Archive for September, 2007

September 27, 2007 – Times Online


Legendary Nepalese warriors are the best troops to drive out the Taleban, say their commanders Photographs by Peter Nicholls
Catherine Philp in Upper Gereshk Valley

Lit by the fireworks of an artillery barrage, the Gurkhas crouched in the desert chill, waiting for the command to move. In silence they crept across a bridge slung over the canal into enemy territory. Dawn came and went without a sighting. And then the Taleban attacked.

Barely 12 hours into Operation Palk Wahel, or Sledgehammer Hit, the biggest British military offensive in Afghanistan since the spring, the Gurkhas had met their enemy. Rifle cracks filled the air, bullets pinging in the dust as rocket-propelled grenades skimmed overhead.

“Get down,” a commander screamed, and the men scurried to a ditch beside the poppy field, firing towards the trees where the Taleban were hiding. Overhead the eerie grunting of fighter jet cannon could be heard strafing the enemy.

It was the resistance that the Gurkhas had been expecting since they crept out from the desert under a fingernail moon and into the notorious “green zone”, the dense sliver of fertile land alongside the Helmand river that the Taleban have made their domain.

Pushed out by British troops from the towns of Gereshk and Sangin at either end of the valley, it was here that the Taleban retreated, taking refuge in the fortress-like mud compounds set in a maze of towering corn criss-crossed with streams and irrigation ditches.

“It is nothing like the rest of Helmand, it is more like the Normandy bocage,” Lieutenant-Colonel Jonny Bourne, the commanding officer of the Gurkhas, said, evoking the beautiful but treacherous terrain that Allied forces had to fight through after the 1944 Normandy landings. “The Taleban know that in the desert we can beat them every time. But in the green zone they have the upper hand.”

British troops have battled through the green zone several times in the past six months and driven the Taleban out, but each time that they have moved on, the Taleban have come back, wreaking vengeance on villagers who cooperated with the foreigners.

This time it is meant be different. Military commanders and civilians have planned the offensive together. The idea is to hold territory so that reconstruction can begin, wooing locals away from the Taleban.

“If you drive out the Taleban, you’ve got to endure,” said David Slinn, the civilian head of the provincial reconstruction team for Helmand. “There have been lessons learnt.”

So, on their first day on the Helmand front line, the Gurkhas crept across a metal footbridge into the Taleban stronghold. To the south soldiers from the Mercian Regiment, nearing the end of their tour, would move northwards to join them.

The Gurkhas, the legendary Nepalese warriors, were chosen for this role. No other regiment could be better suited, their commanding officer said, for this combination of ferocious fighting and winning of local hearts and minds. “The Gurkhas have a natural advantage here,” Colonel Bourne said. “They have an affinity with the people here. It’s in that interaction with the people where we want to make a real difference.”

Before that, however, would come the fighting. “They are the loveliest people in the world,” Colonel Bourne added. “But when the switch is flicked, it gets very nasty.”

Pinned down in the poppy field, the switch flicked. “Excuse me,” a Gurkha machinegunner whispered politely before squeezing past to take his position and blast towards the enemy.

Before battle Sergeant Tarjan Gurung, a smiling veteran of ten years with “Do or Die” stencilled on the back of his helmet, had explained the mood. “Everybody finds it quite exciting,” he said. “You’re going to face a real enemy who will stand and fight.”

As the battle raged, Captain Jit Bahadur appeared panting in the ditch. “Nobody here injured?” he asked. “That’s good luck. It is a very heavy ambush from the enemy.” Minutes before the ambush, C Company had stopped to rest from an all-night trek, ripping open rations for a quick lunch. “If they had attacked when we were resting, it would have been a disaster,” Captain Bahadur said.

The company commander was considering withdrawing. “The resistance is very heavy,” Captain Bahadur said, shaking his head. Everyone knew, though, that retreat was not an option.

In the village of Hyderabad the summer fighting had driven out the entire civilian population, leaving their homes to the Taleban, who used them for their defences. The Gurkhas found empty compound after empty compound, walls smashed from heavy bombing and littered with the old rations wrappers of troops that had gone before them. “I remember this place,” muttered Sergeant Don Jenkins, a Royal Marine who had taken part in an operation in July. “We lost Atherton here.”

In another compound they laid a bar mine to blast through the mud wall for fear of another ambush on the other side.

Captain David Stanhope looked anxious. He had come with the Gurkhas to assess what reconstruction could be done as soon as the fighting was over. In his rucksack he carried bundles of dollars ready to be doled out for quick-fix projects. “But there’s no one here,” he said. “I don’t know what we can do with no civilians.”

One such deserted compound became home for the night. Running low on water, the troops filled bottles from a foul-smelling well, dropping purification tablets inside. Later an order came round to ignore the water and hope for a supply the next day – the risk that the Taleban might have poisoned the well was too high. Second Lieutenant Emile Simpson, 24, on his first day of operations, nursed a painful rib, probably broken, from what he believed was a bullet that glanced off his body armour.

Major Charlie Crowe, the commander of C Company, examined a map. By Day 3 the company needed to reach the “Witch’s Hat”, where the Taleban had turned a medical clinic into a fortress overlooking a lush marijuana field, digging deep defensive ditches around it. British troops had stormed the surrounding settlement, known as “Waterloo”, in April, freeing from the Taleban a local official scheduled for beheading the next day because of his ties to the Government. But the troops had not stayed, and the Taleban had returned, bringing punishment to those seen to cooperate with the foreigners and the Government.

A second dawn came and the company was moving through another bombed-out compound when it came under fire again. Gunfire erupted for several minutes until a cry came of “Stop, stop!” Their attackers, it turned out, were from the Afghan National Army, which, after one of its sentries was hit by gunfire, began firing immediately on a known Taleban position – the one the Gurkhas were now clearing.

A similar confusion a day earlier had thrown the second Gurkha company into a battle with the brigade reconnaissance force for ten minutes before both sides realised their mistake. That same night A Company had become lost for four hours on its way to a resupply point.

Two days in and the fatigue was showing – at least for the commanders and British officers, medics and specialists attached to the company. A third night would bring little more sleep. As the soldiers dozed, Major Crowe pleaded over the radio for his troops to be allowed a night’s sleep before the assault. He was overruled: the company must be in position by the time dawn came. “I think this is where the battle will really begin,” Captain Bahadur whispered.

This time, however, the Taleban had already fled. When the company arrived through the marijuana field at the Witch’s Hat, they found it deserted. The artillery barrage that lit their passage into the Helmand bocage three nights before had pounded the building almost to dust. The Gurkhas looked around, wondering at the desertion. If they were disappointed, they did not show it. “Seems they knew we were coming,” Major Crowe remarked.

On the other side of the canal Captain Stanhope was talking to a farmer who had returned to the village that morning. Naimatullah Agha Lala had left five months earlier because of the fighting and was living with other villages in the pacified town of Gereshk. He had returned to collect animal feed after hearing that British troops were retaking the area.

It was not the first time that he had seen the British here: a few months ago he had even been given a compensation form for the damage that the fighting had done to his house. “But then you went away and the Taleban came back. We are caught in the middle here. The Government thinks we have links to the Taleban and the Taleban think we are with the Government.”

Captain Stanhope handed him leaflets promising reconstruction. The farmer responded: “It’s not good to take this. If the Taleban see me with it, they will say we are cooperating.”

This time, Captain Stanhope said, the British would be staying. Mr Lala said he hoped so. “If you go from this place again, the Taleban will automatically come back again,” he said, looking doubtfully at his leaflet. “Can I throw this away now?”

