Days after US President Donald Trump threatened to cut American aid to Pakistan, the State Department placed the South Asian Islamic country on a Special Watch List for “severe violations of religious freedom” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The move came three days after Trump, in his first tweet
of the new year, accused Pakistan of providing a safe haven to terrorists despite receiving billions of dollars in aid over the years. “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” Trump wrote. Islamabad has rejected the US move and said it is not based on objective criteria. “Pakistan is firmly committed to the promotion and protection of human rights including the right of religious freedom under its constitution. Wide-ranging legislative, institutional and administrative measures have been taken by the government of Pakistan to ensure full implementation of guarantees afforded by the constitution,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Jan. 6. The Trump administration has halted US security assistance worth $900 million to Pakistan. Pakistan accused the US of adopting double standards. “It is surprising that countries that have a well-known record of systematic persecution of religious minorities have not been included in the list. This reflects the double standards and political motives behind the listing and hence lacks credibility,” the ministry added without naming any country. Pakistan said its counter-terrorism campaign had served as a bulwark against the expansion of scores of terrorist organizations in Afghanistan — a fact acknowledged by US authorities at the highest level. Pakistan’s successful counter-terrorism cooperation against Al-Qaeda had led to Pakistan suffering a brutal backlash, including the killing of hundreds of its schoolchildren by terrorists based in Afghanistan, a statement by Pakistan’s powerful National Security Committee said on Jan. 2. On Jan. 4, the Trump administration announced it had suspended all security assistance to Pakistan until it proves its commitment to fight all terrorist groups operating in the region. Apart from Pakistan, the US Secretary of State also redesignated Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as “countries of particular concern” on Dec. 22. The US annually designates governments that have engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom as countries of particular concern. “The protection of religious freedom is vital to peace, stability and prosperity. These designations are aimed at improving the respect for religious freedom in these countries,” the US said in a statement. It also acknowledged that several designated countries were working to improve their respect for religious freedom. “We welcome these initiatives and look forward to continued dialogue. The United States remains committed to working with governments, civil society organizations and religious leaders to advance religious freedom around the world,” it added.
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Meanwhile, minority representatives said that there was ample justification for the US to place Pakistan on the watch list. Father Abid Habib of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Association of Major Religious Superiors also expressed his concern at the situation of religious freedom in the country. “The memory of the recent carnage in Quetta still haunts us. The facts are before everyone,” he said, referring to the Dec. 17 suicide bombing
at Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Balochistan province. Nine worshippers were killed and more than 50 were wounded in an attack which triggered strict measures for churches at Christmas and New Year. “Terrorists may be small in number but where are they getting inspiration from? I even fear speaking about it on the phone,” Father Habib told ucanews.com. “Any attempt to correct the controversial blasphemy laws causes havoc in the country. Country leaders literally hate Ahmadis and stay silent whenever their places of worship are attacked. The silence of Muslim countries on atrocities done in the name of Islam is appalling.” The Capuchin priest welcomed the suspension of US security aid to Pakistan. “The state, like the Church, is depending on foreign aid. It is about time we stood on our own feet,” he said. Anjum James Paul, chairman of the Pakistan Minorities Teachers' Association, said the education system in Pakistan is devoid of religious freedom. “Muslim students can study Islam but minority students are compelled to study ethics as an alternative subject. They are deliberately being kept away from studying their religion. They are often being targeted and thus feel insecure even inside institutes,” said the Catholic activist, citing Sharoon Masih, a Christian student who was murdered last August by a classmate in a government school. “Those who target officials supporting religious minorities later become heroes. Punishments for religious crimes against minorities are light. The constitution is also ambiguous when speaking about the rights of religious minorities,” said Paul. Saleem ud Din, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Ahmadis, admitted that things had gone from bad to worse for their minority community in 2017. “I am going to announce for the very first time that we will boycott the upcoming general elections,” he said. “We have been further marginalized through a recently adopted Election Act that approves a separate voter list for Ahmadis. We are being treated as low caste within our own country. “We had no connection whatsoever with the now withdrawn amendments regarding election declaration but yet we were the main target of hate speeches made by radical groups during their recent sit-ins in Islamabad. “The US watch list doesn’t make any difference as we have been facing systematic state persecution since the 1970s.” Saleem ud Din said 300 Ahmadis had been killed due to faith-based violence in Pakistan over the last three decades.