to Pakistan and secretary of state, consistently “condemned terrorist attacks against worshipers and religious minorities.” The report also gave examples of when Pakistani officials visited the US for various conferences, such as the 78th UN General Assembly. On 29 December, the US State Department “redesignated Pakistan as a CPC for its systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations.” It also issued a “national interest waiver absolving Pakistan of liability to sanctions or other penalties that otherwise accompany the CPC designation.”
 
5. The need for a stronger response from the US emerged
As part of its recommendations to the US government, the report advised redesignating Pakistan as a CPC for engaging in multiple violations of religious freedoms as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). It highlighted the need for imposing “targeted sanctions on Pakistani government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom.” These sanctions would include freezing those individuals’ assets and barring their entry to the US. Under Section 405(c) of the IRFA, the government should enter into an agreement with the Pakistani government and “encourage substantial steps to address religious freedom violations with benchmarks.” This would include the release of blasphemy prisoners, repeal of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, removal of requirements for self-identification of religion on identity documents, and holding individuals responsible for engaging in vigilante violence responsible. Further, the report contended that the US should “incorporate religious freedom concerns into its larger oversight of the US-Pakistan bilateral relationship through hearings, letters, and congressional delegations and advocate for the release of religious prisoners of conscience in Pakistan.”

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