U.S. hits Pakistan on ‘severe’ religious freedom violations amid worsening relations

Trump's tweets were just the beginning.

Activists of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council shout anti-US slogans at a protest in Karachi on January 2, 2018.  CREDIT: ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images
Activists of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council shout anti-US slogans at a protest in Karachi on January 2, 2018. CREDIT: ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images

In the latest indicator of souring U.S.-Pakistan relations, the State Department this week placed Pakistan on a special watch list over its religious freedom violations, an aggressive move likely to worsen dialogue between the two allies.

In a press release Thursday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert announced that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had re-designated a number of countries as “countries of particular concern” under the Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

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“In far too many places around the globe, people continue to be persecuted, unjustly prosecuted, or imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief,” Nauert’s statement read. “Today, a number of governments infringe upon individuals’ ability to adopt, change, or renounce their religion or belief, worship in accordance with their religion or beliefs, or be free from coercion to practice a particular religion or belief.”

The list of countries includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. While those re-designations were expected, one name came as a surprise. Pakistan was singled out separately and placed on a distinct list for “severe violations” of religious freedom, following days of acrimony between the South Asian country and the United States. The announcement failed to detail the rationale behind the decision.

Religious minorities have long faced persecution in Pakistan. The majority Sunni Muslim nation is home to a number of diverse communities, but extremists routinely target Hindus, Christians, and Shia Muslims, as well as others. Among the country’s most persecuted members are Ahmadi Muslims, a minority group deemed non-Muslim by Pakistan’s constitution. Ahmadis are barred from identifying themselves as Muslim and are routinely targeted by politicians and religious leaders.

Other minorities also live with the constant threat of violence. Last month, two suicide bombers attacked a Methodist church in the southwestern city of Quetta, killing around 10 people and wounding at least 35 other worshippers.

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Still, Pakistan’s designation has come as surprise to a number of experts and observers. As a nuclear-armed power and a vital U.S. ally in anti-extremism efforts, Pakistan is of particular importance to the United States. That alone has kept the State Department from singling the country out — until now.

Under President Trump, relations with Pakistan have fluctuated; Trump initially praised and lauded Pakistanis, calling them “one of the most intelligent people”, and later labeling the nation a “fantastic country.” But that rhetoric shifted abruptly months later, as Trump accused Pakistan of harboring extremists and failing to cooperate in anti-militancy efforts. The abrupt pivot is opening Pakistan up to increased scrutiny — something reflected by Thursday’s religious freedom designation.

“For years, @USCIRF has recommended reprimanding #Pakistan over lack of religious freedom but @StateDept has avoided designating it as ‘Country of Particular Concern’ for strategic political reasons. That changed today,” former Pakistani ambassador Husain Haqqani tweeted, referencing the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Haqqani, who has been deeply critical of the Pakistani government, later corrected the tweet, noting the nature of Pakistan’s designation.

“So, is on a ‘Watch List,’ for Religious Freedom Violations, not designated ‘Country of Particular Concern’ as sought by @USCIRF. @StateDept’s preference for treading ‘carefully’ endures,” Haqqani wrote.

The already-disintegrating relationship between Pakistan and the United States worsened on New Year’s Day: Trump kicked off the new year by lashing out at the nation, accusing it of taking U.S. aid without working to crack down on extremism.

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“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!” he tweeted.

His comments were met with fierce pushback in Pakistan. U.S. Ambassador David Hale was summoned to discuss the remarks and Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif suggested a U.S. audit of the money Pakistan receives from its Western ally, so as to “let the world know who is lying and deceiving.” Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi also called a cabinet meeting on the comments, while Pakistan’s National Security Committee noted its “deep disappointment with some of the [U.S. president’s] recent statements.” Several protests also took place in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.

The backlash has done little to discourage the White House. On Thursday, the Trump administration announced that it would freeze nearly all security aid to Pakistan, a move that could compromise Pakistani civilians in addition to hindering government efforts to combat extremism. Pakistan, meanwhile, is eyeing a shift away from the United States: the country’s central bank announced this week that it will be replacing the dollar with the yuan for bilateral trade with China, an indicator of warming ties between Beijing and Islamabad.

It’s unclear whether the U.S. decision to hit Pakistan on religious freedom will have any immediate consequences. If found to be a “country of particular concern”, the nation could ultimately face sanctions, something that could prove challenging for the United States. With thousands of U.S. troops headed to Afghanistan later this year, Pakistan’s regional support is as important as ever. Analysts say that reality is one Pakistani officials are counting on to smooth over tensions with the White House.

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In the United States, meanwhile, experts have become increasingly confused by Trump’s escalating rhetoric. In an editorial published Tuesday, the Washington Post queried the president’s attacks on Pakistan, asking, “What was the point?”

Pakistan has yet to respond to Thursday’s designation, although officials have indicated a longer response to Trump’s comments is yet to come.