The U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom has applauded Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for showing a willingness to improve in the area of religious liberty, while recognizing that significant steps forward are still needed.

Ambassador Sam Brownback told the Associated Press that he met with Pakistan’s foreign minister on a tour of the Middle East last week, discussing U.S. concerns about religious freedom in the nation.

“They’ve had a lot of difficulties as a nation on this topic on religious freedom so what I was there for was to talk about changing,” Brownback said.

He said the foreign minister intends to designate an official to take the lead on the concerns raised by the United States, and that the nation shows a “desire to change” for the better.

The ambassador met Feb. 22-23 with Pakistani government and religious leaders to discuss the promotion of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue and respect, according to a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan.

“During these meetings, Ambassador Brownback emphasized the importance the United States places on religious freedom, the protection of religious minorities, and respect,” the embassy said.

“Ambassador Brownback discussed ways the United States could partner with Pakistan in promoting international religious freedom and inter-faith dialogue, seeking opportunities to protect persecuted Muslims, Christians, and people of other faiths in South and Central Asia and throughout the world.”

In December 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named Pakistan as one of 10 “Countries of Particular Concern,” a designation given to states that engage in or tolerate egregious, ongoing religious freedom violations.  

That designation marked the first year that Pakistan had been placed on the list. The previous year, it had been placed on a “Special Watch List.” Being named a “Country of Particular Concern” can open the door to economic sanctions, although the U.S. has not taken this step against Pakistan.

Religious freedom advocates have increasingly drawn attention to the situation in Pakistan, where national blasphemy laws impose strict punishment on those who desecrate the Quran or who defame or insult Muhammad. Pakistan’s state religion is Islam, and around 97 percent of the population is Muslim.

Although the government has never executed a person under the blasphemy law, accusations alone have inspired mob and vigilante violence.

Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, spent eight years on death row on blasphemy charges after being accused of making disparaging remarks about the Islamic prophet Muhammad after an argument stemming from a cup of water. Amid strong international pressure, the Pakistan Supreme Court acquitted her late last year.

Brownback also commented on what he saw as hopeful signs from several other nations that have been listed as Countries of Particular Concern for years. But promising words must be followed up by actions, he stressed, saying, according to the Associated Press, “[W]hat I really think we need to do is to start people on a process and on an engagement moving forward.”

The ambassador applauded the United Arab Emirates for hosting Pope Francis earlier this year, the first visit by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula. The nation also hosted the First Regional Conference of the 2018 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom: Interfaith Tolerance Education to Combat Extremism, at which Brownback delivered a keynote address.

However, he also cautioned that the country’s ban on conversion from Islam and death penalty sentences for apostasy remain obstacles to religious liberty.

Regarding Saudi Arabia, which has been designated by the U.S. as a Country of Particular Concern for the last 15 years, Brownback also saw signs of hope. He praised the nation’s leaders, saying their language is “substantially different” than in the past.

However, the ambassador also recognized the assassination of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey. Last November, the Washington Post reported that the CIA had determined Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the assassination. Brownback called the assassination “horrific” and said the country still has “a long way to go,” the Associated Press reported.