(CNSNews.com) – The State Department should double the number of countries blacklisted for violating religious freedom, with Pakistan named as the most egregious offender among those not currently designated, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said Wednesday.
Releasing its annual report, the independent statutory watchdog chided the federal government for not using more effectively the tools provided for under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), designed to make the promotion of religious freedom around the world a foreign policy priority.
“America’s commitment to religious freedom abroad, embodied in the IRFA law enacted more than 15 years ago, must be renewed and strengthened,” said USCIRF Chairman Robert George.
Under the law, the executive branch may designate “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), which may then be targeted with U.S. sanctions or other measures intended to encourage governments to improve.
Although the last decade has witnessed a deterioration in religious freedom in many countries – perhaps most obviously seen in Pakistan’s harsh implementation of controversial blasphemy laws and Syria’s “descent into a sectarian civil war” – no new country has been added to the CPC list since Uzbekistan in 2006. (That same year, Vietnam was removed from the list.)
From 2007 until today, the list has not changed: The same eight countries– Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan – are named.
The USCIRF believes those eight countries should remain designated, but urged the State Department to add another eight – Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.
The report said congressional intent was clear that CPC designations should take place annually, and indeed in the first seven years this did occur. But the process has become erratic, and therefore less credible.
(It took the Obama administration almost 32 months before it announced any CPC designation, new or otherwise; when it did so for the first time, in Sept. 2011, it named the same eight countries that had been listed since 2007.)
“Issuing CPC designations creates moments of clarity for diplomacy and truth telling,” the report said. “The State Department should ensure an annual designation process, and if it does not happen, Congress should make clear its intent by amending IRFA. The CPC list should also expand and retract as conditions warrant.”
Pakistan has been arguably the most glaring example of the executive branch’s failure to implement IRFA effectively, in the view of many religious freedom campaigners. The USCIRF has recommended CPC status for Pakistan every year since 2002 – and every year since 2002 the State Department has disregarded the recommendation.
The appeals took on new urgency in 2011, when the assassination of two politicians critical of the blasphemy laws highlighted an issue that has cost the lives of scores of Pakistanis and the freedom of many hundreds more. Yet Pakistan remains off the list to this day.
“Pakistan represents the worst situation in the world for religious freedom for countries not currently designated by the U.S. government as ‘countries of particular concern,’” the new USCIRF report said.
“In the past year, conditions hit an all-time low due to chronic sectarian violence targeting mostly Shi’a Muslims but also Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus. The previous and current governments failed to provide adequate protection or to arrest perpetrators.
“Also, Pakistan’s repressive blasphemy laws and anti-Ahmadi laws are widely used to violate religious freedoms and foster a climate of impunity.”
Just a month ago month three Pakistani Christians were sentenced to death for blasphemy. According to Barnabas Fund, an aid agency supporting minority Christians in Islamic countries, a married couple and parents of four children were sentenced after being convicted of sending text messages insulting Mohammed; and a father of three was sentenced to death after being convicted for defiling the name of Mohammed.
In both cases the accused denied the allegations. “Pakistan’s ‘blasphemy laws’ are often misused to settle personal disputes, and Christians are particularly vulnerable to false allegations,” Barnabas Fund said.
Meanwhile Asia Bibi, a mother of five sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010, remains on death row after courts repeated deferred an appeal hearing.
Apart from Asia Bibi, “USCIRF is aware of 16 other Pakistanis on death row for blasphemy and 19 serving life sentences,” the report said.
The commission’s report also highlighted the situation in Syria, which for the first time it recommends be designated as a CPC.
It says all sides in the civil war – the Assad regime, extremist jihadist groups, and mainstream rebel groups – are guilty of egregious religious freedom violations.
“The regime’s targeting of Sunni Muslims and other individuals or groups that oppose it and its indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas have killed tens of thousands of Syrians and displaced millions,” it says.
“In addition, extremist and U.S.-designated terrorists groups, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), target religious minority communities, including Christians and Alawites, because of their faith, and internationally-recognized opposition military groups have committed religious freedom violations when working with other groups to secure strategic areas.”
According to Open Doors, a religious freedom advocacy group, Syria also accounted for more Christians killed in 2013 than any other country – 1,213, followed by Nigeria (612), Pakistan (88) and Egypt (83).
Among the issues highlighted in this year’s report is the need to make IRFA’s mechanisms more relevant to today’s world. For instance, when the legislation was drafted the focus was on state-to-state relations, with little attention paid to the actions of non-state actors.
But in countries in transition, or countries where non-state actors such as terrorist groups act beyond the control of weak governments, IRFA’s tools are wanting
“Syria is a case in point,” it says. “A tragedy on many levels, Syria also represents one of the worst situations in the world for religious freedom, yet the IRFA tools are almost irrelevant to address the actions of terrorist organizations fighting a brutal, dictatorial regime or when the longstanding government is no longer seen as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”
The USCIRF recommends that Congress should rework IRFA mechanisms to allow for the naming not just of countries’ governments but also of “non-state actors who are perpetrating particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
Other recommendation in the report include the rapid filling of vacancies in key positions, including that of the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom – a key State Department post created by IRFA, which has been vacant for the past six months.