The U.S. State Department lists only nine nations as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) — a designation for those nations considered to be the worst violators of religious freedom. These include governments that “engage in or tolerate” systematic, ongoing, and unspeakable violations of religious freedom.
According to many human rights activists, this list is far from complete: “the State Department has seemed unwilling to recognize the grave unspeakable abuses of religious freedom in a number of Muslim-dominated countries that the USCIRF [U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom] considers CPCs: Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Tajikistan.”
Accordingly, on October 21, the USCIRF issued a press release calling on “the State Department to further expand its CPC list to reflect the severe violations occurring in other countries, such as Pakistan, which USCIRF has called the worst situation in the world for religious freedom for countries not currently designated by the U.S. government as CPCs.”
To understand why Pakistan was highlighted, consider the following 10 accounts, all of which took place in the month of October — the same month that the U.S. State Department was being urged to include Pakistan and other countries in its list.
On October 23, a deaf, married Christian woman was gang-raped by three Muslim men who broke into her home while her husband was out working. Despite her screams, no one came to help her. Although one man was arrested, rights activists say he will eventually be released. According to Sardar Mushtaq Gill, a Pakistani lawyer and human rights activist, “Often in these cases the police take no action or, worse, side with the rapists. Christian families or witnesses are pressured to withdraw complaints.”
On October 15, eight days before the deaf Christian woman was raped, two Muslim men, both named Muhammad, who had earlier raped two teenage Christian sisters at gunpoint, were acquitted in court. Not only did a key witness change his statement after receiving a bribe, but according to the girls’ father, “The lawyer didn’t fight the case very well and with commitment. Mostly, he stayed absent from the hearings of the case during the proceedings. The lawyer didn’t even participate in the cross-questioning with the culprits in the court. … We face serious life threats from the culprits now, as they are being released from jail.”
A report from October 5 cites three separate incidents in which five young Christian girls were abducted and sexually abused: Two were kidnapped and gang-raped by a group of Muslim men; a 13-year-old Christian girl was kidnapped and raped; and two other Christian girls were abducted and abused by a group of human traffickers who forced them into prostitution.
Nabila Bibi, a Christian woman who had been engaged to a Christian man for a year and was preparing to marry him in a few weeks’ time, was abducted, forcibly converted to Islam, and then forcibly married to a Muslim man named Allah Rakha. After discovering her whereabouts, her fiancé went to the kidnapper’s home on October 15 and demanded to see her. Rakha, who had 15-20 other Muslims with him, refused, and warned the Christian that because his fiancée was now Muslim, he must never seek her out again, or else suffer “dire consequences.” The report adds that such Christian abductees “may be subjected to sexual violence, rape, forced prostitution, human trafficking and sale, or other domestic abuse or discarded from home after passing some time.”
On October 23, Sonia Bibi, a 20-year-old Christian woman, was set on fire and almost burned to death after she refused to marry a Muslim ex-boyfriend. According to the woman’s testimony, when she turned down his proposal, Latif Ahmed doused her with petrol and set her alight. Burns covered nearly half of her body.
On October 5, Saddique Azam, a Catholic teacher who was appointed headmaster at a primary school in a small village, was beaten and tortured by a group of three Muslim teachers who resented being under the authority of an “infidel.” The Muslims barged into Azam’s office and ordered him to resign. When he refused, they beat him so severely that he needed to be hospitalized.
According to an October 14 report, rights activists ae concerned for the life of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who has been on death row since 2010. A Muslim woman, apparently with a personal vendetta against Bibi, had accused her of speaking blasphemy against the prophet of Islam, Muhammad. “She could be killed by any inmate or even a prison guard, so we have to be careful,” said an official. Bibi was put in solitary confinement, where her health has been steadily deteriorating. “She was vomiting blood last month and having difficulty walking.”
An October 23 report titled, “Christians required only as sweepers,” notes that “Christians make up most of the non-Muslim minority in central Punjab and account for 1.5 per cent of the total population. Their representation in sanitation work, however, is above 80 percent.” After noting that Pakistan was named “Land of the Pure” in reference to its Muslim identity (as opposed to that of its largely Hindu neighbor, India), the report adds, “The attitude of forcing Christians into degrading occupations based on their descent continues and owes its existence to this long-entrenched dichotomy of ‘pure’ and ‘impure.'”
An October 19 report tells of a Christian family — a father, mother, and two daughters — who have been on the run since 2006. Their “crime” was that the woman, formerly a Muslim, converted to Christianity and married a Christian man. This prompted threats and attacks from Muslims, including her family: “Jobless and desperate, they are unable to meet their own needs, as they continue to be threatened, hounded, and attacked because they want to live a Christian life and raise their children in accordance with Christ’s teachings,” notes the report. Due to the stressful experiences and unsanitary conditions they are forced to hide in, the woman has miscarried their third child. The father was shot in the leg and run over by a motorcycle. Even so, “Attempts to file a case against their tormentors have fallen on deaf police ears.”
On October 7, more than 1,000 Christians gathered in front of the Punjab Assembly to protest an “anti-minority” bill that “denies voting rights to women” and “does not allow religious minorities to elect their own representatives.” Religious minorities argued that an appointed official “cannot do anything” except to “become a puppet in the hand of their party.”
These ten accounts from October alone are a typical sampling of what Christians, who reportedly make up roughly 1% of Pakistan’s population, routinely experience. (Over 96% of Pakistan’s population is Muslim).
Worse, the majority of atrocities, according to human rights activists, never get reported for fear of reprisals. It took five years for the account of a two-year-old toddler, who was savagely raped because her Christian father refused to convert to Islam, to become public. She has undergone five surgeries and still remains disfigured. Her family lives in constant fear and in hiding.
According to human rights activist Sardar Mushtaq Gill, who is involved with many of the above-mentioned cases, “Violence against women and children of religious minorities, the weak and vulnerable, is widespread in Pakistan and is often carried out in silence. These cases and the stories do not come to light and when victims talk about it they are intimidated.”
In light of all this, it is high time for Pakistan to be labeled a “Country of Particular Concern” by the U.S. Department of State. Otherwise, the crucial question persists: Why is it not?