Afghanistan among the ‘worst of the worst’ in violating religious freedom, says U.S. panel

Russia, a place where Latter-day Saint missionaries can’t openly proselytize and Jehovah’s Witnesses are essentially banned, remains on the list.

(Rahmat Gul | AP) Taliban fighters display their flag as they patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom accuses the Taliban-led regime of routinely violating religious freedoms of minority faiths.

Afghanistan should join a list of the “worst of the worst” violators of religious freedom in the wake of the Taliban’s return to power, a U.S. advisory body is recommending to the State Department.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its annual report issued Monday, says religious minorities have “faced harassment, detention and even death due to their faith or beliefs” since the Taliban reimposed its harsh interpretation of Sunni Islam on Afghanistan. It also cited attacks on religious minorities by an affiliate of the Islamic State group that is an enemy of the Taliban.

Afghanistan is among 15 nations that the commission says should be on the State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern.” The commission, in its report summary, defined these as governments as the “worst of the worst” in tolerating or engaging in “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

The commission, created in 1998 under the International Religious Freedom Act, makes nonbinding policy recommendations to the administration and Congress. The State Department has adopted some but not all of its recommendations in the past.

In the new report, the commission recommends maintaining 10 countries currently on the State Department list, including China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

It also recommends adding four more in addition to Afghanistan — India, Nigeria, Syria and Vietnam. The commission criticized the Biden administration for removing Nigeria from the list last year.

The report said that in Afghanistan, many minority Jewish, Hindu and Sikh residents have fled the country after the Taliban returned to power. It said many members of other religious minorities, such as Ahmadiyya Muslims, Baha’is and Christian converts are worshipping in secret for fear of persecution.

Many religious minorities fled Afghanistan out of fear for what could happen under the Taliban, rather than in response to specific actions or edicts issued by the Taliban. Some Sikhs still live and worship in Kabul, and the report notes that Taliban representatives visited a Sikh gurdwara or house of worship to assure them of their safety. But the report said many Sikhs and Hindus have fled to India “due to the lack of safety and security.”

The commission also cited a Human Rights Watch report of the Taliban attacking and seizing property of ethnic Hazaras belonging to the Shiite Muslim minority, plus an Amnesty International report of a Taliban massacre of Hazara men in 2021.

Several deadly attacks on Hazaras have been attributed to the Islamic State in Khorasan Province or IS-K, which is hostile to the Taliban and proven to be an intractable security challenge. The cover of the commission’s report includes a photo of a deadly attack by IS-K on a Shiite mosque last year in Kunduz province.

The report echoes CIA World Factbook data from 2009, which said non-Muslim Afghans comprised a tiny fraction of the population. It said 99.7% of Afghans are Muslim, most of them Sunni Muslims, with about 10% to 15% Shiite Muslims.

“The Taliban, while they promised they would form an inclusive government, promising they would be a different kind of government, their actions have proven otherwise,” commission Chair Nadine Maenza said in an interview. She said that even members of the Sunni majority who don’t share the Taliban interpretation of Islamic law are being required to conform to strict dress codes and other measures.

The annual report, while based on developments in 2021, foreshadowed worries about a Russian invasion of Ukraine, citing religious persecution in Russia of Jehovah’s Witnesses and of religious minorities such as Muslim Tatars in Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014. The State Department first designated Russia as a country of particular concern last year.

“We fear that violence will continue to increase because of Russia’s blatant violation of religious freedom in Russia and in this conflict that exists in Ukraine,” commission member Khizr Khan said at an online news conference Monday.

In 2017, Russia banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, labeling them “extremist” and ordering the state to seize their properties.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Church of the Nativity in the Kremlin in Moscow. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says Russia continues to violate religious freedoms of minority faiths.

In addition, The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began calling its missionaries in Russia “volunteers” in 2016 in response to Moscow’s anti-terrorism law, which restricts religious work to houses of worship and other faith-related sites.

In April 2018, church President Russell M. Nelson announced plans to build a Latter-day Saint temple in a yet-to-be-determined major Russian city. Four years later, a site for such an edifice has yet to be publicly named.

Monday’s report marks the first time since 2001, when the Taliban last ruled in Kabul, that the commission recommended designating Afghanistan as a country of particular concern, the report said. The State Department last year already listed the Taliban on a similar list of non-state violators of religious freedom based on its actions before returning to power in August.

The commission recommended sanctioning individual Taliban officials deemed responsible for severe violations of religious freedom and urged that those facing persecution receive priority in refugee resettlement.

In its report, the commission cited Myanmar’s military for “atrocities against religious communities”; China for detaining Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims “arbitrarily in concentration camps, prisons and forced labor”; Pakistan for enforcement of anti-blasphemy laws that endanger minorities; and India for worsening conditions for religious minorities under its Hindu-nationalist government.

The commission also recommended 12 countries be placed on a “special watch list” due to religious-freedom concerns. They include three on the State Department’s list — Algeria, Cuba and Nicaragua — along with Azerbaijan, the Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey and Uzbekistan.

— The Salt Lake Tribune contributed to this story.

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