Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Media reported members of the Shia community continued to state the government did not provide them with adequate protection from attacks by nonstate actors. In response to these attacks, in September President Ashraf Ghani announced a plan to divide Kabul into four security zones, creating a security zone in the Dasht-e Barchi area similar to the one that protects embassies and international organizations in central Kabul and increasing the ANDSF presence there. President Ghani also announced plans for the Kabul Municipality and Capital Zone Development Authority to implement development projects in the area, including road construction. Representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community, however, said these were insufficient, symbolic measures from the government. The Ministry of Interior again increased security around Shia mosques and authorized the arming of Shia civilians, under police authority, to provide extra security for Ashura. There were no reports of violence during Ashura processions – a sharp contrast from recent years. On September 18, media reported the government had prevented attacks by arresting 26 ISKP militants in Kabul suspected of planning attacks on Ashura.
As in the previous four years, there were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy during the year; however, individuals converting from Islam reported they continued to risk annulment of their marriages, rejection by their families and communities, loss of employment, and possibly the death penalty. Baha’is continued to be labeled as “infidels,” although they were not considered converts; as such, they were not charged with either crime.
The government again allowed both Sunnis and Shia to go on pilgrimages, with no quota on either group. It charged fees for Hajj participants to cover transportation, food, accommodation, and other expenses. MOHRA also continued to facilitate pilgrimages for Hindus and Sikhs to India, but it did not collect any revenue for or from non-Muslims. Ahmadi Muslims reported they chose not to interact with MOHRA because they feared MOHRA would deem them non-Muslims and forbid them from participating in the Hajj.
MOHRA reported that of the approximately 120,000 mullahs in the country, 6,000 registered mullahs were working directly for MOHRA at year’s end, an increase from 4,589 in 2017. Government officials said the ministry was able to hire additional clerics under the year’s budget due to the implementation of new procedures and a new payroll system. These mullahs continued to receive an average monthly salary of 12,000 afghanis ($160) from the government. For highly educated mullahs of central mosques delivering special Friday sermons or khatibs, MOHRA provided a salary of 14,000 afghanis ($190). Mullahs applying to be prayer leaders in MOHRA-registered mosques continued to have to hold at least a high school diploma, although a bachelor’s degree or equivalent verified by the Ministry of Higher Education was preferred. MOHRA reported approximately 66,000 of the estimated 160,000 mosques in the country were registered. According to MOHRA, the ministry lacked the financial resources to create a comprehensive registry of mullahs and mosques in the country.
MOHRA reported it continued to allocate a portion of its budget for the construction of new mosques, although local groups remained the source of most of the funds for the new mosques. Unless the local groups requested financial or other assistance from the ministry, they were not required to inform the ministry about the new construction.
Hindu and Sikh groups again reported they remained free to build places of worship and to train other Hindus and Sikhs to become clergy, but per the law against conversion of Muslims, the government continued not to allow them to proselytize. Hindu and Sikh community members said they continued to avoid pursuing land disputes through the courts due to fear of retaliation, especially if powerful local leaders occupied their property.
Although the government provided land to use as cremation sites, Sikh leaders stated the distance from any major urban area and the lack of security in the region continued to make the land unusable. Hindus and Sikhs reported continued interference in their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead from individuals who lived near the cremation sites. In response, the government continued to provide police support to protect the Sikh and Hindu communities while they performed their cremation rituals. The government promised to construct modern crematories for the Sikh and Hindu populations. Sikh and Hindu community leaders said President Ghani reaffirmed this promise in an August 2017 meeting, but as of the end of the year, the government had not taken action. Despite these challenges, community leaders acknowledged new efforts by MOHRA to provide free water, electricity, and repair services for a few Sikh and Hindu temples, as well as facilitate visas for religious trips to India.
MOHRA reported there were 4,500 registered madrassahs and “Quran learning centers” throughout the country, up from 4,093 in 2017. The government reported that approximately 50,000 mosques were registered with the ministry. The government registered some additional madrassahs during the year but did not report how many. More than 300,000 students were enrolled in madrassahs during the year, mostly in Kabul, Balkh, Nangarhar, and Herat Provinces, according to the latest available estimate.
The registration process for madrassahs continued to require a school to demonstrate it had suitable buildings, classrooms, accredited teachers, and dormitories if students lived on campus. MOHRA continued to register madrassahs collocated with mosques, while the MOE continued to register madrassahs not associated with mosques. In MOHRA-run madrassahs, students received individual instruction, with one imam teaching approximately 50 to 70 children studying at various levels. Only certificates issued by registered madrassahs allowed students to pursue higher education at government universities.
