The sentencing to death last month of a Sudanese woman, Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag, by a court in Khartoum for apostasy garnered international attention. It is almost unthinkable that a court would hand down such a decision in the 21st century.
Sadly, this is not as unusual as some would think: Death sentences on issues relating to religious freedom are a common occurrence in Pakistan, yet most of the world barely notices. Given its longtime relations with Pakistan, the U.S. government should take key steps today to improve the situation.
In 2014, Pakistani courts already have sentenced four people to death for violating Pakistan's blasphemy law, and another has received a life sentence. They join at least 13 others on death row and 19 serving life sentences. Last month, a major television station was charged with blasphemy, and authorities also charged 68 lawyers with blasphemy after they protested police abuse. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which we recently joined, has found that Pakistan has jailed more people for this "crime" than any other country.
Pakistan's blasphemy law also emboldens militants, who commit violence against perceived transgressors. Note the killing just last month of an Ahmadi American, Mehdi Ali Qamar, who was gunned down in front of his wife and small child while visiting Pakistan for volunteer medical relief work. Recall the fate in early May of Rashid Rehman, a member of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission. A brave and well-respected legal expert, Rehman was defending a high-profile blasphemy case. It cost him his life.
Such actions confirm the finding of our 2014 Annual Report that religious freedom conditions in Pakistan have reached new lows, with religious minorities suffering accordingly. Besides its blasphemy law, the government imposes what amounts to an apartheid-like system on Ahmadis through both its constitution and criminal law that penalizes basic acts of their faith. The government also tolerates violence by mobs and extremists whom it fails to bring to justice. Hundreds of minority Shi'a Muslims have been killed at the hands of militants who attack their processions, pilgrimage routes, and gathering places. The vulnerable Christian community has endured vigilante and terrorist attacks, such as the horrific September 2013 assault on the All Saints Church in Peshawar. Ahmadis regularly are killed in drive-by shootings. Hindus continue to flee the country due to violence and forced conversions, with the recent attack on a Hindu shrine a further example of that community's continuing vulnerability.
What can be done?
Pakistan is complicated, and U.S.-Pakistan relations are fragile. Yet the United States has worked closely with the Pakistani military throughout the country's history. It is time for a similarly steadfast engagement on freedom of religion and conscience. It is time to help Pakistan combat a growing climate of impunity and lawlessness that undermines the security of all citizens so Pakistanis, regardless of their beliefs and religious affiliations, can live without fear.
For starters, USCIRF recommends that the State Department designate Pakistan a "country of particular concern" (CPC) for systematic, egregious, and ongoing violations of religious freedom or belief under the International Religious Freedom Act. The State Department's own reports highlight the fact that Pakistan's repressive laws violate religious freedom. Pakistan currently represents the world's worst religious-freedom conditions among nondesignated countries. Naming Pakistan a CPC is long overdue; the case for designation is overwhelming.
At the same time, USCIRF also recommends comprehensively engaging Pakistan to encourage reform. The United States must urge Pakistani government ministries to address religious-minority concerns, including textbook reform, and prioritize much-needed legal reform and the prosecution of those who perpetrate violence. Combined with a CPC designation, these constructive measures would have a greater impact.
After one year in office, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has taken steps to promote interfaith harmony and denounce attacks. But such steps are dwarfed by the government's relentless enforcement of the blasphemy law and its failure to respond effectively to violence against the vulnerable. By designating Pakistan a CPC, the United States would bear witness to the plight of Pakistan's persecuted religious minorities and shine a spotlight on these terrible abuses. The United States must do more to persuade Pakistan's government to address the escalating war on religious freedom. A CPC designation is the place to begin.
The author is Senior Analyst for the National Catholic Reporter