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Christians fear for state of religious freedom in Afghanistan

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by Christine Rousselle, Jose Torres Jr.

Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug 19, 2021 / 10:21 am

Numerous Christian aid organizations and leaders have spoken about the imminent threat to the Christian community in Afghanistan after the country fell to the Taliban.

Afghanistan is over 99% Muslim, with the majority being Sunni. There are small groups of Christians, including about 200 Catholics, as well as Buddhists, Hindus, and Baháʼís. There is one Jewish man remaining in the country.

Afghanistan’s Christian community, which is estimated to be between 10,000 and 12,000 people, is comprised mostly of converts from Islam and is the country’s largest religious minority group. Due to persecution, the Christian community remains largely closeted and hidden from the public eye.

Under sharia, including in Afghanistan prior to the Taliban takeover, apostasy from Islam is punishable by death. Converts to Christianity are the frequent target of Islamic extremist groups.

“We are telling people to stay in their houses because going out now is too dangerous,” said a Christian leader in Afghanistan in a report by the group International Christian Concern.

The man, whose name was withheld for security reasons, told ICC that Christians in the country fear that Taliban attacks on Christian communities would start soon.

“Some known Christians are already receiving threatening phone calls,” said one Christian leader. “In these phone calls, unknown people say, ‘We are coming for you.’”

They fear that it is only a matter of time before the attacks happen. “It will be done mafia style,” the Christian leader said. “The Taliban will never take responsibility for the killings.”

Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban Aug. 15. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country the same day.

The Taliban previously controlled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001. During that time, a strict interpretation of sharia was imposed. The playing of musical instruments, among other things, was banned, and girls were not permitted to go to school.

Life under Taliban rule will be very difficult for Christians, said the community leader. He said that when the Taliban takes control of a village, they would require all households to go to the mosque to pray in an attempt to out any Christian convert.

The ICC report said that in some northern parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban have already enforced their strict interpretation of sharia, and that “Men are required to grow beards, women cannot leave home without a male escort, and life is becoming more dangerous.”

“Many Christians fear the Taliban will take their children, both girls and boys, like in Nigeria and Syria,” the Christian leader said. “The girls will be forced to marry Taliban fighters and the boys will be forced to become soldiers.”

“It’s a heartbreaking day for the citizens of Afghanistan and an even dangerous time to be a Christian,” read a statement from the field director of Open Doors in Asia, a non-denominational mission supporting persecuted Christians.

“It’s an uncertain situation for the whole country, not just for secret believers,” it added.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as of May 21, about 100,000 people had been displaced by conflict in Afghanistan this year. That figure has since more than doubled.

Prior to the Taliban takeover, Open Doors ranked Afghanistan second on its World Watch List on persecution “only very slightly less oppressive than in North Korea.”

The pontifical agency Aid to the Church in Need raised similar concerns.

“Aid to the Church in Need encourages the international community to raise a voice in protection of human rights for all citizens of Afghanistan, especially considering that we estimate that religious freedom will be particularly under threat,” said Thomas Heine-Geldern, the executive president of ACN.

Heine-Geldern further called for people to pray “during this profoundly troubling time in the history of Afghanistan.”

With the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan, and changing the name of the country to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Heine-Geldern said, “we can expect that Sunni Islam will be the official religion, Sharia law will be reimposed, and hard-won freedoms for human rights, including a relative measure of religious freedom, over the last 20 years will be revoked.”

ACN has, for the last 22 years, published an annual Religious Freedom Report. Afghanistan “has always been among the countries that most violates this fundamental right,” said Heine-Geldern, particularly in the last three years.

“Our analysis, unfortunately, does not leave much room for hope” of improvement on this front, he explained. “All those who do not espouse the extreme Islamist views of the Taliban are at risk, even moderate Sunni.”

All religious minorities, including followers of other Islamic sects, “will suffer even greater oppression.”

“This is a huge setback for all human rights, and especially for religious freedom in the country,” he said.

Heine-Geldern expressed further concern that the number of countries who have seemingly accepted the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will “not only legitimize the Taliban, but also embolden authoritarian regimes all over the world, particularly in the region.”

“International recognition of the Taliban will also act as a magnet for smaller radical Islamic groups, creating a new constellation of religious terrorist factions that could supplant historic formations such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State,” he said, adding that this would worsen the already-oppressive situation for religious minorities in the area.

Heine-Geldern said that the regime change has sparked “countless thorny diplomatic questions,” regarding the state of human rights in Afghanistan.

“Will there be a response from the Taliban on any human rights claims without formal channels,” he asked. “The fact that most Western embassies are closing, and international observers are leaving, like they did in Syria in 2011, is not a good omen.”

A Jesuit priest who was held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2014 laid blame at the international community for the current political crisis in the country.

Fr. Alexis Prem Kumar, who was in Taliban captivity from June 2014 to February 2015, said American intervention in Afghanistan did little for the empowerment of the Afghan people.

In an interview with Catholic news site Matters India, the priest said peace will only return to Afghanistan “if the international community leaves the country to its own people.”

Fr. Kumar, who is the former director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, added that the international community “is responsible for the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban.”

“In 2001 when the US forces entered Afghanistan, there was not much resistance from the Taliban,” said the priest who spent five years working in the country.

“Now after 20 years, when the Taliban captured the major towns and cities of Afghanistan, there was not much resistance,” he added.

“This raises the question on the existence and purpose of the international community in Afghanistan,” said Kumar.

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