Secretary of State Rex Tillerson placed Pakistan on a watch list for “severe violations of religious freedom,” the State Department announced Thursday. Tillerson also designated 10 “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs) in accordance with the 1998 Religious Freedom Act. These countries have governments that “have engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
Tillerson re-designated Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as Countries of Particular Concern.
The State Department announced its new “Special Watch List” category, created by the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016. The new watch list designates countries that engage in or allow severe violations of religious freedom but do not rise to the level of a CPC. Pakistan was the only country in the new category.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) believes the State Department didn’t go far enough in their designation of Pakistan, given its egregious religious freedom violations.
USCIRF Chairman Daniel Mark emphasized that “Pakistan continues to harass its religious minorities, has state-sanctioned discrimination against groups such as the Ahmadis, and tolerates extra-judicial violence in the guise of opposing blasphemy.”
“As USCIRF has said for many years,” he added, “Pakistan should be designated by the State Department as a CPC. Given the strong stance that President Trump has taken on Pakistan recently, the failure to designate Pakistan as a CPC this year comes as a surprise and disappointment.”
“The protection of religious freedom is vital to peace, stability, and prosperity,” the State Department said in their statement. “These designations are aimed at improving the respect for religious freedom in these countries.”
A bipartisan group of six senators, including Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), asked Tillerson in October to make Pakistan a CPC, citing systematic religious oppression.
"At least 40 people are currently sentenced to death or are serving life sentences for blasphemy," they wrote. "Religious minority communities, including Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis, and Shi’a Muslims, also experience religiously motivated and sectarian violence perpetrated by terrorist organizations and societal elements with relative impunity. Additionally, provincial textbooks with discriminatory content against minorities remain a significant concern."
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) praised the White House for making religious freedom designations a priority but was disappointed that Vietnam was not designated as a CPC.
"It is our responsibility, as Americans, to speak for those with no voice," he commented Thursday. "The administration is right to make this a priority. The re-designation of Burma as a country of particular concern is particularly appropriate, given the Burmese military’s ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims."
“However, I am troubled that Vietnam was again not designated this year," he said. "The Vietnamese people continue to have their religious freedom and other human rights violated. The U.S. should never shrink from calling out countries for such abuses.”