Commentary

Religious Persecution in Pakistan

Stability in Central Asia is threatened by Pakistan’s slow surrender to extremism. Many of Pakistan’s problems are rooted in the spread of hateful and intolerant beliefs.

The U.S. State Department should cite Pakistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act. Pakistan illustrates why religious persecution is a problem transcending national boundaries.

Freedom of conscience, the essence of religious liberty, is a foundation for all other human rights. A national community which refuses to defend those who believe differently is likely to become a source of intolerance, hatred, and violence — which may end up directed beyond its own country’s boundaries.

The ongoing disintegration of Pakistani society was reflected in the assassinations of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in January and Religious Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti in March. Taseer was a Muslim who opposed the religious parties and denounced Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Bhatti, a Christian, said he was “speaking for the oppressed, marginalized and persecuted Christians and other minorities.”

Although a few brave Pakistanis embraced the two men in death, many more stayed silent while extremists praised the murderers. Taseer’s son was kidnapped in August.

In such an environment, official support for al-Qaida and other terrorists should come as no surprise. A poll last year found that some 60 percent of Pakistanis viewed America as an enemy.

Much of America’s unpopularity results from Washington’s policies. The war in Afghanistan and especially drone attacks in Pakistan have created growing popular hostility.

But the spread of Islamic extremism has created an environment in which violence naturally flourishes. Even if those willing to strike remain a minority, they increasingly receive warm support from others.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reported that “Pakistan continues to be responsible for systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief.” The commission pointed to the blasphemy laws which, along with “other religiously discriminatory legislation, such as the anti-Ahmadi laws, have created an atmosphere of violent extremism and vigilantism.”

The State Department’s assessment of religious liberty is equally blunt. The department noted: “Security forces and other government agencies did not adequately prevent or address societal abuse against minorities. Discriminatory legislation and the government’s failure or delay in addressing religious hostility by societal actors fostered religious intolerance, acts of violence, and intimidation against religious minorities.”

Both the commission and the department emphasize the blasphemy laws as a particular problem. Last year Freedom House concluded: “The situation in Pakistan is unique in its severity and its particular effects on religious minorities.” The extremist Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party proposed banning the Bible as “blasphemous.”

Even before the Taseer and Bhatti murders, the situation in Pakistan was deteriorating. Last November the State Department declared: “The number and severity of reported high-profile cases against minorities increased” and “organized violence against minorities increased.”

International Christian Concern, which placed Pakistan in its “Hall of Shame,” noted that Islamabad “absolutely refuses to progress toward a religiously free society.” Or a free society in any other way.

Washington can do little to transform internal Pakistani affairs. But U.S. officials should make the toxic human environment an issue of bilateral discussion.

The best way to do so would be to designate Pakistan as a Country of Particular Concern, which is warranted when there are “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” violations of religious liberty “engaged in or tolerated” by the relevant government.

A CPC rating requires the State Department to act, such as imposing sanctions, or granting a waiver. Even in the latter case the designation can spark an ongoing dialogue. Many Americans already wonder why the U.S. continues to provide Pakistan with billions of dollars annually in foreign aid.

Pakistan’s geopolitical importance inevitably inclines the State Department against holding Islamabad accountable for its dangerous religious climate. However, Pakistan’s very centrality to U.S. policy makes the internal situation especially threatening for Americans as well as Pakistanis. The primary issue is a nuclear-armed state in the hands of those shaped by a system which celebrates intolerance and murder.

Unless the current government confronts those promoting intolerance, moderate Muslims may vanish along with Christians. Three leading Pakistani Christian leaders issued a statement after Shahbaz Bhatti’s death: “If the country becomes a killing field of the democrat and liberal individuals who exercise their freedom of conscience and expression, it would embolden the criminals trying to take charge of the country.”

If Pakistan is taken over by such “criminals” — or, more specifically, extremists advocating the use of violence — the consequences could be incalculable. Washington should do its utmost to avoid such a threat. Angering Islamabad today by raising the pressure through a CPC designation today might be the best means to prevent a crisis in relations tomorrow.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.