Afghanistan

On August 15, the Taliban took control of Kabul, declaring the establishment of an “Islamic Emirate” throughout the country.  On September 7, the Taliban announced an interim “caretaker government” made up exclusively of male Taliban members.  On September 22, the Taliban expanded its interim “caretaker government,” adding some representatives of religious and ethnic minority groups including Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Nuristani, and Khawaja, but no women.  By year’s end, the U.S. government had not yet made a decision as to whether to recognize the Taliban or any other entity as the Government of Afghanistan or as part of such a government.

Executive Summary

Following their takeover in August, the Taliban did not establish a clear and cohesive legal framework, judicial system, or enforcement mechanisms.  The Taliban conveyed that those laws enacted under the former government of Afghanistan that were in effect prior to their takeover remained in effect unless the laws violated sharia.  Taliban leaders issued decrees specifying acceptable behaviors under their interpretation of sharia, but variously described them as “guidelines” or “recommendations” and unevenly enforced them.  Press reports following the Taliban takeover raised fears the group would consider Christian converts as apostates.  These reports, combined with statements from some Taliban leaders starting in August reserving the right to enforce harsh punishments for violations of the group’s strict interpretation of sharia, drove some Christian converts into deeper hiding, according to International Christian Concern, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) that focuses on persecution of Christian communities.  At year’s end, there were no reports of Taliban representatives having directed sharia-related punishments.  According to Amnesty International, Taliban fighters killed 13 Shia Hazaras in Daykundi Province on August 31; the Taliban denied the allegations.  In November and December, the Taliban detained 28 members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Kabul.  According to members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, the Taliban falsely accused them of belonging to ISIS-Khorasan (an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, also known as ISIS-K).  The Taliban held 18 of them through year’s end.  The NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW)reported the Taliban expelled Shia Hazara members from their homes in several provinces in October, in part to redistribute land to Taliban supporters.  In August, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) that the group would respect the rights of members of religious minority groups, including Shia Hazaras.  On November 16, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told the press, “We are providing a safe and secure environment for everyone, especially the Hazaras.”  Both prior to and immediately following the Taliban takeover, predominantly Shia Hazara communities expressed fear the Ashraf Ghani administration and the Taliban lacked the ability to protect them from violence and discrimination.  According to Hazara community and NGO representatives, Shia Hazaras continued to face longstanding and widespread discrimination by Ghani government officials in public service delivery, public sector hiring, and other areas before August 15.After the Taliban takeover, Taliban leaders publicly pledged to protect the rights of Sikhs and Hindus, although some Sikhs and Hindus reported they had ceased to congregate at their gurdwaras (places of worship), and others sought to resettle abroad due to fear of violent attacks by the Taliban and ISIS-K.  In November and December, high level Taliban representatives held meetings with leaders of Shia, Sikh, and Hindu communities, reportedly to offer protection and improve relations.  According to community representatives, in these meetings the Taliban laid out rules for the behavior of women, forbade the playing of music, and presented restrictions on businesses owned by minority religious group members.  Some Hazara political figures expressed continued concern over the Taliban’s commitment to support freedom of worship but commented that this engagement represented a shift from the Taliban’s approach between 1996 and 2001.  According to civil society groups, at year’s end, approximately 150 members of the Sikh and Hindu communities remained in the country, down from approximately 400 at the start of the year.  The Taliban closed the Ministry for Women’s Affairs in September, announcing the reconstituted Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, charged with enforcing the Taliban’s interpretation of sharia, would be housed in the same building.  While enforcement varied by province and district, local Taliban representatives enforced decrees on gender segregation, women’s dress and head covering, men’s facial hair, unaccompanied women, and music.  On December 3, Taliban “Supreme Leader” Hibatullah Akhunzada issued a decree stating that women should not be considered property and must consent to marriage.  Media reported the Taliban framed the decree as a call to adhere to broader Islamic law on women’s rights.  Some observers praised the decree; others said it did not go far enough because it did not mention a woman’s right to work or to access education and other public services.

