• Call for more religious freedom in Afghanistan

Call for more religious freedom in Afghanistan

08 May 2013

A new report says that religious freedom in Afghanistan remains exceedingly poor, both for minority religious groups and dissenting members of the majority Sunni Muslim faith.

The report, by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom says “Afghans cannot debate the role and content of religion in law and society, advocate for the rights of women and religious minorities, or question interpretations of Islamic precepts without fear of retribution.”

That retribution, it says, can include being charged with religious “crimes”, such as apostasy, blasphemy, or insulting Islam.

The report points to improvements in human rights since the ousting of the Taliban in 2001.  However, it adds,  “The government places limits on the freedom of expression and restrictions on some religious minorities, curtails women's rights, and is unable to adequately protect religious minorities from violence.”

The Taliban and other groups continue to target individuals for activities deemed “un-Islamic”, while the Afghan constitution “fails explicitly to protect the individual right to freedom of religion or belief “.

The report concludes that, in most cases, the situation of individual religious minorities had improved since the fall of the Taliban.

However,  it also points to continuing problems.  The Commission notes that Shia Muslims, most of whom are from the Hazara ethnic group and make up between 10 to 19 per cent  of the population, are still being threatened by insurgents.  It warns  that “the community’s future is uncertain once international forces withdraw”.

Members of Afghanistan’s small Baha’i  community, it says “lead an essentially covert existence”, while the few Afghan Christians are still forced to conceal their faith and cannot worship openly.  The only public church in Afghanistan closed in 2010. 

Hindus and Sikhs are allowed to practice their faith and have places of public worship, but continue to face “security threats and discrimination by the government” .  In November 2012, Afghan security forces and local people reportedly prevented Sikhs from performing cremation ceremonies.

Meanwhile, the report adds, improvements to the status of women since 2001 are fragile and reversible.  Women’s progress in the public sphere, it says, is threatened both by the resurgence of the Taliban and the strong influence of religious traditionalists.  Females seeking to take part in public life are often branded “immoral” and targeted for intimidation, harassment or violence, while “pervasive discrimination based on traditional religious interpretations continues to place women in a second-class status”.   

The Commission says many women fear that if the Taliban are eventually brought into a peace and reconciliation process it could lead to serious abuses of women’s human rights.

The report calls on the US government and its allies to  work harder to promote religious freedom in Afghanistan.