Religious Freedom Deteriorated for Christians in Afghanistan Last Year, Says State Department

By Lambert Mbom | May 10, 2011 | 2:44pm EDT

Afghans wave banners saying “Quran is our law, Islam is our religion” during a protest in Kabul on Monday, Sept. 6, 2010. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)

( – While America continues its nearly 10-year-long war against terrorists in Afghanistan and continues to invest aid and resources there, the State Department’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report rates Afghanistan’s performance as poor in terms of religious freedom, with the situation deteriorating for Christians.

The report begins by stating 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.”

It further says, “Respect for religious freedom deteriorated during the reporting period, particularly for Christian groups and individuals. … There were cases of harassment, occasional violence, and inflammatory public statements … against religious minorities, particularly Christians, and Muslims who were perceived as not respecting Islamic strictures.”

“The lack of government responsiveness and protection for these groups and individuals contributed to the deterioration of religious freedom,” says the report.

Afghanistan is almost entirely Muslim with 80 percent of the population being Sunni Muslim, 19 percent Shi’a Muslim, and other religious groups comprising less than 1 percent, according to the State Department.

Although Islam is the official state religion in Afghanistan, the State Department report says that “followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law.”

However, “[b]asic citizenship rights of non-Muslims were not explicitly codified” and “only Islamic holy days are celebrated as public holidays.”

The legal framework shows that conversion from Islam contravenes the religion’s tenets and is considered apostasy punishable by death under some interpretations of Islamic law in the country.

“The criminal code does not define apostasy as a crime, and the constitution forbids punishment for any crime not defined in the criminal code,” reads the report. “However, the penal code states that egregious crimes, including apostasy, would be punished and converting from Islam to another religion was considered an egregious crime, and therefore fell under Islamic law.”

The Supreme Court ruled in May 2007 that the Baha'i Faith, for example, is a form of blasphemy and all Muslims who converted to the Baha'i Faith were apostates. Baha’i followers were declared infidels. Citizens who converted from Islam to the Baha'i faith faced risk of persecution, similar to that of Christian converts, up to and including the death penalty.

Afghan security force members stand outside the USAID compound in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan, on Friday, July 2, 2010 after it was stormed by militants wearing suicide vests. (AP Photo)

Blasphemy is a capital crime under some interpretations of Islamic law in Afghanistan and, according to such interpretations, an Islamic judge could punish blasphemy with death, if committed by a male over age 18 or a female over age 16 of sound mind.

According to government officials in Afghanistan, although the courts consider all citizens to be Muslims by default, in practice non-Muslims can be married as long as they do not publicly acknowledge their non-Muslim beliefs, reports the U.S. State Department.

In addition, the judges stated that a Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman, but the woman must first convert if she was not “of the book,” i.e., not Christian or Jewish. Moreover, a Muslim woman is not allowed to marry a non-Muslim man in Afghanistan.

"Full and effective enforcement of the 2004 constitution was a continued challenge due to its potentially contradictory commitments and the lack of a tradition of judicial review," said the State Department, adding that, “The government enforced existing legal restrictions on religious freedom selectively and in a discriminatory manner.”

“Within the Muslim population, relations among the different sects continued to be difficult,” reads the report. “Historically, the minority Shia’a faced discrimination from the majority Sunni population.”

Non-Muslim minorities such as Sikhs, Hindus, and Christians -- although allowed to practice their religion publicly -- reportedly continued to face social discrimination when seeking government jobs, harassment during major celebrations and intimidation and, in some cases, violence, the State Department reported.

Sikhs and Hindus, for example, have had a hard time getting land for cremation. As a consequence, it was reported that 30 families had left Afghanistan.

“This treatment was not systematic, but the government did nothing to improve conditions during the period under review,” said the State Department.

The report notes that, “Many authorities and most of society viewed proselytizing as contrary to the beliefs of Islam. There were unconfirmed reports of harassment of Christians thought to be involved in proselytizing.”

“Public opinion was openly hostile toward Afghan converts to Christianity, including proselytizing by Christian organizations and individuals,” read the report. “Public protests occurred in several provinces after inflammatory public statements made by members of parliament and television programming; one protest burned an effigy of Pope Benedict XVI; one protest demanded the closing of all churches (although none exist).”

Although the government provided free electricity to mosques, Hindu and Sikh communities do not receive such subsidies.  Also, the “media law prohibits publicizing and promoting religions other than Islam,” states the report.

“Many in the Sikh and Hindu communities did not send their children to public school because of reported abuse and harassment,” and there are  “no Christian schools in the country,” reads the report.

Religious groups were also reportedly abused by terrorist organizations and, as in previous years, killings of religious leaders and attacks on mosques were attributed to al-Qa'ida and Taliban members, reported the State Department.

From the outset of the war in October 2001 through April 2011, 1,475 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan.

At least 905 of these troops have been killed in Afghanistan since President Barack Obama was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2009. That equals more than 60 percent of the 1,475 total -- and more than one U.S. soldier per day.

U.S. troops are scheduled to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in July 2011, which U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the top-commander in Afghanistan, indicated in March is on track to occur.

The withdrawal process is expected to carry through to the end of 2014 when Afghan forces are expected to be in the lead, but not independent of U.S. forces.

MRC Store