Religion, relief and risk in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON -- There are rumblings from western Afghanistan that the office for the "Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" is back.

That may not sound bad. But this is the network that enforced the Taliban's codes for clothing, grooming, family life, prayers and myriad other details of daily life. It used beatings, torture, imprisonment, discrimination and other forms of terror.

On the evening news, the Taliban is defeated and on the run. But the reality on the ground may be different. If the office for the "Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" is alive, the Taliban's heart is still beating.

"Significant numbers of former Taliban officials or supporters appear to be in the process of attaching themselves to the new power structures," according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. "Many elements of the victorious anti-Taliban forces also have past records of human rights abuse, including religious intolerance and restrictions of the rights of women."

Far from the diplomats and satellite dishes in Kabul, the Taliban's version of Sunni Islamic law may rule -- with summary public executions for murder, amputations for theft and stoning and lashing for adultery.

Nobody really knows. The commission thinks somebody needs to find out.

In a report this week to the White House and Congress, it urged the expansion of an international security presence beyond Kabul, with more attention focused on the actions of local commanders and tribal leaders. It is crucial -- since religion is at the root of this crisis -- that someone promptly be assigned to the Kabul embassy to defend religious liberty.

"If the United States government is not prepared to send such a person, our commission is," said commissioner Felice Gaer, of the American Jewish Committee.

Gaer repeated this pledge a half dozen times during one press briefing. The commission will decide on a course of action by the end of June.

It may seem strange to place such an emphasis on religious liberty for minorities in a land in which Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews and Christians may number only in the hundreds. But there also have been atrocities committed by the Sunni Muslims -- 85 percent of the population -- against Shiite Muslims.

"Some people have the view, 'Well, what do you need religious freedom for?' because this is a country that is 99 percent Muslim," said commissioner Nina Shea of Freedom House. "There are many difficulties with that. Under the Taliban we saw how a harsh interpretation of Islam was imposed on everyone, whether they wanted that interpretation or not. This is a concern for the individual rights of Muslims as well as for minority religious groups within Afghanistan."

The commission report's bottom line is that "a future Afghanistan that respects human rights, including freedom of thought, conscience and religion," is much less likely to be a staging ground for terrorism. But there is another reason to stress issues of faith and tolerance -- it is crucial that religious charities and relief groups are able to safely resume their work.

But who decides who is a relief worker and who gets jailed as a missionary? Ask Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer if this question matters in Afghanistan.

The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

This implies that all kinds of people -- from atheists to evangelists -- can speak their minds and strive to change other people's minds. But Afghanistan remains a land in which converting to another faith can be fatal. Inviting someone to convert to another faith can be fatal, as well.

The goal right now, said Shea, is to focus on issues of security and the rule of law.

"This report," she said, "is not about making Afghanistan safe for Christian missionaries to go in and convert the country. ... We are talking about basic rights of religious freedom that have been violated, probably more severely in Afghanistan than in almost any other country in the world in recent years."