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Pakistan wants to change, says US envoy for religious freedom

Abu DHABI: Pakistan has “a desire to change” its ways and be removed from an American blacklist of countries that infringe on religious freedoms, a US special envoy said on a tour of a Middle East.

Sam Brownback, the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said he travelled to Pakistan to discuss Islamabad being newly placed on the blacklist, which can lead to a country facing economic sanctions. Pakistan, home to some 200 million people, has blasphemy laws that carry death sentence for convicts.

 

The US put Pakistan on its religious freedom blacklist in December, though US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held back on imposing sanctions on Islamabad.

Brownback, a Republican who served in the US Senate and later as the governor of Kansas for two terms, said he met Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who promised to appoint a point person to handle the US concerns.

“They’ve had a lot of difficulties as a nation on this topic on religious freedom so what I was there for was to talk about changing,” Brownback said.

The US ambassador criticised Sudan’s government amid protests against longtime President Omar al-Bashir during an interview with The Associated Press. He lauded steps taken by the United Arab Emirates and promises made by Saudi Arabia while acknowledging far more needs to be done in those countries to promote and protect the right to choose one’s faith.

“No, it’s not enough but it’s something,” Brownback said in the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi. “They’re not perfect countries by any means nor is the United States, but what I really think we need to do is to start people on a process and on an engagement moving forward.”

Brownback praised the UAE for hosting the recent visit of Pope Francis. The pontiff’s visit and his Roman Catholic papal Mass both were the first on the Arabian Peninsula.

He also praised an Emirati effort to examine school books for children.

“Even though we’re in a ‘Year of Tolerance’ here in the UAE, and I applaud that, tolerance is too low of a bar,” Brownback earlier told a group of local journalists.

“We need respect between the religions. They need to respect each other as this is a legitimate search for God.”

President Donald Trump picked Brownback to serve as the US ambassador-at-large for religious freedom in 2017, though he only became ambassador in 2018. He had faced criticism from Democrats and LGBT groups over rescinding an order as governor that barred discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in Kansas.

Brownback opposes abortion and gay marriage.

As a senator, Brownback paid particular attention to the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region. Asked about the ongoing protests there, the ambassador declined to say whether he personally thought Mr Bashir should leave.

“The government there has just been terrible on how it’s let its own people not be free and has persecuted their people for years and years and years,” he said. “They’ve had a genocide in Darfur, they had a genocide (in) what they did to the Southern Sudanese, they continue to be a huge violator of religious freedom and I don’t think they’ve served that nation well at all.”