by Inés San Martín
ROME (Crux) — There are an estimated 200 Catholics in Afghanistan — a tiny minority within the minority of around 7,000 Christians — and days after the Taliban took control of the country following the withdrawal of U.S. troops, a papal charity is sounding the alarm over their situation.
Aid to the Church in Need said it sees “a black future for religious freedom” in Afghanistan.
Zabihullah Mujahid, spokesman for the Taliban, declared on Twitter that it’s now officially the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”
Thomas Heine-Geldern, executive president of the pontifical foundation, expressed profound concerns about the seizure of power in the Central Asian nation.
“During the rule of the previous Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban imposed a strict version of Sharia law nationwide,” he said. “We can expect that Sunni Islam will be the official religion, Sharia law will be reimposed, and hard-won freedoms for human rights, including a relative measure of religious freedom, over the last 20 years will be revoked.”
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001.
This concern is shared by the Vatican, which on Wednesday ran a cover story in its newspaper asking about the future of women in Afghanistan.
“Regardless of the reassurances of the insurgents, for the Afghan women this seems like the beginning of a new nightmare,” says the cover story of L’Osservatore Romano from Aug. 18. “When they led Afghanistan during the second half of the 1990s, the Taliban led the country to total darkness: Women were in fact, ‘canceled’ from society.’ And with the return of the Taliban, there’s a concrete risk that the most extremist version of Sharia, the qur’anic law, returns too.”
In its statement, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) highlights that it had predicted the deterioration of the situation in its recent Religious Freedom Report, published in April 2021. Afghanistan has always been among the countries that most violates religious liberty, as documented both by ACN and the U.S. State Department’s Religious Freedom Report.
Even before the Taliban took over on Sunday, the Afghani constitution established Islam as the state religion. According to the 2020 U.S. Religious Freedom Report, “conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy, punishable by death, imprisonment, or confiscation of property.”
Although there are no explicit restrictions on the ability of religious minorities to establish places of worship or train their clergy, in reality, options for them are limited, notes the 2021 report from ACN. Some foreign embassies provide places of worship for non-Afghans. The US-led military coalition has facilities where non-Muslim worship can take place.
There’s only one Catholic church in the country, and it’s technically on foreign soil, as it’s located within the Italian embassy.
Christianity is seen as a western religion and alien to Afghanistan, the ACN report notes, adding that the military presence by international forces has added to the general mistrust towards Christians, a situation that forces Afghan Christians to worship alone or in small groups in private homes.
Despite a constitutional provision guaranteeing religious tolerance, those who are openly Christian, or convert from Islam to Christianity, remain vulnerable.
The situation has grown steadily worse for the 0.01% of the Afghan people who are not Muslim — in addition to Christians, there are small groups of Hindus and Sikhs, as well as one Jew, who recently promised to remain in Afghanistan to protect the one synagogue.
“Our analysis, unfortunately, does not leave much room for hope,” says the statement released by ACN on Thursday. “All those who do not espouse the extreme Islamist views of the Taliban are at risk, even moderate Sunni. The Shia (10%), the small Christian community, and all other religious minorities, already under threat, will suffer even greater oppression. This is a huge setback for all human rights and especially for religious freedom in the country.”
The foundation also expressed regrets over the fact that a number of countries have already declared their sympathies for the new Emirate, which will not only legitimize the Taliban but also “embolden authoritarian regimes all over the world, particularly in the region, spurring increasing violation of religious freedom in their own countries.”
“International recognition of the Taliban will also act as a magnet for smaller radical Islamic groups, creating a new constellation of religious terrorist factions that could supplant historic formations such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State,” ACN warns. “Among others, areas of concern include Pakistan, Palestine, and the province of Idlib in Syria. The situation for Christians and other religious minority communities already suffering oppression will further deteriorate.”
The fact that most Western embassies are closing, and international observers are leaving, as they did in Syria in 2011, is not a good omen, the papal foundation added.