US downgrades Pakistan in religious freedom rankings
By MATTHEW LEE
AP Diplomatic Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Trump administration on Tuesday placed Pakistan on its annual list of worst offenders for nations that it says infringe on religious freedom.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement he added Pakistan to the U.S. list of "countries of particular concern" regarding protection for people to worship according to their beliefs. Pakistan had previously been on a special watch list for religious freedom. The downgrade means that Pakistan could be hit with U.S. sanctions, although Pompeo waived those penalties in the U.S. national interest.
U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said the decision to designate Pakistan was largely the result of criminal blasphemy laws in the country. He said half of the world's population of prisoners jailed for blasphemy are in Pakistan. And he noted the recent high-profile case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was recently acquitted of blasphemy but has been unable to leave the country due to riots and death threats against her.
"It's our hope that the new leadership in Pakistan will work to improve the situation," Brownback told reporters on a conference call to detail Pompeo's findings. "There was some encouraging signs seen recently on how they've handled some of the recent protesting against the blasphemy laws, and we continue to watch very carefully what's happening to Asia Bibi."
Other countries on the blacklist, which calls out nations for "systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom," are China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. All had been so designated in last year's list. Aside from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkistan received sanctions waivers.
Uzbekistan had previously been named a "country of particular concern," but Pompeo upgraded it to the special watch list. The watch list now also includes the Comoros Islands and Russia.
In addition, Pompeo designated several Islamic militant groups as "entities of particular concern" as they do not meet the definition of countries. Those are the al-Nusra front in Syria, the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaida, Somalia's al-Shabab, Boko Haram in West Africa, Yemen's Houthi rebels, the Islamic State and the Taliban.
"In far too many places across the globe, individuals continue to face harassment, arrests or even death for simply living their lives in accordance with their beliefs," Pompeo said. "The United States will not stand by as spectators in the face of such oppression."
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