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Pakistan Says U.S. Rebuke On Religious Freedoms 'Politically Motivated'

FILE: Pakistani Christians pray for Asia Bibi, a Catholic mother of five who has been on death row since 2010 accused of blasphemy in Multan (October).
FILE: Pakistani Christians pray for Asia Bibi, a Catholic mother of five who has been on death row since 2010 accused of blasphemy in Multan (October).

Pakistan has criticized a U.S. decision to place Pakistan on its blacklist of countries that violate religious freedom, calling the move "unilateral and politically motivated."

The country is a "multireligious and pluralistic society where people of diverse faiths and denominations live together," the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said in a December 12 statement.

“Pakistan does not need counsel by any individual country how to protect the rights of its minorities," it said.

In a statement on December 11, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he designated Pakistan and several other nations as "countries of particular concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

He said he made the designations for Pakistan as well as China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, on May 28.

The countries were designated "for having engaged in or tolerated 'systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations of religious freedom,'" said Pompeo.

"In far too many places across the globe, individuals continue to face harassment, arrests, or even death for simply living their lives in accordance with their beliefs," he said. "The United States will not stand by as spectators in the face of such oppression. "

Pakistan was previously on a special watch list.

The downgrade means that Islamabad could face U.S. sanctions, although Pompeo waived the penalties, citing U.S. national interests.

The United States said the decision to downgrade Pakistan was largely the result of a law that prescribes death for blasphemy against Islam.

Human rights groups have long expressed concern about the treatment of religious minorities, including Shi'a, Ahmadis, and Christians in Pakistan, where the dominant religion is Sunni Islam.

President Donald Trump’s administration has had tense relations with Pakistan, which it says has failed to combat the Taliban and other extremist groups that launch attacks in neighboring Afghanistan.

Islamabad rejects the charges.

Washington has issued an annual ranking of countries and their treatment of religious groups annually since the passage of a 1998 law on the issue. Being ranked low, or placed on a watch list, can result in economic sanctions.

Pompeo said he had placed Uzbekistan and Russia, as well as Comoros, on the special watch list "for governments that have engaged in or tolerated 'severe violations of religious freedom.'”

That marks an upgrade for Uzbekistan, which has been a "country of particular concern" since 2006 -- a designation that has irked Tashkent.

Uzbekistan has "made substantial changes, and they’re doing it because they want to grow their nation," Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, told reporters in a teleconference after Pompeo's statement.

"A freer society is one less prone and moved and pushed really towards terrorism and one more open to economic reform," Brownback said. "That’s why Uzbekistan, for the first time since 2006, is off the list [of countries of particular concern]."

Under the late President Islam Karimov, independent religious expression, particularly by devout Muslims who shunned officially sanctioned mosques, was harshly repressed.

Since Karimov's death in 2016, the Uzbek government under President Shavkhat Mirziyoev has sought to lift many of Karimov’s more repressive policies and attract investment from Western nations.

The State Department said that dozens of religious groups have been targeted in Russia -- including Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, Lutherans, and others -- since a 2016 law was passed criminalizing certain kinds of missionary activity.

Several Islamic militant groups were designated as "entities of particular concern" since they do not meet the definition of countries.

They include the Al-Nusra front in Syria, Al-Qaeda, the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia's Al-Shabab, Boko Haram in West Africa, Yemen's Huthi rebels, the Islamic State, and the Taliban.

With reporting by AFP and AP

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