Why Trump Administration Officials Cited Religious Freedom When Cutting Off Funds To Pakistan

The Trump administration cited religious freedom as reason to crimp funds to Pakistan this month, opening a new chapter of strained relationships between two nuclear power frenemies. 

Until recently, the country of about 193 million inhabitants was on the U.S. government’s back burner. Despite the efforts of independent groups such as the U.S. Center for International Religious Freedom to alert government officials of Pakistan’s horrendous human rights record, little was done because of Pakistan’s strategic place in America’s war in Afghanistan.

That was then. 

President Trump’s New Year’s Day tweets criticizing Pakistan and a subsequent State Department announcement flagellating the Muslim state for its “severe” violations of religious freedom show there’s a new sheriff in town willing to play hardball. 

“Pakistan is one of the worst hell holes and money pits we have,” said Lela Gilbert, an adjunct fellow with the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. “Trump is looking at dollars and cents on foreign aid and he’s looking at what we’re getting back."

“The administration is demonstrating that it takes religious freedom seriously, and it will no longer turn a blind eye to a security partner which isn’t protecting its minorities.”
— Johnnie Moore, spokesman for informal evangelical Protestant advisory group to President Trump

On Jan. 1, Trump tweeted that Americans have “foolishly” given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid but “they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” 

This was followed by a Jan. 3 announcement by Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, that the Trump administration will withhold $255 million in aid from Pakistan unless it stops playing a “double game” by housing terrorists who attack American troops in Afghanistan. The (Toronto) Globe and Mail reports the real amount is much more, as withheld monies would also include another $900 million in funds earmarked for counterterrorism operations in Pakistan. 

Then on Jan. 4, the State Department placed Pakistan on a watch list for “severe” violations of religious freedom involving minority faiths such as Shi’ite Muslims, Ahmadis (Muslims who are considered heretical in Pakistan), Christians and Hindus. 

It was a step toward getting placed on an annual list that State draws up listing the 10 worst violators of religious freedom. This year, they included Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Religious freedom activists have been trying to get Pakistan on this list for years, says Farahnaz Ispahani, author of “Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities” and a fellow at the Wilson Center. But they were always vetoed by a State Department that wishes, she adds, “to avoid jeopardizing the Pakistan government’s cooperation over strategic matters.”

Then shortly before he retired in 2015, U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf added a “special watch list” option to the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act so the State Department could, as Ispahani worded it, “show indignation over lack of religious freedom even when it is reluctant to trigger sanctions for a particular country.”

This is the watch list that Pakistan was put on earlier this month.

Some experts agreed that the new action on Pakistan is either coming from Trump himself or his evangelical advisors, some of whom are religious freedom advocates.

Pakistanis reacted to the Trump tweet by calling an emergency meeting of the country’s National Security Committee that included the chiefs of its army, navy and air force. Pakistani foreign minister Khawaja Asif claimed that Trump was taking out his disappointment on the Pakistanis over lackluster results in Afghanistan after 16 years of war. Now, many in the foreign policy community expect Pakistan to turn to China for support.

Somewhere in this tangle of international politics, religious freedom for Pakistan’s embattled Christians, Hindus, Ahmadi and Shi’ite Muslims is getting its day in the sun. 

“The administration is demonstrating that it takes religious freedom seriously, and it will no longer turn a blind eye to a security partner which isn’t protecting its minorities,” said Johnnie Moore, an international religious freedom advocate and the spokesman for an informal evangelical Protestant advisory group to Trump. “Previous administrations have given Pakistan a pass on religious freedom issues in exchange for security cooperation. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s religious freedom violations have escalated at an alarming rate.”

Moore suggests that Pakistan is on its way to being the new Iraq in terms of endangered religious minorities and that the Trump administration doesn’t want them to be slaughtered like many Christians and Yezidis were in Iraq. “It is an emergency situation,” he says.

Pakistan’s Christians have the added burden of having blasphemy laws used against them. Blasphemy laws, first instituted to forbid derogatory remarks against religious personages or objects, are widely used in Pakistan to accuse religious minorities of anything that offends Muslim sensitivities.

Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, a Muslim physician who is president of the Phoenix-based American Islamic Forum for Democracy and served with USCIRF from 2012-2016, says such laws are used to cow any dissent and they’re not disappearing any time soon. “They use it as the easiest route to do away with political threats and competition,” he said. “They (the government) don’t want to see that tool disappear.”

He adds there’s nothing Islamic about Pakistan’s human rights violations.

“We shouldn’t give a blank check to any country because they threaten us with the Islamic militant veto,” he said. “They have blasphemy laws; essentially a sharia state.”

Vice President Mike Pence announced in October that the administration had given up on the United Nations ever getting help to displaced Christians and Yezidis from a part of northern Iraq known as the “Nineveh plain” and would instead work through USAID and faith-based groups.  

“The word ‘Pakistan’ literally means ‘the land of the pure’ ... The desire of Islamist extremists to ‘purify’ Pakistan has resulted in a major catastrophe for the country’s minorities.”
— Farahnaz Ispahani, former member of Pakistan’s parliament

Nearly three months have passed since then and sources indicate money has not reached these groups. Meanwhile, according to Nina Shea, founder of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, Iranian militias are building mosques and Islamic schools where Christian towns used to be. 

“Groups that have proved themselves more than reliable,” such as the Knights of Columbus who are helping to rebuild towns on the Plain, “still haven’t seen a dime,” Gilbert said. “It’s all stuck somewhere, perhaps with USAID. But no one can find out.”

Some experts agreed that the new action on Pakistan is either coming from Trump himself or his evangelical advisors, some of whom are religious freedom advocates. But it wasn’t emanating from the State Department, which has been sluggish toward pushing Pakistan to change. 

“It’s been an ongoing frustration to many of us on the commission that we could not get the State Department under the Obama administration to take a tougher stance on Pakistan,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, former chair of USCIRF and president of the Concord, N.H.-based Lantos Foundation. “They have more people on death row for blasphemy than any other country.”

Swett suggests Pakistan has violated religious freedom of minorities for many years but the Trump Administration is putting its foot down. Whether U.S. actions stem from a concern for embattled religions or whether they’re a way of cutting the money flow toward one of the worst human rights violator nations on the globe is hard to determine. 

Even Bill Roggio, a Pakistan watcher who edits the Long War Journal for the Federation for the Defense of Democracies, wrote Jan. 2 that it’s “unclear” what’s sparked the administration’s sudden action in the region. 

On Jan. 8, the White House re-nominated Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback as the new ambassador at large for international religious freedom, a State Department position with a $7.7 million budget and high visibility. First nominated last July, Brownback’s approval by the U.S. Senate was delayed by Senate Democrats who are unhappy with what they see as no support for LGBT rights. 

(Brownback’s office was contacted for comment on Pakistan but a spokesman said he’s not speaking out on State Department matters at this time.)

Once – and if – Brownback assumes that office, more action on the religious front will be forthcoming. Ispahani points out that Pakistan has become a nightmare of religious assault, primarily by its Sunni Muslim majority on any Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Ahmadis and Shi’ites who get in the way. The country’s only synagogue has been shut down and most Jain and Hindu temples have either been destroyed or taken over by squatters or property developers.

Reports of Ahmadis and Christians being shot in cold blood are becoming common; the most recent being a suicide bomb attack at a Methodist church in Quetta, Baluchistan, a week before Christmas, killing nine worshippers. 

The government, she said, has long been unwilling to punish terrorists – or even Sunni Muslims, 3,000 of which led three weeks of protests last November in Islamabad, paralyzing the national government. Instead of clamping down on the protestors, the government capitulated to their demands, she says.

“The word ‘Pakistan’ literally means ‘the land of the pure,’ ” adds Ispahani, who was once a member of Pakistan’s parliament. “The desire of Islamist extremists to ‘purify’ Pakistan has resulted in a major catastrophe for the country’s minorities.”