The US has placed Pakistan on a 'Special Watch List' for "severe violations" of religious freedom, the State Department on Thursday 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.
This is for the first time, that the State Department announced its 'Special Watch List', a new category created by the Frank R Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016. The department placed only Pakistan on this list.
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.
In far too many places around the globe, people continue to be persecuted, unjustly prosecuted, or imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief, Nauert said in a statement.
"Today, a number of governments infringe upon individuals' ability to adopt, change, or renounce their religion or belief, worship in accordance with their religion or beliefs, or be free from coercion to practice a particular religion or belief," she said.
In accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, she said Secretary of State annually designates governments that have engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom as 'Countries of Particular Concern'.
"Today, the Department of State announces that the Secretary of State re-designated Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as Countries of Particular Concern on December 22, 2017," she said.
Noting that the protection of religious freedom is vital to peace, stability, and prosperity, Nauert said these designations are aimed at improving the respect for religious freedom in these countries.
"We recognise that several designated countries are working to improve their respect for religious freedom; we welcome these initiatives and look forward to continued dialogue," Nauert said.
The US remains committed to working with governments, civil society organisations, and religious leaders to advance religious freedom around the world, she added.
The US Commission for International Religious Freedom which has been seeking to designate Pakistan as CPS however expressed its disappointment with the decision of Tillerson in this regard.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has been advocating for designating Pakistan as a CPC since 2002.
It has argued that the government of Pakistan continues "to perpetrate and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations. Religiously discriminatory constitutional provisions and legislation, such as the country's blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, continue to result in prosecutions and imprisonments".
"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.
In November, Congressmen Randy Hultgren and James P McGovern, Co-Chairs of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, in a letter to Tillerson had urged him to designate Pakistan as CPC alleging it has engaged in systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.
In a report last year, the Pew Research Center determined that over an eight-year period Pakistan is one of a small group of countries that "stand out as having the most restrictions on religion...when both government restrictions and religious hostilities are taken into account".