Over the radio the commanders assessed the enemy withdrawal. The Taleban had either fled south to consolidate or retreated north towards their stronghold of Musa Qala. The next days would begin to tell.

The Taleban had suffered a bad summer, and the retreat suggested that they were struggling to replace their fighters, forcing them to sacrifice territory, instead. Perhaps they, like the civilians, did not believe that the British would stay this time either, and that if they bided their time they could soon be back.

“This is our chance now to show we are going to dominate, that we are not going to allow this place to fall back into Taleban hands,” Major Crowe said.
Fighters on familiar terrain

— The Hindu warrior saint Guru Gorakhnath named his disciple Bappa Rawal’s people “Gurkhas” in the 8th century and ordered them to liberate Afghanistan, then a Hindu-Buddhist nation, from the advancing Muslims.

— In 1879 Gurkha regiments served in the British Army during the Second Afghan War, clashing with Afghan tribesmen.

— Afghanistan gained its independence from Britain in 1919 after the war for independence in which Gurkha troops fought for the British. Nepal’s independence was recognised by the British four years later.

— Nepali and the Afghan language Dari belong to the Indo-Iranian family.

— Gurkhas, traditionally recruited from the lower foothills of the Annapurna mountains, are able to acclimatise quickly to high altitudes across much of Afghanistan.

— The Afghan climate swings between extremes. Winters are cold and snowy while summers are hot and dry. The climate of Nepal ranges from subzero temperatures in high-altitude regions to subtropical in the lowlands.

Sources: NOAA Satellite and Information Service ; explorenepal.com ; army.mod.uk ; khukurihouseonline.com

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Life is hellish for Afghan Sikhs


Pratibha Chauhan
Tribune News Service

Kabul, September 27
Persecuted by an increasingly hostile local community, a few thousand hapless Sikhs left behind in Afghanistan, have now been forced to cremate their dead in the compounds of gurdwaras in this strife-torn city.

The attempt to cremate a body last week in Kabul led to major tension between the Sikhs and the local community following which the last rites were performed under heavy security cover. The predominantly Muslim local community has become increasingly hostile to the ritual of cremation considering it as blasphemous.

The two Sikh MPs in the Afghanistan Parliament, Avtar Singh and Ravinder Singh, raised the issue with President Hamid Karzai. It remains to be seen whether the Karzai regime can give them some solace and reduce their misery.

Barely 4000, the Afghani Sikhs are at the crossroads of history. The locals label them as “kaafir” while in India, they are dubbed as “Kabuli”. This means they have been virtually disowned by both the countries as they live a life of hell in Afghanistan.

“Mr Karzai is extremely fond of Sikhs and Hindus and is very sensitive towards their problems but he cannot do much to stop the local animosity. The only option which, again, is not easy for us is to migrate to India,” says a tearful Amrik Singh, a quack selling herbal medicines, who has never been to India.

The Sikhs were a strong and thriving community of about one lakh prior to the turmoil following 9/11. They now live under constant fear.

Though the Sikhs consider Afghanistan as their ‘watan’, they no longer wish to stay here. With most of the affluent Sikhs and Hindus having migrated to India a few years back, the ones still here do not have the resources to migrate to India as they have no relatives or ties back home. In fact, none of them has ever travelled to India, leave aside Punjab.

“Each day is a living hell as we are humiliated. Our children are mocked at for wearing turbans,” says 60 year-old Raj Singh from Rozgan area. He says his family has already moved to Tilak Nagar in Delhi and the minute he is able to sell his property for a decent price, he will leave Afghanistan forever.

The Sikhs and Hindus are still present in sizeable numbers in the Kabul, Jalalabad, Gazni, Kandahar, Khost and Kundaz provinces of Afghanistan. In Kabul, they live mostly in Karta-e-Parwan, where they have a gurudwara.

“My children went to Delhi to attend a relative’s wedding but are simply not willing to come back. They say they will beg in India but will not return to Kabul,” says Amrik Singh.

The Sikhs say they teach their children only Gurmukhi at home. Since they are hated and scoffed at in school, most of them have left regular schools. “We sound exactly like Afghanis and can barely understand Hindi or Punjabi. We wear turbans and go to gurdwara daily to attend kirtan and langars,” says 35 year-old Mohar Singh.

Most of the Sikhs are petty shopkeepers and do not have resources to move to India to start life afresh in another country.

A majority of the Sikhs agree that the older Afghanis had love and affection for them and there was complete harmony. It is only recently that there is growing intolerance and fanaticism.

“I am pained at the plight of the Sikhs and Hindus and the deplorable condition they are living in. I have not been able to sleep since a six-month old girl was cremated in the compound of the gurdwara where I am staying,” says Dr Indira, a gynaecologist working in a reputed corporate hospital of Delhi. She came here for two days to trace her roots but has stayed back to comfort the pained community.

India ‘s Ambassador in Kabul, Rakesh Sood, says there is no question of going back to India as these Sikhs and Hindus have always been in Afghanistan. “India cannot extend them financial help or assist in migration simply because they share a common faith with us,” he remarks. He says there has been some problem over cremations but that can be resolved by giving them an alternative site.

It is the growing intolerance and economic consideration, which are probably making the locals so resentful of the Sikh and Hindu presence in Afghanistan. “One country says you are from the other nation and vice versa leaving us in the lurch”, says Raj Singh.

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Friday, 21 September 2007

FATEHGARH SAHIB: Shiromani Gurdawara Parbhandak Committee(SGPC) has taken up with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the case of Afghan Sikhs who are facing problems in war torn Afghanistan.

The plight of Afghan Sikhs was highlighted recently when they were prevented from cremating a dead person as per Sikh rituals. The Sikh community had cremated the dead following intervention by local office of United Nations and Afghan police.

SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar said on Friday that the he has taken up matter with the Prime Minister seeking his personal itnervention in providing security to Afghan Sikhs. He said that Sikhs were living in Afghanistan since centuries and are part of Afghan culture. He said that Sikh commuity in Afghanstan was very peaceful and helping in nation’s development. He said that Sikhs in Afghanistan had hisorical linkage with Sikh religion for having blessed by Sikh gurus.

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Special Correspondent – 09/19/07

NEW DELHI: Taking serious note of news reports about prevention of cremation of a Sikh in Afghanistan, Tarlochan Singh, MP and former chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities, has asked the Centre to take up the issue with the Afghan government.

In a letter to External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, he has asked the government to intervene and impress upon the Afghan authorities to respect the age-old religious freedom enjoyed by the Sikhs and allot small grounds near the gurdwaras as it was difficult for the Sikhs to go to a distant place because of security reasons.

The Sikhs also need facilities such as funeral vans at these places which the Indian embassy should provide out of the grants given to Afghanistan.

Mr. Singh said cremation was a major problem being faced by Hindus and Sikhs in most of the West Asian countries.

Mr. Singh said a large number of Sikhs migrated because of the largescale violence but a few thousands were still living in Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad.

The cremation of the dead had become a problem in these cities because the original cremation grounds had been occupied by unauthorised persons, the letter said. Some had even built houses on the lands.

“I understand that people living around there raise objections and they forcibly stop the people from performing cremation as per the Sikh rites,” Mr. Singh said.

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Tuesday, 18 September , 2007, 01:27 (Sify)

Kabul: More than 100 Afghan Sikhs, the country’s smallest religious group, marched through Kabul with a corpse on Monday to protest attempts by Muslim villagers to stop them from cremating the body.

Police later detained six of the Muslim villagers who had tried to prevent the cremation, a police officer said.

One of the Sikh protesters, Diah Singh Anjan, said dozens of villagers had issued threats as the cremation was being prepared at a temple in the south of the city.

