Afghan municipal workers clean the debris from inside a compound of a Sikh temple in Kabul on June 20, 2022. (Photo by Ahmad SAHEL ARMAN / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD SAHEL ARMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The UN must not ignore Afghan religious minorities

They live under the threat of elimination

Artillery Row

On Wednesday the UN published a major report on human rights in Afghanistan since the Taliban came to power. There’s some good stuff in it. The UN staff on the ground managed to verify beyond reasonable doubt that extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, detention and torture are all happening. To give just one example, they documented by means of at least three independent types of witnesses (victim, onlooker, doctor et cetera), 168 extra judicial killings of those linked to the previous armed forces or government, which ranged from senior officials to drivers or even relatives of former employees. 

There’s loads about women’s and girl’s education and rightly so, when teenage girls are not allowed to go to school. There are examples of journalists and social media bloggers being arrested. There is even concern for the human rights of people with “suspected affiliation with armed groups”.

But there’s one thing missing — there is absolutely no mention of Afghanistan’s non-Muslim minorities. It’s not as if these are a minor issue. Since the Taliban seized power last August there have been a stream of media articles warning that Afghanistan’s Hindu, Sikh and Christian communities could literally cease to exist under a Taliban government. 

Let’s be clear, we are not talking about small numbers of people here — or at least we weren’t. Prior to the Taliban coming to power for the first time in 1996 there were thought to be around 250,000 Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan. When I lived in Jalalabad in those days, you would often see Sikh shopkeepers in bazaars. They were the country’s most visible religious minority. The Taliban thought they should be labelled more clearly as non-Muslims and forced them to wear yellow badges — reminiscent of the yellow star of David the Nazis compelled the Jews to wear. 

Small wonder that many fled. Then a combination of bomb attacks on them by Islamic State – Khorasan, and the US deal with the Taliban, made it look like the Taliban might return. Even more fled. By the time the Taliban actually seized power last August there were thought to be only around 200 Hindus and Sikhs left in the country. In other words, more than 99.9 per cent of all Hindus and Sikhs had fled the country between the Taliban first seizing power in 1996 and the Taliban seizing power again in 2021. 

The Taliban regard all Afghan Christians as apostate Muslims

An entire community that has lived in Afghanistan for hundreds of years has almost been erased in a generation due to violence and intimidation — and an entire UN report on human rights in Afghanistan doesn’t give it even a mention.

Then there’s Afghan Christians. No one really knows how many there are, but over the last twenty years or so various academics and research organisations have estimated it to be anywhere between 3,300 and 10,000. In January this year the US Commission on International Religious Freedom estimated it at between 10 and 12,000. 

Afghan Christians are in a more vulnerable position than even Hindus and Sikhs because they have never been legally recognised as a religious minority. Consequently, the Taliban regard all Afghan Christians as apostate Muslims, even though many are second, third or even fourth generation Christians. Now throw into the mix the fact that even before the Taliban came to power, the Afghan criminal code said that anyone guilty of apostasy — i.e. leaving Islam — should be punished according to shari’a.

There are two schools of shari’a in Afghanistan: the Hanafi for the Sunni majority and the Ja’fari for the Shi’a. But they both say any sane male apostate must be killed, while for women it is imprisonment until they repent and return to Islam. Children, meanwhile, are supposed to be imprisoned until they are old enough for adult punishment. In other words, the whole family faces either death or imprisonment just for being Christians.

That’s why thousands of Afghan Christians were desperate to leave the country last August as the Taliban closed in on Kabul, although few seem to have actually made it out on the evacuation flights. It’s why many Afghan Christians are deeply fearful — many having to move from house to house every few weeks as the Taliban question relatives and neighbours to find out where they are. 

In the months leading up to the seizure of Kabul, Afghan Christians began receiving threatening messages, suggesting that the Taliban had been building up intelligence on Afghan Christians for some time. These days it’s not easy to get information out of Afghanistan. Shortly after the Taliban seized Kabul they started checking people’s phones, which put Afghan Christians under immediate suspicion if their call log or WhatsApp messages showed they had been in contact with foreigners. 

There have been reports emerging over the past 11 months — hard to verify but from multiple sources — of arbitrary arrests and detentions of Afghan Christians, with at least one report of a death in custody. The truth is, like the human rights abuses of other Afghan groups the UN report was able to verify, these are probably just the tip of the iceberg. 

Yet one thing is clear: the Taliban are intent on religiously cleansing Afghanistan of its Christian population. They have even said as much in statements on Afghan radio. When the Taliban came to power the first time, many Afghan Christians fled to Pakistan. But that’s no longer the safe option it once was. Not only have the Taliban made it difficult to leave the country, but the rise of the Pakistani Taliban means there are now jihadist attacks on even Pakistani Christians. 

What we are seeing is a religious minority of maybe 10,000 people trapped inside Afghanistan, with every male facing a very real threat of death while women and children risk imprisonment. The UN has a duty to protect. That is not actually a new doctrine; it is clearly set out in the 1948 Genocide Convention where there are acts which either involve “killing members of the group” or “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”. But the failure to do that in the Rwandan genocide and Srebrenica massacre led to a new UN affirmation in 2005 of the Responsibility to Protect. 

Something has gone very badly wrong at the UN

So, when we find a major UN report on human rights under the Taliban failing to even mention freedom of religion or non-Muslim minorities, when three of those minorities face being wiped off the map, something has gone very badly wrong at the UN.

To a certain extent, the UN has always played identity politics, and there have always been fads. But something deeper is going on here. This is a potentially massive failure. It is a scandal. Yet it is also symptomatic of a deeper malaise in the UN. 

A few years ago, through submitting freedom of information requests to the Home Office, a number of us exposed the disproportionately small number of Syrian Christians who the UNHCR was recommending for resettlement in the UK through the government’s Syrian refugee scheme. Christians were never more than one per cent, and often less, which was much lower than their proportion of the Syrian population as a whole. At the time they were being specifically targeted by jihadist groups, which meant they should have been overrepresented, not underrepresented. 

After a barrage of negative publicity the UNHCR finally agreed to meet with aid agencies involved in helping Syrian Christians. But rather than sending a senior official, it sent its press officer to the meeting. For two hours Christian agencies bombarded him with evidence of discrimination and abuse suffered by Middle Eastern Christians. But at the end of the day, the chap from the UNHCR was the press officer. The only problem he had been sent to fix was the negative headlines for the UN.

Considering the imminent prospect of the elimination of three previously sizeable non-Muslim religious minorities from Afghanistan — Hindus and Sikhs by violence and intimidation, Christians additionally by judicial executions — one would hope the UN would at least seek to alert the world to what is going on. When a major UN report on human rights in Afghanistan doesn’t contain a single sentence on the subject, one fears that the UN, for all its fine words, has a problem with bias, whether unconscious or otherwise.

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