Thirty years of war, discrimination led by Islamic militants have taken toll on Afghan’s religious minorities
BY JAMES RUPERT
Newsday World Correspondent
July 9, 2006
KABUL, Afghanistan — Zablon Simintov turned from the television one recent Sunday evening to gaze out a window at the darkened sky. “Akhir-i-Shabbat” – “the end of the Sabbath,” he grunted.
With that, Afghanistan’s last known Jew gathered a prayer book, candles and a bottle of his homemade wine in the bare, upstairs room of the decaying synagogue where he lives. He began his prayers.
Across the city, Sado Singh and his family camp out in the desolate ruin of a huge Sikh temple, one of about 10 in Kabul that once hummed with prayer, schooling and festivals. Singh hopes the bulk of Afghan Sikhs, now exiled in India or the West, may return some day, but “the conditions are very difficult and we don’t know whether they will get better,” he said.
Religious minorities dwindle
Thirty years of war, plus intolerance fueled by Islamic militant groups, has nearly eliminated Afghanistan’s traditional religious minorities. As the United States and its allies try to build a modern, tolerant state to replace that of the Taliban, the few non-Muslim Afghans who remain voice only faint hopes of restoring their communities.
Part of the problem with tolerance is who’s selling it. With all the frictions between Western nations – especially the United States – and the Muslim world, many Muslims fear the modernization and liberalization being pushed here are simply a Western attempt to undermine their country’s Islamic character.
U.S. “human rights abuses at Guantanamo and at Bagram , bombings of civilians are exploited by fundamentalist groups … to mobilize Afghans against all foreigners,” said Mir Ahmed Joyenda, an Afghan member of parliament. The past year’s Danish newspaper cartoons of the prophet Muhammad and reports of U.S. troops abusing the Koran also have “hurt the dignity of Muslims, and Afghans are very concerned with keeping their dignity,” Joyenda said.
These sentiments fueled the backlash this spring after an Afghan man declared he had converted to Christianity. Many Afghans clamored for his execution.
As in other Muslim countries, religious minorities for centuries were a central part of life in Afghan towns, treated with a mix of tolerance, segregation and discrimination. As many as 40,000 Jews lived in Afghanistan in the mid-1800s, although periods of repression led the vast majority to emigrate in the century that followed.
“When I was a kid, we still had 500 [Jewish] families living in Herat,” Afghanistan’s westernmost city, in a community that felt complete and vibrant, Simintov said.
But emigration, notably to Israel, continued and all but a handful of Jews left during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and the terror that followed during the 1990s, when first the U.S.-backed Afghan mujahideen guerrillas and then the Taliban took power.
News isn’t encouraging
Simintov, a paunchy, balding 46-year-old, interrupted his Sabbath night prayers to watch the Persian-language news on the channel Deutsche Welle. As on most days now, the Afghan news was about the new aggressiveness of the Taliban guerrillas.
Simintov grimaced. The United States and its ally, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, failed to follow through on their initial defeat of the Taliban in 2001, he said. “The government is still full of these jihadi warlords … Not only Jews, but everyone fears the Taliban could come back” into power.
“My friends are gone to Israel. I talk to them sometimes and they want to come back,” Simintov said, switching the TV channel. “But they’re not doing it because they’re afraid of the situation.”
It’s not entirely clear why Simintov has stayed.
“I went to Israel for two months. I had Passover with my family. I came back and was going to move to Israel, but I got stuck,” he said. “Family problems, money problems.”
But Simintov also feels himself the guardian of the last synagogue in Afghanistan still in Jewish hands. The two-story building on Flower Street – a bazaar of small groceries and antique shops – is unmarked and unrecognizable unless a visitor’s eye picks out the Stars of David worked subtly into some of the brickwork.
A few roses grow in a dusty courtyard garden, but the old sanctuary is locked and dark.
“I still hope that Jews will return and revive this place,” Simintov said.
At Shor Bazaar, once a bustling Sikh community, five Sikh families camp, much like Simintov, as impoverished caretakers of their dilapidated temple. The Khalsa Gurdwara is a looming, shattered, concrete shell. Bright, hot sunlight pours through holes blasted by mortars in the roof, slanting into empty, dusty halls where thousands of Sikhs once celebrated religious festivals.
The men eke out a little cash as street merchants. And they labor to slowly clear a few rooms in the temple and make them habitable. They’ve paid about $2,300 in fees and bribes to get city officials to connect water pipes and electrical lines to the temple, said Satwan Singh, 33. But “we’ve been waiting for months and we’ve gotten nothing,” he said.
“Muslims taunt our boys as ‘potato-heads,'” making fun of the Sikhs’ head-coverings, Singh said, “and their children throw stones at the gurdwara.” And Singh, like the other Sikhs camped in the temples of Shor Bazaar, is a refugee from the eastern town of Khost, where local Muslims seized properties of Sikh and Hindu traders two years ago.
Lack of services
But even more than such racism, Singh and others said, it’s the continued collapse of government and its services that threatens their community.
Singh worked as a street vendor until city officials ordered him to move his wooden stall. But just like water and electricity, “you can’t get a new permit [for street vending] without paying a big bribe,” he said. Karzai’s government acknowledges that corruption is one of its biggest problems.
Of 200,000 Sikhs and Hindus who lived in Kabul in the 1980s, “we now have 360 families, fewer than 1,000 people, left,” said Avtar Singh, leader of the city’s Sikh community. (Singh is the most common Sikh name and Avtar, Satwan and Sado are unrelated.)
Afghanistan’s Sikhs and Hindus in exile “must have some real hope of making a good life” before they will return, said Satwan Singh.
“How can I hope?” he asked. “I have three kids and I can’t send them to any school. I am ready to move from here to any place where I can take care of my family.”