MOHRA could not estimate the number of unregistered madrassahs but stated it was likely unregistered madrassahs “far outnumbered” registered madrassahs. The MOE was authorized to close unregistered madrassahs, but ministry officials again said it remained nearly impossible to close any due to local sensitivities. According to ministry officials, some madrassahs were closed in conflict areas during the year, but not out of concern for potential negative societal repercussions. Ministry officials said the government continued its efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of registering madrassahs, including recognition of graduation certificates and financial and material assistance, such as furniture or stationery. Government officials said they were concerned about their inability to supervise unregistered madrassas that could institute violent extremist curriculum intolerant of religious minorities and become recruitment centers for antigovernment groups.
Mosques continued to handle primary-level religious studies. Eighty MOE-registered madrassahs offered two-year degree programs at the secondary level. An estimated 1,200 public madrassahs were registered with the MOE.
Ulema Council members continued to receive financial support from the state, although it officially remained independent from the government. The council also provided advice to some provincial governments; however, according to scholars and NGOs, most legal decision making in villages and rural areas continued to be based on local interpretations of Islamic law and tradition. President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah included messages in support of religious tolerance in speeches invoking national unity and in meetings with minority religious groups. For example, on September 19, media reported that President Ghani had stated the ongoing war was against the “national unity and religious freedom” of the country. President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah also held meetings with Ulema Council members on promoting intrafaith tolerance and “moderate practices” of Islam.
Minority religious groups reported the courts continued not to apply the protections provided to those groups by law, and the courts denied non-Muslims the access to the courts or other legal redress as Muslims, even when the non-Muslims were legally entitled to those same rights.
According to media reports and representatives from non-Muslim religious minorities, some members of these communities, such as Sikhs and Hindus, were told they did not have equal rights because they were “Indians,” not Afghans, even when they were citizens of the country. Members of minority religious communities reported the state, including the courts, treated all citizens as if they were Muslims, and some basic citizenship rights of non-Muslims remained uncodified. They said the result was non-Muslims continued to risk being tried according to Hanafi jurisprudence.
Sikhs and Hindus continued to report their community members avoided taking civil cases to court because they believed they were unprotected by dispute resolution mechanisms such as the Special Land and Property Court. Instead, their members continued to settle disputes within their communities.
Leaders of both Hindu and Sikh communities continued to state they faced discrimination in the judicial system, including long delays in resolving cases, particularly regarding the continued appropriation of Sikh properties. Hindu and Sikh community leaders said they had pending court cases of land seized by municipal authorities and warlords from four years ago. Whenever community advocates reproached the court, government officials said their cases remained under review.
Although some Shia continued to hold senior positions in the government such as Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh, High Peace Council Chairman Karim Khalili, and then Second Chief Executive Deputy Mohammad Mohaqeq, Shia leaders continued to state the proportion of official positions held by Shia did not reflect their estimate of the country’s demographics. Sunni members of the Ulema Council continued to state, however, that Shia remained overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population. Observers said these debates were often about the predominantly Hazara ethnicity of the majority of the country’s Shia rather than about religion.
A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions, including one at the municipal level, one at the Chamber of Commerce and Industries, one as a presidentially appointed member of the upper house of parliament, and one as an elected member in the lower house. After the only Sikh candidate, Awtar Singh Khalsa, for lower house parliament elections was killed in a July 1 suicide attack in Jalalabad, Nangarhar Province, the IEC granted an extension on July 5 for the registration for a Sikh candidate to run in parliamentary elections in October.
Although four Ismaili Muslims remained members of parliament, Ismaili community leaders continued to report concerns about what they called the exclusion of Ismailis from other positions of political authority.
The government continued to support the efforts of judicial, constitutional, and human rights commissions composed of members of different Islamic religious groups (Sunni and Shia) to promote Muslim intrafaith reconciliation. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and MOHRA continued working toward their stated goal of gaining nationwide acceptance of the practice of allowing women to attend mosques. The Ulema Council, the Islamic Brotherhood Council, and MOHRA also continued their work on intrafaith reconciliation. Ministry officials and NGOs promoting religious tolerance, however, said it was difficult to continue their programs due to funding and capacity constraints.
On June 4, the Ulema Council convened approximately 3,000 religious scholars at the Loya Jirga tent in Kabul to issue a propeace fatwa. Although the religious scholars said the effort was more of a symbolic attempt to challenge the religious legitimacy of “holy war” invoked by violent extremist groups, including the Taliban and ISKP, they said the fatwa included principles of religious tolerance. The scholars stated, “Divisions among Muslims based on language, tribe, or sect are against Islam” and that “those who cause such division should be punished.” This included all forms of intra-Muslim violence, including through suicide attacks.
The ONSC continued its work on addressing religiously motivated violent extremism, which included policies to foster religious tolerance. The ONSC continued to sponsor provincial-level conferences on religiously motivated violent extremism to collect data for use in its effort to develop a strategy to counter violent extremism. The ONSC also continued to coordinate the efforts of relevant government institutions and NGOs to formulate the strategy through an interministerial working group. Government officials said the strategy had reached the final stages of review during the year.