Biden must prioritize the resettlement of Afghanistan’s religious minorities

Taliban fighters are seen in a vehicle along the roadside in Herat, Afghanistan's third biggest city, after government forces pulled out the day before
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Last August was a life changing moment for the world, as the Taliban took power in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul after a 20 year U.S. military presence.  

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has reported on religious freedom conditions in Afghanistan for more than two decades—but this year was particularly painful. We saw hope flee from the eyes of religious minority communities who briefly found optimism through the presence on the ground of Americans and so many others. 

Just 13 days before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan on Aug. 15, the Department of State announced a new Priority 2 (P-2) designation, granting U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) access for certain Afghan nationals and eligible family members. This much welcomed step was intended to safeguard the precious lives of U.S. allies and affiliates who faced danger at the hands of the Taliban. However, this designation fails to include some of the most vulnerable religious minorities who are at extreme risk of persecution by the Taliban.  

Afghanistan is home to a vast array of faiths and ethnicities—some indigenous to the region and others that emerged over time—including Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Baha’is, Christian converts, Ahmadi Muslims, and Shi’a Muslims, including Ismaili’s. However, with the Taliban back in power, religious freedom conditions, and the overall human rights situation, in Afghanistan have drastically deteriorated. Shortly after the Taliban’s takeover, we heard pleas from religious freedom advocates hoping to find a way out for Afghans facing harassment, detention, and even death due to their faith or beliefs. It is heartbreaking to see many of these faith communities near extinction within Afghanistan. 

The Taliban—and separately the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K)—have continuously targeted and harassed religious minority communities. As discussed in an episode of USCIRF’s Spotlight podcast, the Hazara Shi’a community—which these groups labels as “heretical”—is at particularly grave risk. After the Taliban took control of Ghazni Province in early July in their advance toward Kabul, Taliban fighters massacred nine Shi’a Hazara men. Taliban fighters also reportedly evicted at least 2,800 Shi’a Hazaras from their homes in Daikundi and Uruzgan provinces and seized their properties in September 2021. Shortly afterward, in October, there were confirmed reports that the Taliban killed 13 Shi’a Hazaras in Daikundi Province. ISIS-K has also targeted religious minority communities, taking responsibility for two separate attacks in October on Shi’a mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar resulting in the deaths of scores of Shi’a worshipers during Friday prayers.  

Christian converts, Baha’is, non-believers, Ahmadi Muslims, and other Muslims who do not adhere to the Taliban’s views of Islam practice their faith or express their beliefs in hiding due to fear of reprisal since conversion from Islam to another religion or abandonment of Islam is considered apostasy and punishable by death under the Taliban’s interpretation. The already small Afghan Hindu and Sikh communities have felt pressured to flee to India, while less than 200 remain behind despite targeted attacks on their historical houses of worship. The last known Jew left in September, leaving behind the last operating synagogue in Afghanistan.   

We believe the expansion of the P-2 designation offers an additional option for at risk members of these religious communities. 

The Taliban and ISIS-K’s shared ideology of a pure Islamic state is rapidly manifesting itself in Afghanistan as the country turns into a religiously homogenous state with little or no tolerance for any beliefs apart from their extreme interpretation of Islam.  

Given the Taliban’s well documented repression of various religious communities, it is imperative that the U.S. Department of State create a P-2 category for vulnerable Afghan religious communities. This would allow their members to apply directly to the USRAP for vetting, processing, and resettlement in the United States, rather than relying on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to refer them. Removing the UNHCR referral step is vital to speed up the process for Afghan individuals fleeing for their lives because of their beliefs.

Broadening the existing P-2 category to explicitly include vulnerable Afghan religious minorities who face persecution on account of their religion or belief underscores the United States’ commitment to religious freedom as core to democracy. Our founders knew that religious freedom needed protection, placing this right in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.   

The U.S. government has previously granted P-2 eligibility to members of religious groups identified as “of special humanitarian concern” to the United States. The 1990 Lautenberg Amendment facilitated the resettlement of Jews and other persecuted religious minority groups from the Soviet Union to the United States. The 2004 Specter Amendment extended P-2 status to Iranian religious minorities, and in 2007 Congress offered P-2 eligibility to certain Iraqi religious minorities. 

As Afghans are forced to flee their homes and historic places of worship on account of their religion or belief, the U.S. government should ensure that the most vulnerable religious minorities are protected and have an expedited pathway to seek refuge in the United States.  

Nadine Maenza is chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and Frederick A. Davie is a commissioner of USCIRF.

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