There is a logical reason Taliban forces have not been accused of destroying any churches in Afghanistan.
“Here’s the dirty little secret: there were no churches before the Taliban returned to power,” said Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and a 30-year human rights activist. “Christians were already underground because of the constant threats to their lives, so they didn’t have church buildings to blow up.”
Everyone remembers the shocking videos of desperate Afghans chasing a US military plane down an airstrip in Kabul and begging to be among the evacuees. At least two people fell to their deaths after clinging to a plane during takeoff.
Since then, there have been reports of the dangers faced by those left behind, particularly Afghans with ties to the US military, the ousted government, or workers in secular or religious non-profit groups who stayed behind to continue their humanitarian work.
Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Ahmadis, Shiites and members of other religious minorities also live in fear.
“They’re all on the run. They’re all hiding,” Shea said. “People are hunted down, beaten and threatened with death if they do not betray their family members, who are considered apostates,” the Taliban said.
It is impossible not to discuss religious freedom in this crisis, she added. “Everything the Taliban do revolves around religion. Religion is at play when they hang people for violating their stand on Islamic law, or when they attack women and girls who want to go to school. For the Taliban, it’s all connected.”
The problem is that concerns about religious freedom are often drowned out in debates about politics, economics, climate change and other issues in violent flashpoints around the world. Think of northern Nigeria, where Islamic State and Boko Haram continue to slaughter Christian farmers, or Hong Kong, where threats by the Communist Party against pro-democracy leaders like imprisoned Catholic media tycoon Jimmy Lai and retired Cardinal Joseph Zen are increasing.
Right now, it’s also impossible for global media to cover the Winter Olympics without discussing what the US government is calling China’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity” against Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region.
However, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has stressed that the State Department – in keeping with an earlier promise to “reject” the previous administration’s approach – will no longer insist that religious freedom issues be given special attention.
“Human rights are … equal. There is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others,” he said at a spring press conference. “If you cannot assemble peacefully, how can you form a union or an opposition party or exercise your freedom of religion or belief? If you are denied equal access to a job or an education because of your skin color or your gender identity, how can you achieve health and well-being for yourself and your family?”
However, during a US Senate hearing this week, Shea and other human rights activists urged Blinken to ask diplomats to consider religious freedom concerns when dealing with the frantic visa applications of thousands of people trapped or trying to enter Afghanistan to leave the grounds of the International Humanitarian City United Arab Emirates. That prepared statement noted that the UK’s all-party parliamentary group on freedom of religion has warned that the Taliban appear ready to commit genocide against believers in minority religions.
That coalition asked Blinken, “Specifically, will you grant a presumption of eligibility for entry into the United States based on proof of religious minority status, rather than the highly unrealistic existing requirement to obtain third-party testimony about personal threats?”
The reality now is that Afghanistan’s economy is collapsing, leading to hellish conditions that require attention. According to United Nations reports, half the population suffers from acute hunger, while 1 million children are at risk of dying of malnutrition. Devastating media reports have focused on parents selling children or their own kidneys for money to buy groceries.
Behind the scenes, life and death threats against religious minorities remain “a major problem in Afghanistan,” Shea said. “The sheer scale of what is happening is so horrific that it will be impossible to hide for long. … These religious freedom problems are real, and history shows us that they will not go away.”
Terry Mattingly runs GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.