Christian man Azeem Gulzar recovers in Civil Hospital Sahiwal in Pakistan’s Punjab province after being shot in February in a dispute over constructing a church. (Photo: Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement)
A US government watchdog has recommended the State Department designate Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.
The recommendation came on April 28 in the annual report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
After documenting developments during 2019, the commission pinpointed 14 countries. These include nine that the State Department designated as of particular concern in December 2019 — Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan — as well as India, Nigeria, Russia, Syria and Vietnam.
“In 2019, religious freedom conditions across Pakistan continued to trend negatively,” it said, noting there were some high-profile acquittals including that of Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman who spent eight years on death row after being wrongly accused of blasphemy.
“The systematic enforcement of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, and authorities’ failure to address forced conversions of religious minorities — including Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs — to Islam, severely restricted freedom of religion or belief.”
The USCIRF sad it is aware of nearly 80 individuals who remain imprisoned for blasphemy in Pakistan, with at least half facing a life sentence or death.
A mob also attacked a Christian community in Punjab after a mosque claimed over its loudspeaker that the community had insulted Islam. In another incident, nearly 200 Christian families in Karachi were forced to flee their homes due to mob attacks after false blasphemy accusations against four Christian women, according to the report.
The commission urged Pakistan to release blasphemy prisoners and other individuals imprisoned for their religion or beliefs.
It also called for repeal of blasphemy laws and anti-Ahmadiyya laws and to enforce existing Penal Code articles criminalizing perjury and false accusations.
In Hindu, Christian and Sikh communities, young women, often underage, continued to be kidnapped for forced conversion to Islam, the report stated.
Several independent institutions estimated that 1,000 women are forcibly converted to Islam each year; many are kidnapped, forcibly married and subjected to rape. Local police, particularly in Punjab and Sindh, are often accused of complicity in these cases by failing to investigate them properly.