By Arul Louis
New York, Dec 3 (IANS): US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has designated Pakistan, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia as religious freedom violators labelling them as "Countries of Particular Concern" (CPC).
On Friday, Blinken announced that he was giving them and seven others the designation "for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom".
He called out those countries under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) which requires the government to hand out the designations periodically.
Designating them as CPCs opens them to several penalties like cancellation of official visits and cultural and scientific exchanges, suspension of aid and ban on import and export agreements, but which are not mandatory.
Blinken issued a general alert to all countries that they will be monitored and will raise concerns with even those not on the list.
"We will continue to carefully monitor the status of freedom of religion or belief in every country around the world and advocate for those facing religious persecution or discrimination.
"We will also regularly engage countries about our concerns regarding limitations on freedom of religion or belief, regardless of whether those countries have been designated," he added.
The sanctions under the IRFA are not automatic and as a practical matter are unlikely to be applied across the board to Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.
Some of these sanctions are already in force against China and Russia, as well as those put on the list on Friday -- Iran, Myanmar, Cuba, North Korea and Nicaragua -- over other issues.
The other countries on the list are Eritrea, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
The Taliban and eight other groups, including the Russian mercenary outfit Wagner Group, were given a similar designation as "Entities of Particular Concern".
Three other countries, the Central African Republic, Comoros, and Vietnam, were given less serious treatment by being put on the "Special Watch List for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom".
Blinken did not expand on the specific reasons for designating each of those countries.
Explaining the designations, he said: "Around the world, governments and non-state actors harass, threaten, jail, and even kill individuals on account of their beliefs. In some instances, they stifle individuals' freedom of religion or belief to exploit opportunities for political gain."