The United States published a list of countries on Dec. 18 it considers to be tolerating or participating in “systematic violations” of religious freedom, which again includes Pakistan, provoking an angry response from its government.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent statutory body, had been calling on the State Department to designate Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) since 2002, but it was not until 2018 under President Donald Trump’s administration that Pakistan was first placed on the ‘blacklist.’

“The designation is reflective of selective targeting of countries, and thus unlikely to be helpful to the professed cause of advancing religious freedom,” Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Aisha Farooqui complained in a statement on Christmas Day, according to CNS News.

“Pakistan is a multi-religious and pluralistic country where people of all faiths enjoy religious freedom under constitutional protections,” she said.

However, the truth is that Pakistan, the world’s second-largest Muslim country, has the world’s most severe blasphemy laws with death sentences for such subjective crimes as “disparaging” Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, and shorter jail terms for “disrespect,” according to USCIRF.

In addition to the legal dangers, Pakistanis of various religions have been targeted by murderous mobs or individuals determined to punish so-called blasphemers in cases where the authorities have not yet acted.

In fact, in early December a U.S.-educated Pakistani university professor in the city of Multan, Junaid Hafeez, was sentenced to death for blasphemy after being accused of insulting Mohammed on Facebook.

Hafeez had been imprisoned, mainly in solitary confinement, for six years while awaiting the completion of his trial. His first lawyer was shot dead in 2014 for defending a client accused of blasphemy.

In 2009 a Christian woman took a sip of water from the same container as some of the Muslim women who got angry because a Christian had drunk from the same water. They demanded that she convert, she refused. Five days later, a mob accused her of blasphemy and sentenced her to death, according to The Associated Press.

The State Department re-designated Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act because they engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom,” according to a State Department statement.

In addition, State renewed the inclusion of the Comoros, Russia, and Uzbekistan on a Special Watch List (SWL) for governments that have engaged in or tolerated “serious violations of religious liberty,” and added Cuba, Nicaragua, Nigeria, and Sudan to this list.

Sudan, by contrast, was “promoted” to the SWL “due to significant steps taken by the civilian-led transitional government to address the previous regime’s “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.'”

“These designations underscore the U.S.’s commitment to protect those who seek to exercise their freedom of religion or belief.  We believe that everyone, everywhere, at all times, should have the right to live according to the dictates of their conscience.  We will continue to challenge state and non-state entities that seek to infringe upon those fundamental rights and to ensure they are held to account for their actions,” the statement said.

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