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Pakistan tops new list of religious freedom abusers, panel says

Published: Thursday, May 1 2014 4:00 a.m. MDT

Supporters of Pakistan's Sunni religious party Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat offer prayers under tight security during a rally in Karachi, Pakistan, Friday, Jan. 31, 2014. Pakistan's stiff anti-blasphemy law enforcement tops the list of global liberty violators, the latest report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom states.

Fareed Khan, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Pakistan is a world leader in oppressing religious minorities, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom declared in a report released Wednesday, with Iran closing in on the top spot and Russia becoming a cause for concern with its recent restrictions against Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses.

The 209-page report is the 15th by the USCIRF, and the commission's chairman said in a teleconference with journalists that the global religious liberty situation is not improving as much as it should, and is in fact getting worse in some nations.

"There's no shortage of places where abuses occur," said Robert P. George, a Princeton University legal scholar. "And the news on (the religious liberty) front is very bad: … 76 percent of the world's people live in countries where significant religious freedom violations are tolerated or committed with impunity," George added, citing January 2014 data from the Pew Research Center.

Religious liberty is a global concern for the United States, George said, not only "for humanitarian reasons, but also because nations that trample on religious freedom provide ample ground for war, poverty and violations of human rights. It's a practical necessity in the world today."

He called on the Obama administration to put more teeth into its pronouncements that nations should respect citizens' rights to believe as they wish, to change their faith, and to share their faith publicly, tenets of Article 18 of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"We feel Republican and Democratic administrations, burdened as they are … we're concerned that with the burden of all those other concerns, the focus on religious freedom has been lost," George said.

Blasphemy death sentences

Draconian blasphemy laws have put 36 people on death row or serving life sentences in Pakistan. George said that dissenting from the majority Sunni Islam faith — as is the case with Shia'a and Ahmadi Muslims — is grounds for blasphemy charges, which have also been leveled at Christians in that country.

The Ahmadi situation, both George and the USCIRF report note, is particularly perilous. "The constitution declares members of the Ahmadi religious community to be 'non-Muslims,' and the penal code makes basic acts of Ahmadi worship and interaction criminal offenses. They also are prevented from voting," the report stated.

The USCIRF report recommends that Secretary of State John F. Kerry continue to list Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan as "countries of particular concern," or CPCs.

The USCIRF commissioners — who operate independently of the State Department — also recommend adding Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam to the CPC list.

"Syria was added for the abuses against religious freedom being committed not just by the Assad regime but by all sides in the terrible civil war those people are suffering through,” George said. The conflict in Syria is now in its fourth year.

Ten "Tier Two" designations for countries whose actions, though serious, didn't fulfill all the criteria for a higher censure, were also suggested: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia and Turkey.

George asserted that religious liberty in Russia has "suffered a serious setback" with new blasphemy laws and restrictions on the activities of Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses in the country.

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