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Barack Obama, Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif to meet next week

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama will meet Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Wednesday, during which the two leaders will stress on highlighting importance and resilience of bilateral ties, the White House has said.

The meeting will also provide an opportunity to strengthen cooperation on issues of mutual concern such as energy, trade and regional stability, and countering violent extremism, it said.

"The President looks forward to discussions with Prime Minister Sharif on ways we can advance our shared interest of a stable, secure, and prosperous Pakistan," it said, ahead of the first ever meeting between Obama and Sharif.

Vice President Joe Biden will also attend the meeting at the White House.

Sharif is scheduled to arrive here tomorrow, immediately after which he will meet Secretary of State John Kerry who leaves on a three-nation European tour later that day.

Kerry, who will be travelling to London, Paris and Rome from October 20 to October 24, will not be present at the White House on Wednesday for the Obama Sharif meeting.

"Though the Secretary (Kerry) is travelling early next week, he will also be meeting with Prime Minister Sharif and his delegation on Sunday prior to his departure," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said.

Meanwhile, a Congressional-appointed bipartisan federal body yesterday urged President Obama to raise concerns about the "dire religious freedom situation" in Pakistan during their meeting.

"Given that President Obama and Sharif reportedly will be discussing how best to counter violent extremism, we urge the US to incorporate concern about freedom of religion into these conversations," said Robert George, Chairman of the US Commission of International Religious Freedom.

"To successfully counter violent extremism, Pakistan must have a holistic approach that ensures that perpetrators of violence are jailed, and addresses laws that foster vigilante violence, such as the blasphemy law and anti-Ahmadi laws.

"For the sake of his country, the Prime Minister should be pressed to take concrete action," George said.

Based on findings of United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Pakistan represents one of the worst situations in the world for religious freedom, he noted.

"The September attack on All Saints Church that killed close to 100 worshippers underscores Pakistan's exceedingly poor religious freedom situation.

"The violence extremists perpetuate threatens all Pakistanis, including Shias, Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus, as well as those members of the Sunni majority who dare to challenge extremists," he said.

In its 2013 annual report, USCIRF's Religious Violence Project found that religious freedom violations in Pakistan have risen to unprecedented levels and government continues to fail to protect Christians, Shia, Ahmadis and Hindus.