Pakistan rejects US rebuke on religious freedoms

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan on Wednesday condemned a U.S. decision to add it to a list of nations that infringe on religious freedom, calling the move “unilateral and politically motivated.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added Pakistan to the U.S. list of “countries of particular concern” regarding protection for people to worship according to their beliefs. It was previously on a special watch list. The downgrade would expose Pakistan to potential American sanctions, but Pompeo waived those penalties, citing U.S. national interests.

The Foreign Ministry condemned the move, saying Pakistan is a “multi-religious and pluralistic society where people of diverse faiths and denominations live together.”

In recent years Islamic extremists have repeatedly attacked religious minorities in Pakistan, including Shiite Muslims and Christians. Members of the Ahmadi sect face heavy discrimination and are subject to restrictions stemming from a 1984 law that forbids them from “posing as Muslims.”

The U.S. said the decision to downgrade Pakistan was largely the result of a law that prescribes death for blasphemy against Islam. The mere rumor of insulting Islam can spark lynchings in Pakistan.

In October, Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who had been on death row for eight years after being convicted of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, charges she denied. The court upheld the blasphemy law but said there was not enough evidence to convict her.

Her release sparked days of mass protests and violence by religious hard-liners who vowed to kill her. She is under tight security at an undisclosed location, and is expected to seek asylum in another country.

Authorities arrested Khadim Hussein Rizvi, the cleric behind the protests, in November.

Pakistan said the U.S. decision was biased, adding that there were “serious questions on the credentials and impartiality of the self-proclaimed jury involved in this unwarranted exercise.”

The ministry said an independent National Commission on Human Rights addressed concerns over violations of minority rights and that successive governments in the Muslim-majority nation had made the protection of minorities a priority.

“Pakistan does not need counsel by any individual country how to protect the rights of its minorities,” it said.

The Trump administration has had tense relations with Pakistan, which it says has failed to combat the Taliban and other extremist groups that attack U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan, charges rejected by Islamabad.

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