the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (ISIS-K claimed responsibility.  ISIS-K also conducted such attacks against other groups.  In total, for the first six months of the year, 20 incidents targeted the Shia Hazara community resulting in 143 killed and 357 injured, compared with 19 attacks attributed to ISIS-K and other anti-government elements in 2020.  According to UNAMA, during the second half of the year, attacks claimed by or attributed to ISIS-K increased and expanded beyond the movement’s previous areas of focus in Kabul and the eastern part of the country.  Between August 19 and December 31, the United Nations recorded 152 attacks by the group in 16 provinces, compared with 20 attacks in five provinces during the same period in 2020.  In addition to targeting the Taliban, ISIS-K also targeted civilians, in particular Shia minorities, in urban areas.  ISIS-K claimed responsibility for suicide attacks on two Shia mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar cities on October 8 and 15.  On October 8, an ISIS-K suicide bomber killed 70 to 80 members of the Hazara community at a mosque in Kunduz.  On October 15, a suicide bomber attack targeting the largest Shia mosque in Kandahar, the Fatima Mosque (also known as the Imam Bargah Mosque), killed more than 50 worshippers and injured at least 100.  Two December 10 attacks in western Kabul targeting a predominantly Shia Hazara neighborhood remained unclaimed at year’s end.  Prior to the Taliban takeover, antigovernment forces carried out several attacks on religious leaders that resulted in fatalities.  According to the Ministry of Haj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA), over the last two decades, the Taliban and other extremist groups had killed 527 religious scholars, including approximately 50 Sunni and Shia religious leaders killed between February 2020 and July 2021.  Prior to their August takeover and as previous years, the Taliban killed and issued death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam.  Taliban fighters killed progovernment imams and other religious officials throughout the country, and the Taliban warned mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for Ghani administration security officials.  On May 8, unidentified individuals detonated a car bomb in front of the Sayed ul-Shuhada school in a predominantly Shia Hazara community, killing at least 85 civilians and injuring another 216.  No group claimed responsibility for the attack.  According to press interviews in October, Shia Hazaras struggled to take what some characterized as a “life or death” risk to go to mosque on Fridays.

Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Sunni Muslim minority groups continued to report that some Sunni Muslims verbally harassed them, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they still were able to practice their respective religions in public prior to August 15.  According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians continued to live in constant fear of exposure and were reluctant to reveal their religious identities to anyone.  Christian groups reported public sentiment, as expressed in social media and elsewhere, remained hostile towards converts and to Christian proselytization.  They said individuals who converted to or were studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members.  Christians and Ahmadiyya Muslims reported they continued to worship only privately and in small groups, at home or in nondescript places of worship, to avoid discrimination and persecution.  Prior to the Taliban takeover in August, observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities, such as concerts, which they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine.

The U.S. embassy in Kabul suspended operations on August 31.  In October and November, the U.S. government condemned ISIS-K attacks on Shia mosques and engaged Taliban leadership to press for the protection of religious minorities from repression and violence.  On November 29-30, a U.S. government delegation met with senior Taliban representatives in Qatar.  The U.S. delegation expressed “deep concern regarding allegations of human rights abuses and urged the Taliban to protect the rights of all Afghans, uphold and enforce its policy of general amnesty, and take additional steps to form an inclusive and representative government.”  After August 31, the U.S. government also conveyed this message consistently in meetings with the so-called Taliban Political Commission in Doha, Qatar, through the Afghanistan Affairs Unit.  efore the Taliban takeover in mid-August, U.S. embassy officials worked with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and the need for the acceptance and protection of religious minorities.  To enhance the Ghani administration’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism and foster religious tolerance, embassy representatives met with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC) and MOHRA, among other government agencies.  The embassy regularly raised concerns about public safety and freedom to worship with security ministers.  Until the Taliban takeover, embassy officials continued to meet regularly with leaders of major religious groups, as well as religious minorities, scholars, and NGOs, to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue.  While working with the Ghani administration, the embassy sponsored programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify ways to counter violent religious extremism, empower female religious leaders, and promote tolerance for religious diversity.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 37.5 million (midyear 2021).  According to Pew Forum data from 2009, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 80-85 percent of the population, and Shia make up approximately 10-15 percent.

