WASHINGTON: The United States said Tuesday it has added Pakistan to its blacklist of countries that violate religious freedom, ramping up pressure over its treatment of minorities.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had designated Pakistan among "countries of particular concern" in a congressionally mandated annual report, meaning the US government is obliged to exert pressure to end freedom violations.
Pompeo a year earlier had placed Pakistan on a special watch list -- a step short of the designation -- in what had been seen as a US tactic to press Islamabad into reforms.
Human rights advocates have long voiced worry about the treatment of minorities in Pakistan, including Shiites, Ahmadis and Christians.
But the timing of the full designation may be jarring as it comes after Pakistan moved to resolve its most high-profile case, with the Supreme Court in October releasing Asia Bibi -- a Christian woman on death row for eight years for blasphemy.
The government recently charged a hardline cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, with terrorism and sedition after he led violent protests against Bibi's acquittal.
"In far too many places across the globe, individuals continue to face harassment, arrests or even death for simply living their lives in accordance with their beliefs," Pompeo said in a statement.
"The United States will not stand by as spectators in the face of such oppression," he said.
Nine countries remained for another year on the list of Countries of Particular Concern -- China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
The United States removed one country from the list -- Uzbekistan -- but kept it on the watch list.
Pompeo also put on the watch list Russia, adding another item of contention to the relationship between the two powers.
Russia has increasingly drawn concern in the United States over its treatment of Jehovah's Witnesses, the heterodox Christian group known for proselytization.
Also on the watch list was Comoros, the Indian Ocean archipelago that is almost exclusively Sunni Muslim.