US panel urges commitments from Pakistan on religious freedom

Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, a hardline religious party, demand the hanging of Christian woman Asia Bibi, who was convicted of blasphemy but allowed later to leave for Canada, in an October 2018 protest in Lahore (AFP Photo/ARIF ALI)
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A US panel called Tuesday for a binding commitment from Pakistan to improving its treatment of religious minorities, including by tackling abuse of blasphemy laws.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which advises but does not set government policy, said the United States should seek written promises in return for Pakistan exiting the State Department's blacklist of violators.

Such a deal will "encourage the Pakistani government to take meaningful steps to address religious freedom violations with defined benchmarks," a report from the commission said.

Among immediate steps, Pakistan would eliminate religious affiliation on identity documents and start a review of all blasphemy cases.

The commission estimated that nearly 80 Pakistanis are imprisoned for blasphemy, some sentenced to die.

Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue for conservative Muslims in Pakistan, and critics say the law is abused against minorities, with even unproven allegations leading to lynchings.

The commission also called for the immediate end to a ban on publications by the Ahmadis, who are banned by Pakistan from calling themselves Muslim and have faced violence.

The report acknowledged that any such agreement was likely to meet opposition in Pakistan.

But it said that the State Department could provide incentives by imposing punitive measures on Pakistan until it reaches a deal.

The State Department in 2018 declared Pakistan to be a "country of particular concern" for religious freedom, which paves the way for sanctions and other actions if the administration chooses.

The commission, which had long campaigned to designate Pakistan, this year called for its historic rival, India, also to be added to the list -- infuriating New Delhi.

The United States previously entered a binding agreement on religious freedom in 2005 with Vietnam, leading to its removal from the blacklist.

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