Total population 36 million. Estimated 80 per cent Sunni Muslim, 10-19 per cent Shi’a (Imami and Ismaili) Muslims, of whom 90 per cent are ethnic Hazaras. Hindus, Sikhs, Bahá’ís, Christians, Buddhists, Zoroastrians and others comprise around 0.3 per cent.
Afghanistan: the likely consequences for Afghan Christians of the Taliban takeover (August 2021)
APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2020
The state religion is Islam – the Hanafi Sunni School of thought, which is backed by the Taliban. The constitution protects the religious freedom of religious minorities: Article 2 states ’followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law’. However, blasphemy and apostasy laws significantly undermine religious freedom for people of other faiths and none.
Decades of war, foreign intervention and political instability, have made Afghanistan an extremely dangerous country for its religious minorities. The US/Taliban 29 February 2020 peace deal means that religious minorities fear more persecution as the Taliban gain greater control. Rather than less violence, the country has been hit by a new wave of militant attacks by both Taliban and ISKP (Islamic State of Khorasan Province), a group affiliated with Daesh.
The Shi’a Hazara community, who experienced persecution under previous Taliban rule now fear more attacks and discrimination: both IS and Taliban consider them infidels. In 2020 they faced multiple deadly attacks:
• 6 March – a large gathering of Shi’a Hazaras were targeted in the Mazari Square area while they were commemorating their religious leader.
• 12 May – around 24 people including infants, mothers and nurses were killed in a horrific attack in a maternity hospital in a Shi’a majority area
• 24 October – more than 40 students were killed in an attack against Shi’a students at an education centre in Kabul
• 2 November – around 22 students were killed and over 22 were wounded after a brutal attack in Kabul University.
The indigenous communities of Hindus and Sikhs are on the verge of disappearing as they face continuing discrimination and persecution both by the extremist militants and the state and are forced to leave the country. They often experience interference by local authorities in following their religious rituals like cremation. Illegal appropriation of Sikh owned property is another form of state-sanctioned discrimination.
In the 25 March attack in a centuries old Sikh temple over 25 Sikh worshippers lost their lives, including a 4-year-old. This was followed by another bomb attack while the families of those killed were mourning in the temple.
Christians are forced by societal and family pressure to remain secret. The Bahá’í community is also forced to live in secret since 2007 after a fatwa was issued against them declaring their faith blasphemous.
In February 2020 Amnesty International’s Zaman Sultani recognised significant progress in human rights in Afghanistan that needed to be protected and built on. The Afghan government has taken steps to provide greater security for the minority communities; but their lack of control over much territory, the instability and corruption, means that minorities continue to suffer.
FCDO Human Rights Report 2020
Freedom of worship is enshrined in the Afghan Constitution, but religious minorities continued to face discrimination and experienced increasing insecurity. Following a deadly attack on a Sikh Gurdwara in Kabul in March, over 400 Sikhs left Afghanistan. In November, the first attack in nearly 20 years in the predominantly Hazara Shia Muslim city of Bamiyan caused mass casualties. Officials from the British Embassy in Kabul met representatives from ethnic minority groups to hear their concerns. During a virtual visit to Afghanistan in November, Rita French, UK International Ambassador for Human Rights, met members of the Hazara community to discuss the challenges they faced, and to reaffirm the UK’s commitment in support of members of minority communities.
APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2019
The situation in Afghanistan is alarming. There is growing fear among religious minorities about their future safety and livelihood post-American withdrawal. 2018 was a very difficult year for the people of Afghanistan. Minorities – including Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians – had to flee from the country.
80% of Afghanistan’s population is Sunni Muslim, with a sizeable Shia (Imami and Ismaili) minority (10-19%). There are also small Christian, Sikh and Hindu communities. The indigenous Christian community mostly endeavours to remain hidden due to fears of persecution. The Sikh and Hindu community are more visible but are still at risk of extreme discrimination. The Taliban has continued to attack Afghan forces and civilians, including religious minorities. The most dangerous threat to religious communities has been the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP)
ISKP attacked civilians generally, but it undoubtedly targeted Shias disproportionately. In the last decade, attacks against Shia Hazaras have significantly increased and intensified. One estimate suggests that there were more than 12 attacks in 2018 alone which killed more than 300 people. On 9 March 2019, at least seven Shias were killed in a suicide attack near a Shia mosque.
A recent attack at a wedding ceremony in Kabul on 18 August killed more than 80 Shia Hazaras and injured over 160 people.
As one report states, there is an ongoing process of ‘dehumanization of Shias’. There has been a rise in public hate speech against Shias which is intended to dehumanize the whole community. This is partially a form of revenge for the defeat which ISIS faced in Iraq and Syria. It is also a response to the fact that many Shias from Afghanistan and Pakistan went to Iraq and Syria to fight against ISIS.
Other religious communities, i.e. Hindus and Sikhs, are continuously fleeing from Afghanistan. Before the fall of the Afghan government in 1992, there were nearly 200,000 Hindus and Sikhs. The figure has now reduced to between 3,000 and 7,000 due to continuous attacks on the community.
Since the Afghan government were unable to protect them, Hindus and Sikhs fled to India where they were given right to residency. The remaining Sikhs are still living in fear. In July 2018 a suicide attack targeted the Sikh community in Jalalabad, leaving at least 17 Sikhs dead including Awtar Singh Khalsa, the only Sikh candidate expected to contest the 2018 parliamentary elections.
It is not only militant organisations but also local authorities that discriminate against Sikhs and Hindus. One report states that both of these religious minorities are facing bureaucratic hurdles to hold funeral and cremation ceremonies. It is also reported that Sikhs are being discriminated against as a whole group as many Afghans refuse to conduct business with them.
While specific violations against Christians are rarely reported because of security issues, and Afghanistan’s Christian population tend to keep as low a profile as possible, killings of converts do continue. This lack of reporting has tended to give the impression that violence against Christians is not taking place in Afghanistan, at times leading to a misunderstanding that it is safe to return Christian converts to the country. Amnesty International’s 2017 report underscored this issue by highlighting the story of a Christian convert called Farid. Although he had been attacked by family members when he had attempted to move back to Afghanistan 10 years previously, he was told that it was safe for him to return.
Non-religious people are also systematically targeted in Afghanistan. The authorities’ interpretation of Shari’a sanctions capital punishment for the atheist or ‘nonbeliever’. There is a little data available on the status of Baha’is in Afghanistan. The group was declared ‘blasphemous’ in a 2007 Supreme Court ruling.
FCO Human Rights Report 2019
The rights of all religious groups are legally protected in the Afghan Constitution, and the government has attempted to ensure their inclusion in policy-making processes. Many religious and ethnic minorities – such as Sikhs, Hindus, and Hazara Shia Muslims – continue to face widespread discrimination and insecurity. The insecurity faced by the Hazara community was made stark in August when Islamic State Khorasan Province conducted an attack against a Shia wedding, leading to 92 civilian deaths, and over 180 people injured. The British Embassy in Kabul maintains strong relationships with representatives of these communities and engages with them regularly. For example, the British Ambassador to Afghanistan met the sole Sikh MP in Afghanistan and a range of young leaders within the Hazara community, to mark International Religious Freedom Day. Such engagement helps us to stay updated about their concerns and signals the UK’s support for the rights of members of religious minorities.
In the UK Parliament, 2021
DEBATE Fiona Bruce 18 August
In the UK Parliament, 2020
WRITTEN QUESTION Royston Smith 18 June;
US State Department International Religious Freedom report 2020