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Pakistan extremism concerns USCIRF

WASHINGTON (BP)–Religious extremism in Pakistan poses a continuing threat to religious freedom and human rights, witnesses told the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom during a hearing on Capitol Hill.

Steve Coll, president of New America Foundation and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, said at the hearing: “It’s in the interest of the United States to promote a stable, modernizing, democratic Pakistan that is at peace with itself and at peace with its neighbors and, in pursuing that goal, to promote those leaders, institutions and forces within Pakistan that seek to revive and perfect the Pakistani constitution that defined the country’s identity and political system from its founding.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan panel, directs the Department of State’s attention to countries that violate religious freedom and other human rights. The commission reports to the Department of State and Congress on conditions in specific countries and recommends actions to be taken.

USCIRF has recommended Pakistan be designated a “Country of Particular Concern,” a label reserved for the worst violators of religious liberty.

Inequitable legislation in Pakistan has produced an atmosphere of religious intolerance that has negatively affected religious minorities both socially and legally, according to USCIRF. The commission previously has reported that government officials provide inadequate protection to Pakistanis who do not share the same beliefs as Sunni Muslims, the religious majority.

Pakistan’s government recently reached an agreement with religious extremists to end fighting in the Swat Valley, a district of the North-West Frontier Province and one of the specific regions in the country the USCIRF has addressed.

The commission was concerned the agreement, which allowed Islamic Shari’a law to be imposed in Swat, represented a significant victory for extremists who are associated with the Taliban. The Obama administration criticized the agreement April 14, saying it would produce “less democracy and less human rights,” the Associated Press reported.

The USCIRF has held a series of hearings exploring the impact of religious rights violations and concerns about security in Pakistan. The commission’s chair, Felice Gaer, explained four of the commission’s main concerns in the March 17 hearing, the third held on Pakistan:

— The commission labeled Pakistan’s government as inadequately responsive to persistent, narrow-minded and religiously motivated violence that is aimed at Shi’a and Ahmadi Muslims, as well as Christians, Hindus, Baha’is and other religious minorities.

— The commission wants to see changes in Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which allow imprisonment without charges and foster violence against religious minorities, including some Muslims. In particular, the laws have victimized women.

— The commission also is concerned about “madrassas,” Pakistan’s Islamic schools, which perpetuate extremist religious ideologies and help create an atmosphere where religious freedom is abused.

— The commission is troubled by Pakistan’s role in promoting the concept of “defamation of religions” in the United Nations, an effort that would limit religious liberty and expression worldwide.

The USCIRF is urging the Obama administration to address the threat of religious extremism by promoting human rights, religious liberty, democratic institutions and security for all Pakistanis.

President Obama recognizes the need for change in Pakistan, according to the White House. Administration policy calls for Pakistan to work at eliminating al-Qaeda and Taliban influence in areas of the country that al-Qaeda has used to plan attacks on the United States. The elimination of such havens will be a primary challenge for the Obama administration.

In addition to religious extremism, Pakistan also will be seriously affected by the global economic crisis.

“The Pakistan Enduring Assistance and Cooperation Enhancement Act (the PEACE Act) triples U.S. economic assistance to Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year, with a particular emphasis on strengthening democratic institutions, promoting economic development and improving Pakistan’s education system,” the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs has reported.

The Obama administration has pledged to assist Pakistan with this civilian aid for five years but expects Pakistan to uphold its end of the agreement. President Obama has said he wants Pakistan to commit to deploying forces to the tribal areas of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

“For years, the fight against extremists has been under-manned, under-funded and lacked a coherent strategy,” Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, said on the committee’s Web site. “President Obama’s new strategy recognizes those facts and moves aggressively to address them.”
Yvette Rattray is an intern with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press.

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