The Trump Administration's move to downgrade Pakistan as a country of particular concern was a courageous one, an influential US lawmaker said on Tuesday.
"This administration has had the courage to hold Pakistan accountable for its persistent and systemic failures to protect the civil and human rights of religious minorities," said Congressman Chris Smith, Chairman of House global human rights subcommittee.
"This designation gives hope and voice to the suffering Shia, Christian, Hindu, Ahmadi, and other minority citizens, whose very presence counters religious extremism in Pakistan," he said.
Mr Smith welcomed the Trump Administration's move in this regard after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had designated Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as "Countries of Particular Concern" (CPC) in a congressionally-mandated annual report.
In his report, Mr Pompeo re-designated Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as CPCs and added Pakistan to the list.
Mr Smith also welcomed the State Department's inclusion of Russia on its religious freedom "Special Watch List" for governments that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom.
"The violations of religious freedom in Russia are real, thoroughly documented and at times, brutal," Smith stated at a hearing he chaired of the Helsinki Commission on "Religious Freedom in Eurasia" on Tuesday.
"The Russian government deserves this -- and next year, we should consider carefully whether it belongs on the list of Countries of Particular Concern -- the 'CPC' list for the worst of the worst," he said.
Mr Pompeo also designated Russia, Comoros and Uzbekistan on the Special Watch List, a category created by an act authored by Smith, the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, signed into law in 2016, for governments that have engaged in or tolerated "severe violations of religious freedom".
He also designated Al Nusra Front, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, ISIS, ISIS-Khorasan and the Taliban as "Entities of Particular Concern" (EPC), another category created by Smith's law for non-state entities which are among the worst offenders of religious freedom.
The CPC and EPC designations carry with them legal tools, such as sanctions, for the US to use to hold the worst offenders of religious freedom accountable for their violations.
Mr Smith's international religious freedom law also provides the president and the State Department with more resources to promote religious freedom abroad.
Mr Smith said absent from the CPC list was Vietnam, despite repeated recommendations from the bipartisan US Commission on International Religious Freedom that it be designated as a CPC. Vietnam was on the CPC list from 2004 until 2006, when it was removed.
"Vietnam was not designated as a 'country of particular concern' -- a significant omission," Smith said. "The administration should condition assistance on improvements in religious freedom and related human rights in Vietnam," he added.