“The villagers tried to stop us and threatened us with death,” he said.

This prompted about 100 men to march into the city centre, first to the presidential palace and then to the United Nations compound.

Police escorted them back to the temple, which is inside a walled compound. “The police came and detained six of them and we performed our ceremony,” Anjan said in front of the burning pyre.

“The villagers who have grabbed the land around us now say we can’t perform our ceremonies here. They say we should stop cremating our dead here,” Anjan added. Muslims bury their dead.

Afghanistan’s Sikh community, said to number several thousand people in major cities, have lived in overwhelmingly Islamic Afghanistan for generations.

During the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, they were forced to wear yellow arm bands to distinguish them from Muslims.

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By Jon Hemming

KABUL (Reuters) – Around 100 angry Afghan Sikhs carried a coffin to the United Nations headquarters in Kabul on Monday, accusing Muslims of stopping them cremating the dead man.

Shouting slogans and punching their fists into the air the turbanned men broke through a hastily assembled police barriers until they reached the gates of the U.N. mission.

The protesters said Muslims had beaten them as they tried to bury community elder Lachman Singh.

“Aren’t we human? Isn’t God created for us as well? If God is only for Muslims, go ahead and kill us all or hand us over to the U.N.,” Autaar Singh, parliament’s Sikh representative, told Reuters.

“We want our rights and freedom,” he said. “We weren’t even stopped performing our religious ceremonies by the Taliban.”

Numbering just a few hundred in Kabul and a few dozen elsewhere, Afghanistan’s dwindling Sikh community complains of widespread discrimination from the overwhelming Muslim majority.

The head of criminal investigations at Kabul police, Ali Shah Paktiawal, came to calm the demonstrators and after brief talks with Sikh representatives inside the U.N. compound, agreed to escort the protesters to the site of the funeral.


Most Sikhs, along with the country’s handful of Hindus, came with the British from India in the 19th century. But after more than 30 years of war in Afghanistan, most have fled.

In 2001, the Taliban ordered Sikhs, Hindus and other religious minorities to wear yellow patches, ostensibly so they would not be arrested by the religious police for breaking Taliban laws on the length of beards and other issues.

The Sikhs said they had owned land in the Qalacha area of Kabul, in the shadows of the ancient Bala Hisar fortress, for more than 120 years, but waves of returning Afghan refugees had built on the land and were now stopping them performing religious rites.

Muslims regard the cremation of the dead as a sacrilege.

“We have owned this land for more than 120 years to perform our sacrements, but it is the first time we were stopped and beaten by the people,” said Autaar Singh.

“Even the Taliban did not oppress us as we are oppressed by the people and government right now.”

Having placed the coffin in the back of an estate car and squeezed into two buses, the Sikh protesters arrived at their temple escorted by several dozen armed police.

A small crowd of Muslim men looked on warily as the Sikhs carried the coffin, draped in a silver cloth, inside the temple compound where they built a funeral pyre.

Prayers were chanted as the body of the dead man was placed in the centre and covered with more wood and set alight.

Bemused Afghan police took pictures with their mobile phones.

Sikh leaders thanked the police.

“We are grateful to the authorities who helped us burn our dead on our land,” Autaar Singh said.

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Kabul Sikh cremation goes ahead

Source – BBC – 09/17/2007

A group of local Sikhs have been allowed to carry out a cremation in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

The authorities intervened after Muslims in the Old City stopped Sikhs burning a body at their traditional cremation site in the Qalacha area.

Sikh mourners carried the body to the presidential palace and UN headquarters until the chief of police escorted them back and the cremation went ahead.

Muslims near the site had complained about the smell from funeral pyres.

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International Religious Freedom Report 2007
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution proclaims that “followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law.” However, it also states that Islam is the “religion of the state” and that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” The right to religious freedom was not respected in practice. Years of Taliban rule and weak democratic institutions have contributed to intolerance manifested in acts of harassment and violence against reform-minded Muslims and religious minorities.

Still recovering from 25 years of violence and suffering from an ongoing insurgency, the country is slowly moving toward greater stability and democracy. Since 2004, the country has held democratic presidential, parliamentary, and provincial council elections. In April 2006 President Hamid Karzai nominated a second Cabinet, and by the end of 2006, a Supreme Court. Efforts to reform the judiciary were underway with assistance from the U.S. and the international community. The Government took limited steps to increase religious freedom. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized some seminars for religious leaders to promote religious tolerance and moderate views versus strict interpretations of Shari’a on women’s issues.

Despite reform efforts, there was an increase in the number of reports of problems involving religious freedom compared to previous years. Several high-profile cases involving religious freedom sparked demonstrations in major cities during the period covered by this report. Condemnations of conversions from Islam and censorship increased concerns about citizens’ ability to freely practice minority religions.

The country’s population is nearly entirely Muslim. Non-Muslim minority groups faced incidents of discrimination and persecution. Conversion is understood by many citizens to contravene the tenets of Islam and Shari’a. Due to societal pressure, most local Christians hid their religion from their neighbors and others. As a result, little information was available about this community or the challenges it faced. The local Sikh and Hindu populations, although allowed to practice publicly, continued to face problems obtaining land for cremation purposes and faced discrimination when seeking government jobs as well as harassment during major celebrations. Within the Muslim population, relations among the different sects of Islam continued to be difficult. Historically, the minority Shi’a community has faced discrimination from the majority Sunni population. This discrimination continued to exist.

The U.S. Government regularly discusses religious freedom issues with government officials as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. The U.S. Embassy continued to send political, civil society, and religious leaders to programs in the United States.

The Embassy also advocated for the Hindu and Sikh community in their efforts to obtain land for cremation. Land was assigned, and the Embassy continued to work to finalize the agreement, which as of the end of the reporting period, had still not been signed. Together with the international community, the U.S. Government expressed concern at the treatment of local converts to Christianity.

Some Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) provided assistance through the U.S. Military’s Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP) to build madrassahs, or religious schools, for local communities. During the reporting period, the U.S. military completed projects to repair, refurbish, or provide supplies and equipment to 35 mosques around the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 402,356 square miles and a population of 31 million. Reliable data on religious demography is not available because an official nationwide census has not been conducted in decades. Observers estimate that 80 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim; 19 percent is Shi’a Muslim; and other religious groups make up less than 1 percent of the population. There is a small, hidden Christian community; there are no reliable figures on its size, but estimates range from 500 to 8,000. There are roughly 3,000 Sikh and Hindu believers and more than 400 Afghans who are followers of the Baha’i faith. In addition, there are small numbers of adherents of other religious groups, mostly Buddhist foreigners.

Traditionally, the dominant religion has been the sect of Sunni Islam that follows the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. For the last 200 years, Sunnis often have looked to the example of the Darul Uloom madrassah located in Deoband near Delhi, India. The Deobandi school has long sought to purify Islam by discarding supposedly un-Islamic accretions to the faith and reemphasizing the models that it believes were established in the Qur’an and the customary practices of Muhammad. Additionally, Deobandi scholars often have opposed what they perceive as Western influences. Much of the population in Afghanistan adhered to Deobandi-influenced Hanafi Sunnism, but a sizable minority adhered to a more mystical version of Islam, generally known as Sufism. Sufism centers on orders or brotherhoods that follow charismatic religious leaders.

Members of the same religious group have traditionally concentrated in certain regions. Sunni Muslim Pashtuns centered around the city of Kandahar and dominated the south and east of the country. The homeland of the Shi’a Hazaras was in the Hazarajat, the mountainous central highlands around Bamyan. Northeastern provinces traditionally have had Ismaili populations. Other areas, including Kabul, the capital, were more heterogeneous and included large Sunni, Shi’a, Hindu, Sikh and Baha’i populations. Similarly, the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif included a mix of Sunnis (including ethnic Pashtuns, Turkmen, Uzbeks, and Tajiks) and Shi’a (Hazaras and Qizilbash), including Shi’a Ismailis.

