Washington: The US has placed Pakistan on a ‘Special Watch List’ for “severe violations” of religious freedom, the State Department said, making it the only country to be put under the newly-formed list.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced re-designation of 10 countries as ‘Countries of Particular Concern’ (CPC).
“The secretary also placed Pakistan on a Special Watch List for severe violations of religious freedom,” State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said.

The Special Watch List is for countries that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom but may not rise to the level of the CPC.

The Special Watch List designation is being seen as a step below designating it as Country of Particular Concern, which would have automatically kicked in economic and political sanctions.

Pakistan, notably, is the first ever country to be placed in this list, which is a new category created by the Frank R Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016.

The 2016 Frank R Wolf International Religious Freedom Act amended the IRF Act to require the President to designate a ‘Special Watch List’ of countries deemed not to meet all of the CPC criteria but who engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom. IRF stands for International Religious Freedom.

The US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIS) which has been seeking to designate Pakistan as CPC, however, expressed its disappointment with the decision of Tillerson in this regard.

“Pakistan continues to harass its religious minorities, has state-sanctioned discrimination against groups such as the Ahmadis, and tolerates extra-judicial violence in the guise of opposing blasphemy,” USCIRF Chairman Daniel Mark said.

“As USCIRF has said for many years, Pakistan should be designated by the State Department as a CPC. Given the strong stance that President Trump has taken on Pakistan recently, the failure to designate Pakistan as a CPC this year comes as a surprise and disappointment,” Mark said.

The State Department defended its decision.

“The Secretary of State takes into consideration all of the information available in conducting his review. His most recent assessment is that Pakistan does not meet the criteria for CPC designation, but meets the Special Watch List criteria,” a State Department Spokesperson told PTI.

“We strongly urge Pakistan to protect religious freedom for all individuals. CPC designations can be made at any time, as conditions warrant,” the spokesperson said, leaving the door option for Pakistan.

“The governments that have been designated as CPCs are subject to ‘Presidential Actions’, such as sanctions, which may include economic or political measures directed against a government to encourage it to improve the state of religious freedom in its country,” the spokesperson said in response to a question.

A former member of Pakistani Parliament Farahnaz Ispahani, welcomed the State Department’s decision to place her country on a Special Watch List.

“Today, the Special Watch List designation status given to Pakistan by the US Secretary of State to Pakistan may help Pakistan’s religious minorities. For too long no one has really cared within the country. Perhaps its time for external pressure to help safeguard those Pakistani citizens who are persecuted solely on the basis of their faith,” Ispahani said.

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