According to religious community leaders, the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but also includes Ismailis.  Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians, together constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population.  According to Sikh leaders, there are fewer than 150 members of the Sikh and Hindu communities remaining in the country, compared with an estimated 400 at the start of the year and 1,300 in 2017.  Most members of the Sikh and Hindu communities are in Kabul, with smaller numbers in Ghazni and other provinces.  Hindu community leaders estimate there are fewer than 50 remaining Hindus, all male and primarily businessmen with families in other countries.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim community in the country numbers in the hundreds.  Reliable estimates of the Baha’i and Christian communities are not available.  There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions.  There are no known Jews in the country, following the departure of the country’s last known remaining Jew after the Taliban takeover.

Hazaras live predominantly in the central and western provinces as well as in Kabul; Ismaili Muslims live mainly in Kabul and in the central and northern provinces.  Followers of the Baha’i Faith live predominantly in Kabul, with a small community in Kandahar.  Ahmadi Muslims largely live in Kabul.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Religion and ethnicity in the country were often closely linked.  Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated that prior to the Taliban takeover, they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions.

According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reluctant to reveal their religious identities to anyone.  According to some sources, converts to Christianity and individuals studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members opposed to their interest in Christianity.  They said fears of violent societal repression had further increased since the Taliban takeover.

According to Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, members of their groups continued to worship only in private to avoid societal discrimination and persecution, including harassment from neighbors and coworkers.  They also said that following the Taliban takeover in August, relatives and neighbors who were aware of their identities were more likely to treat them harshly or report them to the Taliban, whether out of self-preservation or to curry favor with the Taliban.

Prior to the Taliban takeover, women of several different faiths, including Sunni and Shia Islam, continued to report harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire.  Clerics in numerous provinces preached that woman must wear modest dress and that the faithful should publicly enforce a strict implementation of sharia law.  As a result, some women said they continued to wear burqas or other modest dress in public in rural areas and in some districts in urban areas, including in Kabul, before the Taliban takeover, in contrast to other more secure, Ghani administration-controlled areas, where women said they felt comfortable not wearing what they considered conservative clothing.  Almost all women reported wearing some form of head covering.  Some women said they did so by personal choice, but many said they did so due to societal pressure and a desire to avoid harassment and to increase their security in public.  Prior to the Taliban takeover, observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities, such as concerts, considered by the religious leaders to be inconsistent with Islamic doctrine.  Following the Taliban takeover, media reported instances of local Muslim religious leaders becoming more prohibitive of such activities.

Prior to the Taliban takeover, Ahmadiyya Muslims said they did not proselytize due to fear of persecution.  Ahmadiyya Muslims reported an increasing need to conceal their identity to avoid unwanted attention in public and their intent to depart the country permanently if there was a peace agreement with the Taliban.  Before the Taliban takeover of Kabul, members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community said they were able to intermittently perform weekly congregational prayer at a nondescript location in Kabul.  According to international Ahmadiyya Muslim organizations with close ties to Ahmadi Muslims in the country, following the Taliban takeover, fear of persecution by the Taliban and its sympathizers had driven community members to refrain from worship at their center in Kabul.  Approximately 100 Ahmadi Muslims departed the country in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover.  As of year’s end, hundreds remained in country.  Ahmadi Muslims said they received direct as well as indirect threats against their safety in the form of notes, telephone messages, and other menacing communications because of their faith.  Ahmadi Muslim representatives said they did not initially report or publicize these threats because they feared additional verbal harassment and physical abuse from Taliban representatives.