In the past, small communities of Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Christians lived in the country; however, most members of these communities emigrated during the years of civil war and Taliban rule. Even at their peak, these non-Muslim minorities constituted less than one percent of the population. Most of the small Hindu and Sikh populations, which once numbered approximately 50,000 persons, took refuge abroad during the many years of conflict; however, there is a small population of native-Afghan Hindus and Sikhs that never left. In total, non-Muslims, including Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is and Jews, were estimated to number in the hundreds at the end of Taliban rule. Since the fall of the Taliban a number of religious minorities have returned.

During the reporting period, there were approximately 3,000 Sikhs and Hindus living in the country. There are seven gurdwaras, Sikh places of worship, in Kabul, where worshippers generally were free to visit, and few threats were reported. The Hindu population, which is less distinguishable than the Sikh population whose men wear a particular headdress, faced little harassment. There were approximately six Hindu temples in four cities. An additional eighteen were destroyed during the many years of war. There is one Christian church and one synagogue. Some who converted to Christianity as refugees have returned. Others may have been born abroad into other religious groups. The Baha’i faith has had followers in Afghanistan for approximately 150 years. The community is predominantly based in Kabul, where more than 300 Baha’i members live, but another 100 are said to live in other parts of Afghanistan.

There were some missionary groups working in the country. While proselytizing was not technically illegal, those that actively proselytized did so in secret to avoid harassment or arrest by local officials.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

Efforts continued to update the existing criminal and civil legal codes to bring them in line with the country’s international treaty obligations. Full and effective enforcement of the Constitution is an ongoing challenge due to the lack of a strong tradition of reliance on state judicial institutions.

The Constitution was ratified in January 2004. The Constitution declares Islam to be the official “religion of the state,” stating that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam,” and that, “the provisions of adherence to the fundamentals of the sacred religion of Islam and the regime of the Islamic Republic cannot be amended.” Followers of other religions are “free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law.”

Interpretation of the Constitution on matters of religion has proved difficult, as the Constitution also includes the mandate to abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and obliges the state to “create a prosperous and progressive society based on social justice, protection of human dignity, protection of human rights, realization of democracy, and to ensure national unity and equality among all ethnic groups and tribes.” For issues on which the Constitution and penal code are silent (such as conversion and blasphemy), the courts defer to Shari’a law – interpretations of which often come into conflict with the mandate to abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Societal disputes are often resolved by informal judicial committees, “shuras,” comprised of tribal and religious leaders often with no formal legal training based on interpretations of Shari’a law. Some estimates suggested that 80 percent of all civil and criminal cases went through shuras. This left many vulnerable to violation of their legal rights, as customary shuras or “jirgas” did not adhere to the constitutional rights of citizens and often violated the rights of religious minorities.

Article 34 of the Constitution protects freedom of expression and of the press. Amendments to the Afghan Mass Media Law, approved by the Lower House of the Afghan Parliament on May 22, 2007, included both positive and negative changes with respect to religious freedom. In the current version of the draft law, which still has to be approved by the Upper House and signed by President Karzai, Article 45(1) prohibits the publication by the mass media of any materials that are contrary to the “principles and provisions” of the Islamic Religion, and Article 45(2) prohibits the publication by the mass media of materials that are offensive to other religions. Article 45(6) states that the mass media shall be prohibited from printing, airing, broadcasting, or otherwise disseminating materials (articles, programs, etc.) that publicize or promote any religion other than Islam. This formalizes in Afghanistan’s written law a prohibition on the use of mass media to attempt to convert others to religions (other than Islam). Regardless, any attempt to convert a Muslim to another religion is already illegal in Afghanistan under Islamic law, whether through the mass media or otherwise.

The ambiguity surrounding what constitutes offensive material offers the potential for abuse of this clause to restrict press freedom and intimidate journalists. These rules also apply to non-Muslims and foreign-owned media outlets.

The amended Media Law instructs National Radio and Television Afghanistan, the state-run media outlet, to provide balanced broadcasting that respects the culture, language, and religious beliefs of all ethnic groups in Afghanistan.

In May 2007 the Upper House of Parliament passed a draft resolution on reconciliation. The resolution must go to the Lower House and be signed by President Karzai before becoming law. One of the clauses calls for the “censoring and prevention of broadcast of commonplace films and TV programs that are aimed against the ideology, customs, and Afghan culture, and which cause damage to the feelings of our people.” The draft resolution also called for, “more Islamic religious programs on TV, which is expected to be effective in bringing the people and government close to each other.” It also calls for the Afghan government to enroll Afghan Taliban who are studying religious subjects in Pakistani madrassas into Afghan madrassas, presumably as an attempt to dissuade them from fundamentalist religious beliefs that advocate attacks against the Afghan government.

Proselytism was practiced discreetly. There are no laws forbidding the practice, even though it is viewed by authorities and society as contrary to the beliefs of Islam. There were unconfirmed reports of attempts to arrest Afghan Christians involved in proselytism. Foreigners caught proselytizing were deported. The Government worked on revising the penal code to bring it in line with international standards during the reporting period. Blasphemy is a capital crime, and authorities could punish blasphemy with death, if committed by a male over age 18 or a female over age 16, who is of sound mind. Those accused of blasphemy are given three days to recant their actions and could otherwise face death by hanging.

Conversion from Islam is considered apostasy and is punishable by death under some interpretations of Shari’a. As in the case of blasphemy, an Afghan citizen who has converted from Islam (if a male over age 18 or a female over age 16, who is of sound mind) has three days to recant his or her conversion and is otherwise subject to death by hanging.

In May 2007 the General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts under the Supreme Court issued a ruling on the status of the Baha’i faith, declaring it to be distinct from Islam and a form of blasphemy. The ruling also declared all Muslims who convert to Baha’i to be apostates and all followers of the Baha’i faith to be infidels. The text of the ruling reads, “Islamic scholars have issued a fatwa [religious announcement] against the Baha’i faith, declaring it to be separate from the religion of Islam and a form of blasphemy. If any Muslim follows the Baha’i faith, he is considered an apostate. In consideration of the themes written in the books The Baha’i Religion and The Kingdom of Heaven’s Message — the famous books of the Baha’i religion — the Islamic scholars of the Fatwa Directorate of the Supreme Court have issued a fatwa declaring Bab Mirza Mohammad Ali and Baha’i Mirza Hussein Ali (founders of the Baha’i faith who have claimed to be Mehdi or Imam Zaman of the last days and messengers of God) and their followers to be apostates. This ruling is supported by writings from other Islamic scholars, which have declared Bab Mirza Mohammad Ali and Baha’i Mirza Hussein Ali and their followers to be apostates.”

The ruling appears to have resulted from an Ulama Council’s investigation into where the Baha’i faith stands vis-à-vis Islam. The Ulama Council that issued the ruling deemed that the Baha’i faith and its followers would be treated similarly to Christians and Jews in the country. While the ruling is unlikely to affect foreign-national Baha’is in Afghanistan, it could potentially create problems for the country’s small Afghan Baha’i population, particularly on the question of marriage. Many Afghan Baha’is are married to Afghan Muslims, but the ruling could be used by courts to invalidate marriages between Baha’is and Muslims. This would create a noteworthy distinction between how the courts view the Baha’i faith vis-à-vis Christianity and Judaism, as Jewish and Christian women (but not Baha’i women) can be legally married to Muslim men. (Muslim women can only be married to Muslim men.) Afghan citizens who convert from Islam to the Baha’i faith face a risk of persecution, similar to that of Christian converts. It remains to be seen how the government will treat second-generation Baha’is who technically have not converted, as they were born into families of Baha’i followers, but may still be viewed as having committed blasphemy.

