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Afghan minorities fear persecution

by Frank E. Lockwood | September 4, 2021 at 3:34 a.m.

With the collapse of the pro-American government in Kabul, Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban, non-Sunni Muslims there are likely to endure heightened persecution, human rights advocates say.

The nation of 37.5 million people is 99.7% Muslim, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Of those, between 10% and 15% are Shi'a; the rest are Sunni.

Even with U.S. troops on the ground, religious freedoms were limited.

The Afghan constitution enshrined "the sacred religion of Islam" as "the religion of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan."

Its presidents took an oath to "obey and protect the Holy religion of Islam." Laws that "contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam in Afghanistan" were prohibited.

In theory, followers of other faiths were entitled to perform their religious rituals "within the bounds of law."

In practice, nonconformity is dangerous.

As recently as the 1990s, Afghanistan was home to more than 200,000 Sikhs and Hindus.

With persecution rising, those communities "have really been decimated," said Jim Carr, a Searcy resident who serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"As of Aug. 16, a few weeks ago, there was one Jew, 50 Hindus, 270 Sikhs and 450 Ahmadis in Afghanistan," Carr said. (Ahmadis self-identify as followers of Islam, but their teachings have been branded heretical.)

Christians and Baha'i's are unable to worship openly. No counts were available for either group, Carr said.

In its annual report, the commission recommended that the State Department place Afghanistan on its Special Watch List, citing its "severe violation of religious freedom."

Blasphemy is potentially a capital offense; apostasy and proselytizing by non-Muslims is also illegal, the report said.

Now that the Taliban has seized power, religious intolerance could further increase, Carr said.

"My guess would be it's going to be pretty tough for religious minorities right now in Afghanistan," he said.

Last month, the bipartisan commission urged the Biden administration to prioritize resettlement efforts for religious minorities in Afghanistan.

"The Taliban's imposition of their harsh and strict interpretation of Sunni Islam in the areas that they have taken over poses a grave threat to all Afghans of differing interpretations and other faiths or beliefs," said commission chair Nadine Maenza.

"As Afghans are forced to flee their homes on account of their beliefs, the U.S. government must ensure that the most vulnerable among them have a pathway to seek refuge in the United States," she said, noting that "the outlook for the country's religious minorities is particularly bleak, with threats of Taliban persecution mounting."

Evangelical leaders have also voiced alarm.

"We have deep concerns for Christians and other religious minorities in Afghanistan," said Chelsea Patterson Sobolik, acting policy director of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Open Doors USA, a nonprofit group that aids persecuted Christians, ranked Afghanistan second on its annual list of the "Top 50 countries where it's most difficult to follow Jesus."

Other than North Korea, no country was deemed more hostile to Christians, the January report stated.

Now that the United States and its allies have withdrawn from Afghanistan, "the persecution against Christians and religious minorities will continue to increase," Sobolik told an online audience last week.

My Faith Votes, a nonpartisan group that encourages Christians to vote, organized a day of prayer Wednesday for Afghanistan.

Those who remain in that country face "incredible threats," said Jason Yates, the group's chief executive officer.

"Anyone who is a U.S. citizen and anyone who claims the name of Christ is at risk," he said. "Their lives are absolutely in danger."

Niala Mohammad, one of the U.S. commission's senior policy analysts, said the change of regimes has created uncertainty.

"When the Taliban was in power [before], they were particularly cruel to religious minorities and ethnic minorities," she said. "However, the Taliban that have come forward today are trying to put forward a very refined, polished version of themselves," she said. "They claim that they've learned from their past mistakes and that they are going to make efforts to be inclusive of gender, ethnic minorities and different religions."

"I think it's too soon to tell ... if they have changed their ways," she said. "[U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom] hopes that they do actually change and are inclusive of religious and ethnic minorities and do pay attention to the rights of women and children as well."

Tazreena Sajjad, a senior professorial lecturer at American University's School of International Service, said the Taliban are "not representative of Islam and Islamic practices even within the context of Afghanistan."

"Afghanistan is extremely rich culturally and ethnically speaking, so interpretations of Islam have long been a part of Afghanistan's geopolitical social and cultural landscape," she said.

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