The Ministry of Foreign Affairs comments on Friday came a day after Pakistan was placed on a special watch list for “severe violations of religious freedom.”
Federal Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Sardar Muhammed Yousaf rejected America’s claim and said “everyone can practice their religion freely,” slamming the US designation as smear campaign “propaganda to malign Pakistan” internationally.
Yousaf told Arab News on Saturday that designating Pakistan as a violator of religious freedom further damaged bilateral relations between the countries. He added that the US “is shifting its responsibility for failure onto Pakistan” after losing the fight in Afghanistan and out of frustration is making baseless charges against the country.
“We celebrate non-Muslim traditions on a state level with the Prime Minister and President attending the celebrations such as Christmas or Diwali, therefore the US allegation has no merit,” said Yousaf, pointing to the 1973 Constitution which protects religious rights and freedom.
His remarks follow the suspension of hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance by the Trump administration.
The surprise move “was not a planned policy” wrote C. Christine Fair, a distinguished associate professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program within the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, in an article on Monday.
She argues Washington’s decision is justified, asserting that Pakistan took US taxpayers’ money and handed it to terrorists, adding “there is still space for further escalation short of conflict” and that sanctions could be applied.
On Thursday, Heather Nauert, a US State Department spokesperson, announced that the US would freeze nearly all security aid to Pakistan until “the Pakistani government takes decisive action” against terrorist groups.
Pakistan’s civil-military leadership has repeatedly maintained that payments are “reimbursement” under the Coalition Support Fund for the amount the country had spent in the war against terror.
Following reports that Pakistan’s intelligence had denied US officials access to a terrorist linked to the Haqqani network who was apprehended during the rescue operation of an American-Canadian family in October 2017, Trump lambasted Pakistan in a tweet, accusing it of taking billions from the US and giving “nothing but lies & deceit.” He said that Pakistan was playing a double game by sheltering terrorists that the US was trying to eliminate in Afghanistan.
Pakistan is seeking clarification from the US, surprised by the “new categorization.” The Foreign Office said it is enquiring about the “rationale and implications” of the country’s placement on the freshly constituted watchlist: Pakistan is the first and only country listed in the US Commission on International Religious Freedoms’ annual report.
Pointing to countries with a record of systematic persecution of religious minorities absent from the US list, the Foreign Office added: “The designation overlooks the significant achievements of Pakistan in the area of human rights. Pakistan is firmly committed to the promotion and protection of human rights including the right of religious freedom, under its constitution.”
However, Islamabad has reaffirmed its commitment to work “with the international community to ensure that internationally agreed standards on religious freedom are observed in Pakistan and the broader region.”
But Fair told Arab News that Pakistan deserved to be on the watch, reasoning that the country’s constitution “does not afford equal rights for Muslims and non-Muslims.”
“Non-Muslims are routinely victimized through the use of Pakistan’s horrific blasphemy law, particularly Christians. The blasphemy law is often used to murder families in an effort to take over their land or businesses. Ahmadis and Shi’a Muslims are murdered wantonly with no consequences for the murders.”
Sufi shrines being attacked and its followers killed, and Hindu girls being “abducted, forced to convert to Islam and married against their will” all constituted religious violations which Pakistan’s “own human rights organizations have remarked upon.”
Analyst and legal expert Feisal Naqvi, who has worked on minority rights cases, explained that Pakistan already had ample laws to protect religious freedom of minorities.
“The only question is that of the implementation and enforcement” of those protection laws,” Naqvi told Arab News. He said that in recent years, public awareness of minority rights “has increased tremendously” and subsequently “protection will also increase.”