Prior to the drafting of the Constitution, some conservative elements advocated that the Constitution should favor the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence associated with the Sunnis over the Jafari school used by the Shi’as. These elements also called for the primacy of Shari’a in the legal system; however, the Constitution does not grant preferential status to the Hanafi school, nor does it make specific reference to Shari’a. The Constitution also grants that Shi’a law would be applied in cases dealing with personal matters involving Shi’as; there is no separate law applying to non-Muslims.

The Constitution requires that the President and Vice President be Muslim and does not distinguish in this respect between Sunnis and Shi’as. This requirement is not explicitly applied to government ministers, but the oath required of ministers suggests adherence to the Islamic faith. The Constitution has no religious requirement for Members of Parliament.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) conducted national consultations on transitional justice, promoted reconciliation at civil society gatherings, and through various media, continued to receive reports of abuses from citizens. In December 2005 President Karzai approved a Transitional Justice Action Plan which was adopted by the cabinet by the end of the year. In 2003 the Ministry of Interior established a Human Rights Department to investigate abuses, and this department designated two officers responsible for human rights compliance in each province. During the reporting period, all provincial police departments had human rights officers to investigate abuses.

In August 2006 the government announced it was considering establishing a Department for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue within the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Under the Taliban an entity with the same name was a much feared organization known for its extensive abuse of women and religious minorities. The proposal to establish a Vice and Virtue Department would require a presidential decree, and at the end of the reporting period, it rested in the President’s office.

The Minister of Hajj and Endowment stated that the proposed Department’s mandate would be similar to that of parallel ministries in other Islamic countries – to educate people in order to discourage actions inconsistent with Islamic principles – rather than the mandate observed under the Taliban.

A de facto local “morals and rules commission” was established in Khost Province during Ramadan (September – October 2006). It arrested individuals for selling alcohol to Muslims, possessing and selling pornography, and displaying “other improper ethics.” Minister Shahrani, the Minister of Hajj and Endowment, stated that this local Vice and Virtue Department was not connected to the Ministry in Kabul. Khost Governor Jamal stated that the commission was temporary, with a limited mandate during Ramadan to enforce existing laws.

Chapter 18 of the Penal Code of 1976 (Penal Code) addresses “Crimes Against Religions,” although it does not address blasphemous remarks. Article 347 of the Penal Code says that (a) people who forcefully stop the conduct or rites of religious rituals and (b) people who destroy or damage permitted places of worship where religious rituals are conducted or who destroy or damage any sign or symbol of any religion, shall be subject to a medium-term prison sentence and/or a cash fine of between 12,000 and 60,000 Afghanis ($240 – $1200). There is nothing in the Penal Code related to the spoken or written utterance of insults or profanity against God, or religion or sacred symbols, books, etc.

Only Islamic holy days are celebrated as public holidays. There were no reports that Muslim holidays negatively affected other religious groups. The Shi’a community openly celebrated the birthday of Imam Ali, one of the most revered figures in the Shi’a tradition. In past years, the Shi’a holiday of Ashura, during which Shi’a Muslims hold religious parades in local streets, has triggered violence in the cities of Kabul and Herat. However, observations of Ashura in January 2007 were overwhelmingly peaceful.

The licensing and registration of religious groups is not required.

Both Sunnis and Shi’as were permitted to go on the Hajj, and there was no quota system for those from either group. Participants were selected by lottery.

The components of the educational system that survived more than twenty-five years of war place considerable emphasis on religion. The Constitution states that, “The state shall devise and implement a unified educational curriculum based on the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam, national culture, and in accordance with academic principles, and develops the curriculum of religious subjects on the basis of the Islamic sects existing in Afghanistan.” During the reporting period, the public school curriculum included Islamic content but no content from other religious groups.

The Government announced in April 2007 that it would begin setting up its own madrassahs in order to counter the influence of extremist elements operating in the countryside. The Ministry of Education considers it the Government’s responsibility to offer a tolerant and modern Islamic education for young Afghans, as many parents want religious schooling for their children. These schools plan to offer an alternative to the Taliban’s use of education as a weapon of terrorism. The first schools are scheduled to be established during the spring and summer of 2007, with a new madrassah to eventually open in each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The planned schools will accommodate up to 50,000 children, and offer 40 percent religious education, 40 percent general education, and 20 percent computer science and foreign languages.

There was no restriction on parental religious teaching. The national curriculum and textbooks that emphasize moderate Islamic terms and principles steadily replaced the preaching of jihad in schools. By the end of the period covered by this report, all schools in Kabul and in 15 of the 34 provinces, mostly surrounding the capital, were using the new texts. The Ministry of Education began introducing human rights as a subject in the national school curriculum at the beginning of the school year in 2003 and extended it nationwide in 2004.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

There was no information available concerning restrictions on the general training of clergy. The government paid officially registered mullahs, but only a small number of the country’s active mullahs are registered, as the government’s registration program is a new initiative.

As discussed above, under Islamic law, conversion from Islam is punishable by death.

Immigrants and non-citizens were free to practice their own religions. In Kabul 200 to 300 expatriates met regularly at Christian worship services held in private locations due to the existence of only one Christian church in the country. This church, located within the diplomatic enclave, was not open to local nationals. Buddhist foreigners were free to practice in temples established for the Buddhist immigrant community.

Since the fall of the Taliban, no political parties (other than the Taliban) have been officially banned for religious reasons. The Constitution allows for political parties provided that “the program and charter of the party are not contrary to the principles of sacred religion of Islam.” Political parties based on ethnicity, language, Islamic school of thought, and religion are not allowed.

There were an unknown number of foreign missionaries in the country who worked discreetly to avoid harassment. There were no overt foreign missionaries or other non-Islamic religiously oriented organizations in the country. Proselytism was practiced discreetly, since it is viewed as contrary to the beliefs of Islam. During the period covered by this report, there were a few minor incidents involving individuals attempting to proselytize.

There were reports of local government officials prohibiting music, movies, and television on religious grounds. The cable television audience in urban centers continued to expand, and unlike in previous years, televisions, radios, and other electronic goods were sold freely, and music was played widely. Kabul continued to have five radio stations, including the official Radio Kabul. Private media outlets were publicly criticized by government officials for broadcasting material that was “un-Islamic” such as footage of women dancing in music videos or live musical performances; however, Bollywood soap operas, which show women with their heads uncovered, remain the most popular programs on TV. The most recent result of this public debate on appropriate material for TV programming was the Media Law, discussed above, which included a significant increase in language mandating that media activity must be in accordance with the principals of Islam.

Nongovernmental radio stations broadcast a mix of Afghan, Indian, Pakistani, and Western music. Approximately 90 percent of the country’s inhabitants reported some access to radio. The stations had no religious content other than brief prayers and Qur’an readings on the government-controlled radio station.

The Government does not designate religion on national identity cards and does not require individuals to declare a belief in Islam in order to receive citizenship. However, the state, including the courts, traditionally considers all citizens to be Muslim; therefore, some basic citizenship rights of non-Muslims were not respected.

The Government provided limited funding or assistance for Sikh schools. The Sikh community chose to send its children to its own schools because of reported abuse and harassment in government-run schools. In July 2007 the Ministry of Education opened a school for Sikh and Hindu children in Ghazni province. A Sikh school in Kabul has been privately run with no assistance from the government for several years and reported having only one full-time teacher for 120 students. There were no Christian or Jewish schools in the country.

