By Suneel Malik

The United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recently issued its annual report on religious freedom and recommended the US State Department to designate both India and Pakistan as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC), for engaging in and tolerating particularly severe religious freedom violations.

This is not the first time Pakistan has been on such lists.

It was included in the Special Watch List in 2017 and in 2018, the US State Department put Pakistan in the category of Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for the first time – even though the USCIRF had made this recommendation back in 2002.

It is, however, pertinent to note that in the case of Pakistan, the US administration granted a “national interest” waiver against the sanctions that normally accompany a CPC designation.

On the other hand, in spite of the Gujrat riots in 2002, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended India with CPC designation for the first time, not before 2004. It is now yet to be seen this December whether the US State Department declares India in the tier of CPC, imposing sanctions or issues waiver.

Sadly, Pakistan is not interested in comparing its own human rights record with those countries that respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. Instead, they are always ready to compete with India. This was reflected in a statement made by PM Imran Khan in December 2018 that Pakistan would ‘show’ Indian PM Narendra Modi, how to treat religious minorities.

Ever since Pakistan was categorized as CPC, Pakistani authorities have been raising concerns on the objectivity of the USCIRF report, for what they say is painting a grim picture of Pakistan but giving favor to India despite its poor records on protecting freedom of religion.

But if that is Pakistan’s only concern, then now with India likely to join Pakistan in the same category, Pakistan should be content with the merits used for designating countries a status for their involvement in repressing religious freedom.

The CPC status has been recommended for India because it introduced and implemented stringent laws and regulations including the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens, Cow Slaughter Laws, Anti-Conversion Laws, and Jammu & Kashmir Reorganization Act, that created distinction among citizens on the basis of religion.

It is well known that discrimination between people on any grounds constitutes as an affront to human dignity, therefore, governments of both neighboring countries must give due regard to minority rights while designing policies and programs, and take effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination on the grounds of religion in all fields of civil, economic, political, social and cultural life to ensure that minorities may exercise fully and effectively their human rights and fundamental freedom.

USCIRF reports are an eye-opener for many of those who continue to think that Pakistan is a heaven for minorities and far better than India – despite the fact that Pakistan has a long way to go when it comes to addressing religious freedom.

No doubt the sitting government has taken remarkable initiatives such as opening up the Kartarpur Corridor for Sikh pilgrims to visit the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, reopening and renovation of Hindu temples, constituting a parliamentary committee to protect minorities against forced conversions. Nonetheless, there is little progress regarding the minority rights commission and its criticism raised by human rights activists and minority community representatives about it being ‘toothless’.

Family laws for the minorities – as reforms in Christian marriage and divorce laws are long overdue – while rules and regulations for Hindu & Sikh marriage laws are yet to be framed.

Freedom of religion is inextricably linked with minority rights, so Pakistani authorities must be mindful of issues of religious freedom and of minority rights first and be willing to take substantial steps to protect these. The foremost issue is that of forced conversions and the lack of legal safeguards against it. The federal government must introduce a law aimed at preventing forced conversions including a benchmark of 18 years age for marriage and conversion, an impartial and thorough investigation, prosecuting perpetrators against charges of rape, kidnapping, abduction, and forced and child marriage. PM Imran Khan termed forced conversion un-Islamic last year. He should take a lead in seeing that this is implemented in practice.

The right to education without discrimination is another area that requires the immediate attention of the authorities as a single national curriculum is likely to launch soon. Unlike Muslim students, minority students are bound to study either Islamiyat or Ethics that oblige them to learn the teaching of eight religions rather than one of their own convictions. Therefore, the federal government complying with the constitutional protection guaranteed in Articles 20 and 22, must introduce religious education for minority students. This will give them an opportunity in educational institutions to study a religion they follow.

The National Commission for Minorities’ Rights has remained a matter of concern for successive governments that made numerous attempts of constituting ad-hoc bodies that lacked legal protection, powers, and resources. Hence the federal government must set up a statutory commission mandated by the Supreme Court in 2014 but through the parliament.

The Commission’s function will be to assess the implementation of rights and safeguards for minority rights, review public policies and contribute advice on policy matters.

The misuse of anti-sacrilegious laws to settle personal scores have been the cause for worry for decades, hence the federal government should consider enacting reforms which include requiring solid evidence, thorough investigation, bringing perpetrators committing perjury to courts.

The USCIRF created in 1998 by Congress, monitors and analyzes the religious freedom conditions globally, and makes policy recommendations for advancing religious freedom, under the International Religious Freedom Act. Designated CPCs are subject to further actions by the US administration, including sanctions and penalties.

A simple step, to prevent a country from being labeled as CPC, is that it must consider increasing legal protection for religious freedom, removing state restrictions on religious freedom, and eliminating religion-based discrimination in the provisions of the constitution, laws, and policies.

The Government of Pakistan should not take this report as offensive, rather it must consider its recommendations an opportunity to rectify the wrongdoings of the past, and advance religious freedom.

The writer is an advocate of human rights. He can be reached