Members of minority Muslim religious communities in Afghanistan — as well as non-Muslims, atheists and converts to Christianity — are “at grave threat” under the Taliban’s rule, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said Thursday.
“Religious freedom conditions in Afghanistan have deteriorated since the Taliban seized control of the country on August 15, 2021,” a commission fact sheet on “Religious Minorities in Afghanistan” states.
The document’s release comes on the heels of an Oct. 6 hearing on religious liberty in post-Taliban Afghanistan where conditions for religious minorities were also described as dire.
While many non-Muslim Afghans had fled the country during the Taliban’s previous rule from 1996 to 2001, some remained including Sikhs, Hindus, Ahmadi Muslims, Jews, and Baha’is, the report noted.
Zebulon Simentov, the last known Jew in Afghanistan, left the country in September, The Associated Press reported. He hopes to settle in New York, according to a JewishInsider.com report. His departure ended his stewardship of “the last operating synagogue in Kabul,” the commission noted.
Other religious minorities who remain may not fare as well, the commissioners concluded.
“The Taliban consider conversion from Islam to another religion apostasy, which could be punishable by death according to their interpretation of Shari’a or Islamic law. Hazara Shi’a Muslims, labeled heretical by the Taliban along with other non-Sunni Muslims, faced targeted violence and many fled as refugees to neighboring Iran and Pakistan,” they noted.
The Hazaras are Afghanistan’s third-largest ethnic group after Pashtuns and Tajiks, the commission reported.
The independent body cited an August statement from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which works to prevent genocide, as noting “there has been a recent resurgence of attacks” on the Hazaras by Taliban and ISIS-Khorasan forces. Museum officials said the Hazaras are now at risk for mass genocide.
“The recent developments have heightened that risk exponentially,” Naomi Kikoler, director of the museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, said in a statement.
Only “a few hundred” Sikhs and Hindus remain in Afghanistan, down from 250,000 before the 1996-2001 Taliban period, the commission said.
“As of October 2021, a little under 250 Hindus and Sikhs remain in the country following an evacuation effort by India. Nearly 140 Hindus and Sikhs who attempted to leave were not able to access the airport after the August 26 suicide bomb attack near the front gates,” the report stated.
That attack also resulted in the deaths of 13 U.S. service members who had been assisting with security at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
According to the report, “Afghan Christians, Ahmadi Muslims, Baha’is, and nonbelievers are unable to express their faith or beliefs openly because they face dire consequences, including death, if discovered by the Taliban.”
Additionally, the nation’s 2,000 to 3,000 Uyghur Muslims fear deportation to China, where Uyghurs face what the commission called “egregious persecution” that the United States has designated as genocide and “crimes against humanity.” The Taliban, who sent a delegation to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in July, previously deported Uyghurs at China’s request in 2000.
The report sounds a pessimistic note in its conclusion: “While religious freedom conditions in the country were poor under the previous government, these conditions have already worsened and have become dire under the Taliban and are likely to continue to deteriorate.”
Since their return to power, the Taliban have implemented a government based on the Salafist school of Sunni Islam, hewing to the teaching of Islam’s first three generations of believers, beginning with the generation of the Prophet Muhammad. The Salafists reject any religious innovations in Islam that have taken place since the eighth century, scholars say.