The Government provides free electricity to the country’s mosques. The Sikh and Hindu community are lobbying the Government to provide free electricity to their temples and gurdwaras as well.

In family disputes, courts continue to rely on a civil code that is based on the Sunni Hanafi school, regardless of whether the parties involved are Shi’a or Sunni. The civil code also applies to non-Muslims. In response to questions about marriage, the chief judge of the family court issued guidelines in accordance with the court’s interpretation of Shari’a law. Most restrictive is the rule on marriage between non-Muslims, which stipulates that whether born in the country or elsewhere non-Muslims do not have the right to marry. According to government officials, the court nevertheless considers all citizens to be Muslims by default and therefore non-Muslim Afghans can be married as long as they do not publicly acknowledge their non-Muslim beliefs. In addition, the judges stated that a Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman, but if she is not “of the book,” including Christian or Jewish, she must first convert. A Muslim woman, however, is not allowed to marry a non-Muslim man.

While there is currently one Hindu member of the Upper House of Parliament, he was appointed directly by President Karzai. The Hindu and Sikh communities have been lobbying to have one seat each designated for a Hindu and a Sikh representative in Parliament. They point out that ten seats have been reserved for ethnic minorities from the Kuchi community, and that their community should also have reserved representation. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities report being discriminated against when seeking jobs with the local and national government.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

Sporadic violations of religious freedom by some officials occurred.

On April 9, 2007, police arrested an Afghan citizen who was born a member of the Baha’i faith, after his religious beliefs were exposed to authorities by his wife. After inquiries from the international community, authorities released the man on May 11, 2007. He had spent 31 days in jail without any charges. According to the Penal Code, authorities can jail a person for only up to 15 days without charges. Should authorities need more time to investigate a case, the courts may grant an extension of up to 15 days more. In this particular case, however, no such extension was requested or granted. Upon his release from jail, the man fled to another country along with other family members, one of whom feared police would try to detain him for his role in helping to seek the man’s release from jail. The man’s wife, who is Muslim, is seeking a divorce based on grounds that marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man is not legal in Afghanistan.

The March 2006 case of Abdul Rahman, an Afghan citizen who converted to Christianity, highlighted the extreme cultural sensitivities surrounding religious freedom in Afghanistan. As conversion is not prohibited by the Afghan constitution or penal code, the Afghan legal system defers to Shari’a law – conservative interpretations of which deem conversion to be punishable by death. Rahman was detained in March 2006 for professing his conversion to Christianity and refusing to recant it. He was eventually released based on findings of mental instability and granted asylum in Italy. However, the issue ignited a passionate debate throughout the country. Conservative religious clerics organized a demonstration of more than 700 protestors in Mazar-e-Sharif calling for Rahman’s death and denouncing international involvement in the case. The Afghan Parliament objected to the fact that Rahman was whisked out of the country before standing trial and harshly criticized the international community’s role in what it characterized as an internal matter.

According to a September 11, 2006, report by the UN Secretary General, following the highly publicized case of Abdul Rahman in March 2006, there have been three similar cases of harassment of Afghan Christians. In two of the cases, Afghan families in which some members had converted to Christianity reported being harassed in their community and eventually decided to leave the country. In a third case, a Christian convert was jailed on unrelated allegations of homicide. While in jail, another inmate who came to know of his religious beliefs killed him.

In August 2006, more than 1,000 members of a South Korean Christian aid group tried to organize a 3-day peace festival in several cities around Afghanistan. Many were expelled from the country after Islamic clerics accused them of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. Officials in Kabul reported that the South Korean Christians who arrived for the peace festival were warned not to “preach religion.” But the officials stated some group members ignored the warnings and were seen trying to convert Muslims. Group members who subsequently arrived at Kabul Airport were refused entry visas and turned back by customs officials. Those already in Kabul were confined to their guest houses. Under the terms of their tourist visas, local officials allowed them to leave the guest houses only in small groups to get food and supplies. Afghan authorities eventually expelled the remaining members from Afghanistan because their safety could not be guaranteed. The Government of Afghanistan maintains that its restrictions on the group were an effort to protect their safety and in response to a fear that their peace festival would have provoked societal violence throughout the country.

In October 2005 Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, a journalist and editor of a women’s rights magazine, was sentenced to two years in prison by a tribunal for blasphemy for reprinting and commenting on two articles which questioned the harsh punishment imposed on women accused of adultery and theft under traditional Islamic law. He also advocated that conversion from Islam should not be considered a crime. After being tried in court, his sentence was reduced to six months on appeal. Half of this time was suspended, and Nasab was released in December 2005.

In May 2005 two students were suspended for a year from Herat University for commenting on Islam during a religious debate in ways that classmates and a teacher found blasphemous. The AIHRC reported that the two students were reinstated at the university and all charges against them suspended. Following the arrests, the students were released from jail and housed, for security purposes, at various safe houses.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no confirmed reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States. However, the Hindu community reported that in late 2006, two Hindu women were abducted and their families were told the women had converted to Islam and chosen to marry Muslim men. The families were not allowed contact with the girls to confirm the story, and believe that if true, the women were forced to convert and marry.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were reported abuses targeted at specific religious groups by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report. Terrorist organizations attacked, and in some cases killed, several Muslim clerics for supporting the Government or for stating that activities conducted by terrorist organizations were against the tenets of Islam. There were also attacks on both Muslim and non-Muslim employees of international organizations, but it is unclear whether these attacks were politically or religiously motivated.

Attacks by al-Qa’ida and Taliban networks continued during the reporting period. In a repeat of previous years, several killings of religious leaders and attacks on mosques were attributed to al-Qa’ida and Taliban members who objected to their victims’ links with the Karzai administration and to their particular interpretations of Islam. Throughout 2006, antigovernment elements killed more than a dozen clerics in Kandahar and 20 nationwide. These attacks also injured 40 other religious officials. In September 2006, a suicide bomber detonated himself outside a mosque in Kandahar. These attacks were perceived by the public to be an attack on the Government and not on Islam.

Throughout 2006, numerous schools were attacked. While some claim schools allegedly connected with Christian groups were targeted by the Taliban, most schools attacked did not have an overt religious affiliation and were attended predominantly by Muslim children. Political motivations appeared to be the primary impetus behind these attacks. By early 2007 the number of school attacks began to decrease significantly, as insurgents realized such attacks lead to waning support from the Afghan public.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

The Government continued to stress reconciliation and cooperation among all citizens. Although it primarily was concerned with reconciliation of former Taliban combatants, it also expressed concern about religious intolerance. The Government responded positively to international approaches on human rights, including religious freedom, and worked effectively. The Government continued to indirectly emphasize ethnic and intrafaith reconciliation through the support of the judicial, Constitutional, and human rights commissions composed of members of different ethnic and Muslim religious (Sunni and Shi’a) groups. The Constitutional Commission also included a Hindu member to represent non-Muslim religious minorities. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Hajj also worked together to give women the opportunity to attend mosques. While women have always had the right to attend mosques, separate areas had to be designated for them. The new initiative provided for such spaces in larger mosques where room was available. During the reporting period, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized seminars for religious leaders to promote moderate views about the role of women in Islam. Approximately 20 religious leaders attended the seminars, which sparked continued discussion on the topic.

Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination

Relations between the different branches of Islam continued to be difficult. Historically, the minority Shi’a faced discrimination from the Sunni population. However, since Shi’a representation has increased in government, there was a decrease in hostility from Sunnis. Most Shi’a were members of the Hazara ethnic group, which traditionally has been segregated from the rest of society for a combination of political, ethnic, and religious reasons. Throughout the country’s history, there have been many examples of conflicts between the Hazaras and other citizens. The Hazaras accused the Afghan government, led by a Pashtun President, of providing preferential treatment to Pashtuns and of ignoring minorities, especially Hazaras. Hazaras have reported being asked to pay additional bribes at Afghan border crossings where Pashtuns were allowed to pass freely. These conflicts often have had economic and political roots but also have religious dimensions. The government has made some public overtures to quell historical tensions affecting the Hazara community. In January 2007 it banned the Bollywood film Kabul Express, in which actors spoke several lines that were offensive to Afghanistan’s Hazara community, characterizing the film as “anti-Afghan.”

The treatment of the Shi’a community varied by locality. Although some discrimination continued at the local level, Shi’a generally were free to participate fully in public life. The rigid policies adopted both by the Taliban and by certain opposition groups adversely affected adherents of other branches of Islam and other religious groups. The active persecution of the Shi’a minority, including Ismailis, which existed under the Taliban regime has ended.

According to a recent UNHCR report, while Ismailis were not generally targeted or seriously discriminated against, they continued to be exposed to risks. In years past, local commanders in Baghlan province occupied or confiscated and then sold Ismaili land, and Ismailis were unable to reclaim their property. The Baghlan provincial court and other provincial authorities refused to dispense justice for Ismailis in land-related cases. Ismailis faced illegal taxation and extortion by local commanders. In Tala-wa-Barfak District, cases of rape of Ismaili women have been reported, with perpetrators acting with impunity.

According to the AIHRC, during the reporting period an Ismaili woman willingly married a follower of Hanafi Islam in a small village in Badakhshan province. While the bride’s immediate family approved of the marriage, extended family and other villagers in the predominantly Ismaili region did not approve and eventually ousted the couple from the area.

Non-Muslim minorities such as Sikhs, Hindus, and Christians continued to face social discrimination and harassment and, in some cases, violence. This treatment was not systematic, but the Government did little to improve conditions during this reporting period. For example, in the spring of 2006, there was an explosion outside of a Sikh gurdwara in Jalalabad.

In May 2007 the Sikh-Hindu community alleged that it was still working with the Kabul Municipality to resolve land titling problems. The community claims land rights to an area of Kabul that once held a large Sikh-Hindu community; however, the Government claims this land is owned by the government and that no one has residential privileges there.

Some Sikh and Hindu children were unable to attend government schools due to harassment from teachers and students. The Government took limited steps to protect these children and reintegrate them into the classroom environment. For example, during the reporting period, the Government opened the first-ever government-sponsored school for Sikh and Hindu children in Ghazni. The AIHRC reported that members of the Hindu community in Kandahar City reported discrimination in schools and asked the local government to build a separate school for Sikh and Hindu children. This request was not met. There were no reports of discrimination toward Christians in schools.

After the fall of the Taliban, there continued to be episodic reports of persons at the local level using coercion to enforce social and religious conformity. During the reporting period, moderates in the Government opposed attempts by conservative elements to enforce rules regarding social and religious practices based on their interpretation of Islamic law.

When in public, most women in rural areas wear a garment called a burqa, which covers their full body and face, including the eyes, when in public. Since the fall of the Taliban, many women in urban areas no longer wear the burqa, however, a majority continued to wear some form of head covering either by choice or community pressure. Urban women generally did not wear burqas before the Taliban imposed this practice.

In contrast to previous years, there were no new reported cases of forced chastity examinations. However, local marriage traditions in which a newly-wed couple consummates their marriage on a white handkerchief which is later displayed as proof of the bride’s virginity until marriage remain popular throughout the country. Women run the risk of immediate divorce and social ostracism, severe punishment from her in-laws, or death, if her virginity is not confirmed through this ritual. There were no reports of examinations directed at non-Muslims. Local religious officials also confronted women over their attire and behavior.

In recent years, some mullahs – particularly those from the southeastern provinces – have declined to participate in USG visitors programs for fear of retribution by insurgents upon their return to Afghanistan.

Muslim clerics with political connections were also the target of violence.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with government officials as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

U.S. representatives met regularly with government officials and with religious and minority figures in an ongoing dialogue regarding the political, legal, religious, and human rights context of the country’s reconstruction. The United States worked with civil society organizations to promote religious tolerance.

The U.S. Embassy actively promoted professional and cultural ties between local citizens and the United States. The public affairs section coordinated a variety of exchange, speaker, artistic, and information programs to generate an exchange of ideas between Americans and local citizens on democracy and civil society, human rights, Islam in America, and other subjects. The United States funded travel by local journalists, academics, politicians, government officials, religious scholars, community leaders, women, youth, and NGO officials to engage with their counterparts in the United States.

The U.S. Embassy continued to send local mullahs to the United States to participate in programs on democracy, civil society and Islam in America. Since 2003, the U.S. Government funded visits to the United States for approximately 50 mullahs under a program on “Democracy and Civil Society.” The approximate cost of this program was $250,000 (12,575,000 Afghani). In July 2006 Afghan religious leaders attended a seminar in the U.S. on “The Role of Religious Leaders in a Democracy” sponsored by the U.S. Government.

In total, the U.S. military provided assistance to rehabilitate and equip 35 mosques during the period covered by this report.

U.S. Government officials supported efforts during the 2003 Constitutional Loya Jirga to include specific language in the draft Constitution to provide for equal rights for men and women and to incorporate moderate language on Islam.

The U.S. Government has also worked with civil society organizations to promote religious tolerance. During the reporting period, the U.S. Government provided funding for radio programming and training of community leaders on the theme of “Human Rights and Women’s Rights in the Context of Islam” that is developed and implemented by Equal Access. To date, more than 200 community leaders have been trained.

Released on September 14, 2007

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Source  – Rediff

September 13, 2007
There are 11,500 refugees in India and the role of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is to find a home for them.

Last week, two Iraqi families protested outside the UNHCR office in New Delhi because their cases for resettlement had not been submitted yet.

Nayana Bose, Associate External Relations Officer, UNHCR, tells Archana Masih that it would be incorrect to submit the Iraqis’ case ahead of other refugees. The agency states that those demonstrating, like other Iraqi refugees were vulnerable, but the UNHCR processed cases according to principles of fairness, need and capacity in a non-discriminatory way.

She also spoke about the refugee status in India and the global challenges in finding a home for those displaced from their own countries.

What solutions do you have for refugees from Iraq?

People who have come from Iraq — there is no question of going back. The same is for the Burmese. For them the solution is resettlement.

Resettlement is necessarily limited because it depends on each country. There are 16 countries that participate in UNHCR’s resettlement programme. From India it is 4 or 5, not all 16. Each country has a global quota. It is not a static number, it is not a fixed quota. We keep advocating with embassies here, we keep trying.

How many refugees are there globally?

Globally there are 9.5 million refugees and 45,000 get resettled annually. So there is a huge gap between the number of refugees and resettlement. Therefore, it is something we need to prioritise and how do we do that? All refugees are vulnerable, including the ones you met outside.

From India we submitted 1,000 cases for resettlement last year of the 11,500 — so it remains a limited option. A lot of it depends if countries increase their quota, then more people can be resettled.

What is the criteria for resettlement?

One of the criteria we use is people who have been here for a long time. There are people who have been here more than 10, 12, 15 years. For many of these long stayers, last time we were successful with New Zealand [Images]. They (New Zealand) have never taken Afghan refugees but using the criterion of protracted cases — that they have been refugees for 20 years plus, whose children have been born as refugees and how much longer is this population going to remain refugees. These kind of advocacy arguments were made and New Zealand gave 200 slots for Afghans. The last batch left in May this year.

