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ON RELIGION By Terry Mattingly Afghanistan: Religious minorities on the run or in hiding

There’s a logical reason that Taliban forces have not been accused of destroying any churches in Afghanistan.

“That’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 human rights activist
for 30 years. “Christians were already underground because of the constant threats to their lives, so they didn’t have any church buildings to blow up.”

Everyone remembers
the shocking videos when desperate Afghans chased a U.S. military plane on a Kabul runway, pleading to be among those evacuated. At least two people fell to their deaths after clinging to a plane during takeoff.

Ever since, there have been reports about the dangers faced by those left behind, especially Afghans with ties to the U.S. military, the fallen government or workers in secular or religious nonprofit groups that remained behind to continue humanitarian work.

Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Ahmadis, Shia Muslims and members of other religious minorities are also living in fear.

“They are all on the run. They are all in hiding,” said Shea, reached by telephone. “People are being hunted down and beaten and are threatened with death if they don’t betray members of their families who are considered apostates” by the Taliban.

It’s impossible not to discuss religious freedom during this crisis, she added. “Everything the Taliban does is about religion. Religion is involved when they hang people for violating their approach to Islamic law or when they attack women and girls who want to go to school. For the Taliban, this is all connected.”

The problem is that religious freedom concerns are often drowned out during debates about politics, economics, climate change and other issues in violent flashpoints around the world. Consider northern Nigeria, where ISIS and Boko Haram continue to slaughter Christian farmers, or Hong Kong, where Communist Party threats are increasing against pro-democracy leaders, such as jailed Catholic media magnate Jimmy Lai and the retired Cardinal Joseph Zen.

Right now, it’s also impossible for global media to cover the Winter Olympics without discussing what the U.S. government has called China’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity” against the Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region. However, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has stressed that the State Department — fulfilling an earlier promise to “repudiate” the approach of the previous administration — will no longer insist that religious freedom issues receive special attention.

“Human rights are … co-equal. There is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others,” he said in a spring press briefing. “If you can’t assemble peacefully, how can you organize a union or an opposition party, or exercise your freedom of religion or belief? If you’re denied equal access to a job or an education because of the color of your skin or your gender identity, how can you attain health and well-being for yourself and your family?”

However, during a U.S. Senate hearing this week, Shea and other human rights activists urged Blinken to ask diplomats to consider religious freedom issues when addressing the frantic visa requests of thousands of people trapped in Afghanistan or trying to exit the International Humanitarian City compounds in the United Arab Emirates.

This prepared statement noted that the U.K.’s All- Party Parliamentary Group on religious freedom has warned that the Taliban appears ready to commit genocide against believers in minority religions.

This coalition asked Blinken: “Specifically, will you grant a presumption of eligibility for admission to the United States based on evidence of religious minority status, rather than the extremely unrealistic existing requirement of obtaining third-party testimony of personal threats?”

Meanwhile, the reality is that Afghanistan’s economy is collapsing, leading to hellish conditions that demand attention. United Nations reports claim that half the population faces acute hunger, while 1 million children are in danger of dying from malnutrition. Devastating media reports have focused on parents selling children, or their own kidneys, to obtain money for food.

Behind the scenes, the life- and-death threats against religious minorities remain “a huge issue in Afghanistan,” said Shea. “The sheer scale of what is happening is so terrible that it will be impossible to keep it hidden for long. … These religious freedom issues are real, and history shows us they are not going to go away.”

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