Prior to the Taliban takeover, Christian representatives reported public opinion, as expressed in social media and elsewhere, remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization.  They reported pressure and threats, largely from family, to renounce Christianity and return to Islam.  They said Christians continued to worship alone or in small congregations, sometimes 10 or fewer persons, in private homes due to fear of societal discrimination and persecution.  The dates, times, and locations of these services were frequently changed to avoid detection.  There continued to be no public Christian churches.  Following the Taliban takeover, Christians described raids by Taliban on the homes of Christian converts even after they had fled the country or moved out.  Christian sources stated the Taliban takeover emboldened intolerant relatives to threaten them with violence and inform on converts should they continue their practice of Christianity.

Prior to the Taliban takeover, some Sikhs and Hindus had refused to send their children to public schools because other students harassed their children, although only a few private school options were available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances.  According to community members, since the Taliban takeover, the small number of remaining Sikh and Hindu children did not attend school due to school closures related to COVID-19 and inclement winter weather.

Until the Taliban takeover, Kabul’s lone synagogue remained occupied by the self-proclaimed last remaining Jew in the country, and a nearby abandoned Jewish cemetery was still utilized as an unofficial dump; reportedly many abandoned Islamic cemeteries were also used as dumping sites.  The lone known Jew departed Afghanistan in late August, saying he feared the Taliban would be unable to protect him from an ISIS-K attack.

Prior to the Taliban takeover, NGOs reported some Muslims remained suspicious of development assistance projects, which they often viewed as surreptitious efforts to advance Christianity or engage in proselytization.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

On August 31, the U.S. embassy in Kabul suspended operations.

In October and November, the U.S. government condemned ISIS-K attacks on Shia mosques and engaged Taliban leadership to press for the protection of religious minorities from repression and violence.  On November 29-30, a U.S. government delegation met with senior Taliban representatives in Qatar.  U.S. government officials expressed “deep concern regarding allegations of human rights abuses and urged the Taliban to protect the rights of all Afghans, uphold and enforce its policy of general amnesty, and take additional steps to form an inclusive and representative government.” U.S. representatives also expressed concern over the status of religious minorities in a meeting with senior Taliban representatives in Islamabad, Pakistan, in December.  The U.S. government also conveyed this message consistently in meetings with the “Taliban Political Commission” in Doha after August 31 through the Afghanistan Affairs Unit.

Before the Taliban takeover in mid-August, U.S. embassy officials worked with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and its importance as well the need for the acceptance and protection of religious minorities.  In meetings with members of the President’s staff, the ONSC, MOHRA, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, and the Ulema Council, embassy officials promoted understanding of religious freedom as well as the need to enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism.

Prior to the Taliban takeover, senior embassy officials engaged leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities in June to understand their concerns and their ability to practice their faith freely.

Until the Taliban takeover, embassy officials met with both government and religious officials to promote cooperation with ulema councils and emphasize the potential strong impact international Islamic scholars could have on moderating the Taliban.  The embassy coordinated with the ONSC, as well as other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, to promote respect for religious diversity.  While working with the Ghani administration, the embassy sponsored programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify ways to counter violent religious extremism, empower female religious leaders, and promote tolerance for religious diversity.

Prior to the Taliban takeover, the embassy also used social media to support religious freedom.  On May 20, the Ambassador, responding to a Taliban-attributed attack in Ghor in which three Hazara shopkeepers were killed, condemned via Twitter the Taliban’s and ISIS-K’s targeting of Hazaras.  This followed the Ambassador’s condemnation of the May 8 attack on a Kabul girls’ school in a Hazara community that resulted in the deaths of more than 80 persons.

Following the Taliban takeover, the United States continued to support the Afghan people.  The United States remained committed to providing humanitarian assistance and basic needs support to the Afghan people and continued to advocate for the need to respect the human rights, including religious freedom, of all Afghans through its engagements with the Taliban.

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