What is the procedure for the resettlement of refugees?

Right now we are submitting Afghans, Somalis, Palestinians for resettlement. We have a protection panel in the office which looks at the vulnerable cases across the spectrum, not per nationality. These cases are referred to another set of officers for resettlement, who try and match the case with the countries because countries have their own criteria.

Our role is to submit cases, we don’t decide. If we submit a case to the US and they may well reject it then we have to submit to another embassy. Once the cases are submitted we call the refugees for another interview. Once they are accepted it almost takes a year because there are lots of formalities that need to be completed before they leave, including an exit permit.

The People Without A Country

The Iraqi family protesting outside says that 105 Palestinians who came from Iraq after them have been resettled, but the UNHCR is not hearing their case? Why is it so?

We have submitted 9 Palestinian cases.

The Iraqis outside have been refugees just for four months. They were recognised in April and May. There are procedures to be followed, given that resettlement is limited. It is not correct for us to prioritise them over people who have been waiting for much longer. Their demand is you submit our cases and want to be called in for an interview.

They say the Palestinians have been sent to various countries but not them, when they need resettlement urgently.

About the Palestinians — they were recognised much earlier and their cases that have been submitted haven’t be accepted so far. Palestinians from Iraq are a new caseload for us, they came in March 2006. We’ve never had this nationality before, there are around 200 people now. 153 were recognised as asylum seekers.

In our negotiations with embassies we have asked them to look at people who have been displaced from Iraq. As a test case, we have taken 9 very vulnerable families. Large families who are finding it difficult to cope, but not a single one has been accepted. Unless they get accepted there is no point in pushing others.

They (Iraqi families who were protesting) may have come to India last year but with the procedures, the interviews and so on, they were recognised as refugees only in April and May.

What is the procedure for a refugee after s/he approaches the UNHCR?

Once they approach UNHCR — they should get an interview date with the legal officer within 6-8 months. Once they register, there and then they are told that their interview date is so and so. After the interview — if the person is extremely vulnerable like a rape survivor etc, then we do have fast track dates.

After the interview, within a month, we commit to giving the result — whether they are recognised or not (as refugees) in their case (protesting Iraqis) they were all recognised. In case they are not recognised, then every asylum seeker has the right to appeal within one month. The second time a different officer will review the case and there have been cases where on the second time, they have been recognised. Therefore there is no time on how long the recognition process takes.

How many refugees are there in India?

Refugees under UNHCR’s mandate are 11,500. They are a mixture of Afghans, Burmese etc.

What solutions does UNHCR have for refugees?

There are three solutions for refugees worldwide — voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement.

Refugee status is meant to be a temporary phase in anyone’s life. It is our mandate to try and find solutions for them so that they don’t forever live as refugees.

Voluntary repatriation is when the refugee chooses to go back to his own country. In many ways this is thought of as the best solution because it means someone is going back to their own country, taking the protection of their own government again.

It also means that whatever reason they left — civil war or conflict or violence — that has ended and peace and stability have returned. The best example is Afghanistan — but not necessarily for India. Once the Hamid Karzai government came to power in 2002 — some three million Afghans from neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Iran, went back.

How many Afghan refugees have returned from India?

From India we’ve had close to 600 Afghans who have gone back — from 2002 till today.

Can refugees get Indian citizenship?

Local integration means naturalised citizenship but legally you still remain a refugee because you are not a national of this country and have the refugee tag. The Hindus and Sikhs from Afghanistan who came to India after the Taliban came to power are the bulk of our caseload here.

In that way it is unusual because when one thinks of Afghan refugees — you think of Hazaras, Pasthuns etc — the stereotypical image of the Afghan refugees but in India of the 9,200 Afghan refugees, 8,500 are Hindus and Sikhs.

These are interested in naturalised citizenship and more than a hundred have become Indian citizens and 4,000 have expressed an interest. Naturalisation is, of course, an individual process, you can’t apply as a family or a group of people. Our procedure and law is that you have to wait 12 years till you apply for Indian citizenship. Most of the Afghans who came here have actually finished that residency requirement because they came in 1991-1992, when the Taliban came to power.

Naturalisation is if they want it themselves. We can’t impose it upon them.

What financial help do refugees get from UNHCR?

All newly recognised refugees, including the ones outside get some financial help for the first six months. It depends on the family size. Rs 2,225 for the principal applicant and Rs 750 each for the dependents for the first six months.

After six months, the case will be reviewed because not every refugee gets this kind of an allowance. These people will get a lower allowance then because they don’t have a residential permit. Because they don’t have residential permit, we feel uneasy about pushing them in the informal market to work.

Thousands of refugees work in the informal market.

How many cases have you submitted recently for resettlement?

Last year we could submit 1,000 cases but in previous years it was less than 500. There is a gap between the number of refugees and the possibility of resettlement. Once the nine Palestinian cases are accepted, it will open the door for more cases. This year we want to submit more than 1,000 cases.

What solution is there for the Iraqis?

It depends on whether the Palestinian cases get accepted. Hence, we cannot give a time frame for the interview. When we get some success there, we can start calling the others displaced from Iraq for interviews, knowing that there’s a chance of getting accepted. It could be a year, longer or could be less. A lot depends on the negotiations with embassies and what countries globally are doing.

There are 12,000 refugees between Syria and Lebanon. They are in terrible conditions, living in camps where temperatures are 50 degrees and winds blow their tents away. People are looking at them first.

At the local level it comes to the UNHCR India office which is advocating that these are also vulnerable people who need a solution, please consider these cases along with the Afghans and the Burmese.

At the global level as well there is a collective effort because the numbers are not just here — there are 34 Iraqis here, remaining are Palestinians displaced from Iraq — 200 in all.

The numbers globally are 2 million — when the quota is 45,000 a year, where are the remaining going to go?

It is not fair to the thousands of refugees who are still looking for solutions. If we were to subvert the process by pushing the case of those who are demonstrating. We tell them we will submit your cases because we know you cannot go back to Iraq, you cannot resettle here but we cannot submit it ahead of everyone else.

What are the kinds of jobs refugees can get?

Many Burmese work in government factories, small electronic companies. Many Afghans have little shops, as salespeople because they have picked up the language. Some Afghans used to make their traditional rotis and sell them in Lajpat Nagar (an area in New Delhi).

Basically only Afghans and Burmese get a residential permit. Iranians, Iraqis, Somalis, Palestinians — around 400 of them don’t get these permits. They are welcome to go on their own but the office will not push them into the informal market.

What about refugees who may be highly qualified?

We normally don’t get very highly qualified, they are exceptions. The Palestinians who have come are highly educated but with them there is a massive language problem, so we have started English-Arabic classes.

Palestinians and Iraqis have come from an urban setting, they have skills that can replicate here. We have Palestinian women who are hairdressers etc. We are also advocating with the Ministry of External Affairs for residential permits for people displaced from Iraq.

What help is provided to them about finding accommodation, schools etc?

If they cannot find accommodation within reasonable limits, YMCA has a good idea about areas where the local community is okay about having them. One of the families had a problem with the landlord and the YMCA people went and met them and our staff called them and were told that the landlord’s family was coming and he was willing to extend it.

They should avail of creches, tuitions that we run. Government school forms have a section for refugees. In AIIMS there is a refugee counter that helps them because they may have a language problem. UNHCR would reimburse the cost of medicines/treatment (if any cost is incurred) for all refugees, if they go to a government hospital.

Most of the refugee kids go to school. YMCA also monitors if children are dropping out of school.

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