A group of South Asia experts recently submitted a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging him to address rising religious persecution in Pakistan during his trip to the region for the U.S.–Pakistan Strategic Dialogue this week.
Unfortunately, Secretary Kerry did not publicly raise U.S. concerns on sensitive issues such as Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws and the increased incidents of violence against religious minorities. Kerry focused instead on encouraging Pakistan to continue its fight against Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorists that recently attacked a school in Peshawar, killing more than 100 children.
Kerry also announced the U.S. would provide $250 million in assistance to help rehabilitate the tribal border areas, where Pakistan has been conducting military operations against the TTP since last June, and to help resettle those who have been displaced by the fighting.
As Heritage Senior Research Fellow Lisa Curtis commented,
The growing persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan is related to the rise of terrorism. As terrorists step up their attacks, civil society loses its trust in the authorities to protect them and those with hardline views that sympathize with the terrorists’ ideology become emboldened to persecute religious minorities. Ongoing terrorist attacks create a sense of fear and chaos and give rise to overall religious intolerance. Protecting religious freedom in Pakistan would help strengthen the fabric of Pakistani civil society against the nihilistic, intolerant ideology of the terrorists.
One of the most well-known cases of religious persecution in Pakistan is the blasphemy case against Pakistani Christian, Aasia Bibi. In 2009, Bibi, a farm worker, got into an altercation with a Muslim woman over carrying a water bowl; the Muslim woman alleged that Bibi, as a Christian, was ineligible to touch the bowl and accused Bibi of blasphemy for purportedly insulting the Muslim prophet Mohammed during their disagreement. The Lahore Court recently upheld the death penalty for Bibi.
Kerry’s trip also comes amidst a number of recent attacks against religious minorities. Recently, an Ahmadi man was killed after a cleric on a popular Pakistani television show called Ahmadis “the enemy.” Last November, a Christian couple was burned alive for allegedly desecrating a Quran.
The U.S. and Pakistan have a robust relationship. The U.S. has provided nearly $30 billion in economic and military aid to the country since 2002, including funding for energy development and programs that have rehabilitated or built over 900 schools that educate more than 350,000 Pakistani children. According to the State Department, trade and investment between the U.S. and Pakistan was valued at $5 billion in 2013. As such, it would have been well within Kerry’s purview to engage with Pakistani leaders on religious freedom issues and the protection of religious minorities. The experts’ letter had called on Kerry to:
[A]dd a plank to the U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue that specifically addresses the issues of countering extremism and promoting interfaith harmony, and to incorporate concerns about attacks by terrorists against religious communities into security consultations. Designating Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act would also express U.S. concerns. USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] assistance should be specifically targeted toward the defense of religious minorities in Pakistan.
International religious freedom is a U.S. foreign policy priority and as such, should be an integral part of the U.S.–Pakistan relationship. Next time Kerry engages with Pakistani leaders, he should raise concern about the increasing religious persecution occurring in Pakistan.