(RNS) — On Aug. 30, 2021, the last U.S. military planes left Afghanistan, marking the end of a 20-year U.S. military presence in the country after the 9/11 attacks. The withdrawal fulfilled President Joe Biden’s promise to remove all American troops, but the resulting political vacuum enabled the Taliban to gain complete control of the region with breathtaking speed.
Since the Taliban assumed full control, Afghanistan has slipped even more deeply into a humanitarian crisis, exacerbated by a tanking economy, skyrocketing poverty and widespread unemployment. “I really never expected to find it as bad and as awful as I did. It’s a very, very sad, unhappy, traumatized, depressed place,” Australian journalist Lynne O’Donnell recently told NBC News. After being detained in Kabul by Taliban intelligence officers, who forced her to send tweets recanting her reporting, O’Donnell recently fled the country.
Now, a year after the Taliban takeover, what is life in Afghanistan like, especially for Christians and other religious minorities? Put simply, it’s a hellscape. The Taliban’s ideology, and the system of government they’ve installed, solidifies their view that non-Muslims are disloyal enemies and infidels, which the Taliban use to justify killing and violence.
The Taliban began their rule last August going door to door, looking for Christian leaders, even as they told international observers that their new regime would be more moderate than 20 years ago. In fact, it’s only grown more impossible to live openly as a Christian in Afghanistan. Believers face dire consequences, including disownment, torture, being forcibly sent to a psychiatric hospital or even death.
No one knows for sure how many Christians are left there. While the Taliban claim no Christians live in the country, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom estimated the Christian population to be between 10,000 and 12,000 as of January. All Open Doors can confirm is that the small number of Christians in Afghanistan are forced to hide their faith or risk death.
The nation now tops Open Doors’ 2022 World Watch List, a data-driven annual ranking of the 50 countries where it’s most difficult to be a Christian, displacing North Korea, which has had the top spot for two decades.
Christians aren’t the only religious minorities who encounter incredible pressure and persecution in Afghanistan. The takeover has been devastating for the religious and personal liberties of all of the country’s estimated 40 million residents.
Between October 2020 and October 2021, according to a recent Open Doors report, thousands of people practicing non-Muslim faiths fled Afghanistan. A once thriving community of 250,000 Sikhs and Hindus has decreased to fewer than 300. Shiite Hazaras, who have been persecuted in the past by the Taliban, see signs that ethnic cleansing will once again resume. The only known Afghan Jew left the country in September 2021.
Dispensing with any form of their promised moderation, the Taliban have opted instead for an especially extreme version of Shariah, or Islamic law, “imposing punishments that have no comparison elsewhere in the Islamic world,” Anchal Vohra, a columnist for Foreign Policy, wrote last October.
Western-style haircuts and listening to music, which the Taliban regard as un-Islamic, are banned. Strict dress codes have been put in place for women, as well as work, education and travel restrictions. According to UNICEF figures, the Taliban have prevented 850,000 Afghan girls from attending secondary school, forcing some teens to attend school in secret.
But the treatment of Christians in Afghanistan is arguably even worse than other religious minorities. Unlike Hindus and Sikhs, the Taliban regard Christians as apostate Muslims. Historically, the Afghan criminal code has required that apostates should be punished according to Shariah by either imprisonment or execution.
As time passes, we cannot forget what’s happening in Afghanistan. We must continue to shine a spotlight on the evils perpetrated by Taliban, call on the governments of the United States and others to hold Afghanistan’s leaders accountable and pray for our brothers and sisters who are enduring incredible hardships for the sake of their faiths.
(David Curry is president and CEO of Open Doors USA, an organization that advocates on behalf of those who are persecuted for their Christian faith in the world’s most oppressive regions, empowering and equipping persecuted Christians in more than 60 countries by providing Bibles, training and programs to help those who have been marginalized for their faith. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)