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March 20, 2012

By Nina Shea

Source (Eurasia Review)

Today, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (Uscirf) released its 14th annual report, which it is mandated to do under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The report identifies the world’s worst persecutors and makes foreign-policy recommendations, which are non-binding, to the administration and Congress. Its decisions are based on the agency’s visits to foreign countries, and a wide array of other sources, including the State Department’ s own excellent annual compilation of worldwide religious-freedom violations. The commission is distinctive because it is an independent federal agency, and it is to make its name-and-shame lists and policy recommendations unburdened by foreign-policy considerations other than the defense of religious freedom.

I thought Afghanistan should be on the list as well and said so in my dissent, which is excerpted further down in this column.

I believe that Afghanistan, too, belongs in the ranks of the world’s worst religious persecutors. Apart from the depredations of the Taliban, Afghanistan’ s government under President Karzai fails to respect religious freedom, and its violations are egregious, ongoing, and systematic, thus meeting the statutory standard for CPC designation. The State Department’s recent religious-freedom report on Afghanistan found:

The government’s level of respect for religious freedom in law and in practice declined during the reporting period, particularly for Christian groups and individuals.

An example was the razing of that country’ s last remaining church after its 99-year lease was cancelled, as the State Department reported last September. This event did not draw the international protest that accompanied the Taliban’ s detonation of the Bamiyan Buddhist statues in 2001, but, with respect to the status of religious freedom, it is equally emblematic.

Afghanistan, therefore, has now joined the lonely company of hardline Saudi Arabia as a country with no churches. The millions of Christians in Afghanistan, including some very beleaguered and oft-jailed converts, must hide their faith and seek the protection and secrecy of walled embassy compounds to pray in community.

Furthermore, we learn from the State Department report that, in addition to Christians, particular “targets of discrimination and persecution” are Hindu and Sikh groups.

The one synagogue, located in Kabul, is shuttered because Jews dare not venture there.

The Uscirf report itself states:

Conditions for religious freedom are exceedingly poor for dissenting members of the majority faith and for minority religious communities. The Afghan constitution fails explicitly to protect the individual right to freedom of religion or belief and allows other fundamental rights to be superseded by ordinary legislation. It also contains a repugnancy clause stating that no law can be contrary to the tenets of Islam, which the government has interpreted to limit fundamental freedoms. Individuals who dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy regarding Islamic beliefs and practices are subject to legal action that violates international standards, for example prosecutions for religious crimes such as apostasy and blasphemy. In addition, the Afghan government remains unable, as well as at times unwilling, to protect citizens against violence and intimidation by the Taliban and other illegal armed groups.

The Afghan government’s slide into extreme intolerance accelerated this month when, at the behest of his senior Islamic advisers, President Karzai publicly backed their statement that women should not mingle with men in workplaces, schools or other areas of daily life, and should not travel without a male relative, according to a March 6 BBC report.

For anyone concerned about human rights and religious freedom, the Uscirf report is unsettling but important reading.

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