Hidden and Alone

Matias Perttula March/April 2023

The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has ushered in a dangerous new era for Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, and minority Islamic sects.

The dramatic fall of Afghanistan’s capital to rapidly moving Taliban forces came on August 15, 2021. Within a matter of weeks the Taliban army had conquered the country, reestablishing their presence as the ruling authority for the first time since their ousting two decades earlier. The swift fall of Kabul exacerbated an already unstable situation in the country, triggering an early and chaotic withdrawal of Western forces from the country.

The world witnessed desperate Afghans flooding the tarmac at Hamid Karzai International Airport, attempting to board U.S. planes—even holding on to them as they sped down the runway. Within those tumultuous hours as U.S. and NATO forces departed, hope dissipated for Afghanistan’s Christians and members of other religious minorities. For Afghanistan’s Christians especially, the Taliban’s restoration as the ruling authority has meant one thing—a return to absolute secrecy.

As soon as the first Taliban forces began their rapid takeover of the country, Afghanistan’s known Christians began to receive threatening phone calls and other messages from what were believed to be Taliban operatives—messages such as “We know who you are. We’re coming for you.” Since that time, individuals found to have a copy of the Bible downloaded on their phones have been targeted, threatened, and even arrested. In some areas Taliban have reportedly gone door to door searching for Christians and other “dissidents.”

Afghanistan’s Christian community is estimated at between 10,000 and 12,000 members, and nearly all are converts from Islam. According to the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islamic law, their status as converts is illegal; it is an offense that merits the deadliest consequences. Under Afghanistan’s law, which depends on Hanafi Shari’a jurisprudence and the Taliban’s independent extreme interpretation of that law, these Christian converts are apostates. Thus, the Taliban considers Christians to be a “community of criminals.”

During the past nine months this new reality has forced Afghanistan’s small community of Christians to operate in extreme secrecy. They meet in small house churches throughout the country, forming a closed network of underground gatherings. Life for a Christian under Taliban rule is dangerous; a daily decision to put one’s life on the line. Danger can also come from members of a convert’s own family or members of their community, who will often ostracize them, report them to authorities, or even target them with so-called honor killings.

In September 2021 the Taliban announced it would implement brutal punishments for violators of their extreme version of Islam. Floggings, execution by stoning, or amputation of hands are among some of the most extreme forms of punishments, which are often carried out in public. In November last year, for instance, the Taliban issued invitations for the public to attend the lashing of 27 men and women in a soccer stadium—punishment for crimes such as adultery, theft, drug use, and running away from home.

Although it’s difficult to gather information on the treatment of Christians under Taliban rule, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) says it has “documented and received credible reports of violence including executions, disappearances, evictions, desecration of houses of worship, beatings, harassment, and threats of violence to members of particularly vulnerable religious communities.”

Not Only Christians

The Taliban’s harsh regime doesn’t impact just Christians. Other minorities such as Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Ahmadiyya Muslims are also in the crosshairs of the Taliban.

The last known Jewish person in Afghanistan fled the country in the days following the withdrawal of Western forces, and only a small number of Hindus remain in the country.

Ahmadiyya Muslims are also targeted. The Taliban considers this minority sect of Islam to be apostate along with all other religious groups. Neither Shia nor Sunni sects of Islam recognize Ahmadis as Muslims, and this group has endured a brutal history of persecution in Afghanistan. Ahmadiyya Muslims number between 450 and 2,500, making them one of the smallest religious minority groups in Afghanistan.

Hindus and Sikhs, who have also witnessed a long history of persecution in Afghanistan, collectively number less than a thousand. For the Taliban, the idea of preserving rights for these religious minorities runs counter to their strict Sunni interpretation of Islam.

Amid the chaos of last year’s withdrawal, human rights organizations and activists around the world raised urgent concerns about the inevitable mistreatment of religious minorities under Taliban rule. Many NGOs and activists advocated for members of the international community, including the United States, to move quickly to offer special visa status exemptions for at-risk people in Afghanistan. While some countries rose to the occasion, the Biden administration h as been criticized for its failure to plan properly for the timely evacuation of Afghans at risk from the Taliban. Nearly 140 fleeing Hindus and Sikhs were killed during the suicide bombing at the airport, which also killed 13 U.S. service members.

Although NGOs, activists, and other organizations continued urgent evacuation efforts for desperate Afghans, many members of religious minorities seeking asylum were left by the wayside. In some cases Afghans who have managed to exit the country remain trapped in transit locations, waiting for visas to their final destinations.

An International Dilemma

So what can be done?

While the situation continues to deteriorate for Afghanistan’s religious minorities, there are several measures that the international community can take to keep sustained pressure on the Taliban.

First, the international community should not move to extend official diplomatic recognition of the Taliban. Doing so would only legitimize them as the governing authority of Afghanistan and bolster their international status. Without official diplomatic recognition, the Taliban will remain isolated, to a degree, within the international community. The Taliban must first engage in a meaningful process to safeguard human rights within Afghanistan, including religious freedom.

Second, all humanitarian aid must be delivered directly to the most needy, free from any Taliban interception. Afghanistan is in the grip of a severe hunger crisis that impacts the most marginalized communities. Aid should be administered by non-Taliban-affiliated third parties to ensure the maximum impact of the aid.

Third, known human rights violators within the Taliban’s leadership should be restrained through targeted sanctions like those created by the U.S. Global Magnitsky Act of 2016. Even the threat of being considered for these sanctions is a powerful way to encourage behavior change in individuals. The Global Magnitsky program targets individual violators of human rights with specific sanctions rather than entire sections of the economy, which is an excellent way to further alienate oppressors. Large-scale economic sanctions should not be implemented unless the sanctioning authorities can avoid impacting the general population.

Fourth, the international community should form an International Committee for Afghanistan, charged with the task of monitoring the country’s human rights and religious liberty conditions. The committee could be formed through existing multilateral institutions such as the United Nations or launched by a coalition of individual countries. The committee should hold quarterly public hearings and briefings that highlight any human rights violations committed in Afghanistan. This would ensure a greater level of transparency within the international community. This committee should make recommendations to the international community, highlighting the best approaches for generating greater freedom in Afghanistan.

Finally, aside from immediate emergency aid, all humanitarian and foreign aid directed to Afghanistan needs to be contingent on improvements made to Afghanistan’s human rights spectrum. As with diplomatic recognition, this process should clearly communicate that unless the Taliban make genuine and meaningful progress in fostering basic freedoms—such as religious freedom—the humanitarian aid will be held back.

While the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is a significant turning point for Afghanistan’s religious minorities, the story is not over. The international community cannot turn a blind eye to their plight. It must continue to support them through tough diplomacy, meaningful monitoring, and holding the Taliban’s feet to the fire when it comes to human rights. Without the international community, Afghanistan’s religious minorities face an ever-growing threat of violence, persecution, and discrimination. Now is the time to support them.

Article Author: Matias Perttula

Matias Perttula served for five years in Washington, D.C., as director of advocacy for International Christian Concern (ICC), where he led efforts to inform the key legislators on global religious freedom challenges facing Christians and other religious minorities. During this time he also chaired the program committee for the International Religious Freedom Summit in 2021 and 2022. Prior to this, Perttula was an assistant at the Brookings Institution for the vice president and director of foreign policy.