Afghanistan minorities fear for future despite Taliban assurances

When an Islamic State group affiliate attacked a Sikh temple in the heart of Afghanistan's capital last month, it reignited fears of persecution among the country's religious minorities and cast doubt on the Taliban's ability to honor a pledge to provide security.

For many, it raised the question of whether minorities have any future in the country.

A slew of attacks have rocked Kabul since April, killing hundreds of civilians, mainly among the Shiite and Sufi communities. The deadly June 18 attack on the Sikh gurudwara was the first targeted at the Sikh community since the Taliban's takeover last August. But it has left many worried that worse may be still to come.

A spokesman for Kabul's police tweeted that a group of "armed insurgents" had lobbed a grenade at the gurudwara at 6:30 a.m. before entering the temple complex. All the attackers were killed hours after the assault began, along with two Sikh men and members of the Taliban's security forces.

Members of the Sikh community say that while they are thankful to the Taliban for ending the assault, they no longer feel safe.

"When the attack on Dharamsal began, we felt violated," said 42-year-old Gurnam Singh from Ghazni Province. "We no longer have a place to worship. We have spent all our life in this temple, even death. ... The Taliban said that they will repair our temple and keep our people secure. We are yet to receive that security."

Ram Saran Bhaseen, the 71-year-old director of the Hindu and Sikh Community in Kabul, said he was close to the temple at the time of the attack but Taliban soldiers asked people to stay back. "It is [at the temple] that we meet to share our joys and sorrows. Now it is destroyed," he said, calling an attack on the temple "an attack on our religion."

While the attack was the first under the current Taliban regime, it was not unprecedented. Singh said he had lost family members in previous attacks over the years. Sikhs and Hindus have suffered persecution for decades, driving most out of the country.

An investigation by Afghanistan's Tolo News revealed that the Sikh and Hindu population was as high as over 200,000 in the 1980s. The number declined drastically to around 15,000 after Taliban first came to power in the 1990s.

A recent U.S. State Department report on religious freedom in Afghanistan found that there were just 150 left at the end of 2021, down from 400 the previous year. The numbers are feared to have dwindled further since the gurudwara attack.

Another recent report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom claimed that the overall instability in Afghanistan had led to the near extinction of religious minorities.

The Taliban rulers rejected this, with spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeting that the report was "incomplete and based on false information."

"We strongly deny the report of the State Department," Mullah Abdul Nafi Takoor, a spokesman for the Taliban's Ministry of Interior Affairs, told Nikkei Asia. "We have always requested our Hindu compatriots to not leave the country. There is no obstacle against religious freedom."

It is true that after the Taliban seized power, they publicly vowed to protect the rights of and provide security to Sikhs and Hindus. Their representatives even visited the Sikh gurudwara in Kabul's Kart-e-Parwan neighborhood, the same one that was eventually attacked, to reassure the community.

The Taliban authorities condemned the attack on the temple and promised to provide assistance to the victims.

"The government expresses its condolences to the families of the victims and assures that serious measures will be taken to identify and punish the perpetrators of this crime," Mujahid wrote on Twitter.

Takoor from the interior ministry added that the Taliban lost soldiers defending the temple, and that the safety of all Afghans is the group's responsibility.

Even so, many remaining Hindus and Sikhs say that they no longer congregate at their places of worship and want to relocate abroad, fearing violent retribution from the Taliban or ISIS-K, the Islamic State group's affiliate in Afghanistan.

Following the temple attack, India's Ministry of Home Affairs granted emergency visas to more than 100 Hindus and Sikhs from Afghanistan, based on applications filed in September last year.

Since then, 11 Afghan Sikhs were evacuated from Kabul on a special flight.

Still, not everyone is looking to leave.

"No one can predict the future. It is in the hands of God. I don't need the visa, I never applied for it," said Bhaseen, the community leader. "It is very sad what they did to our temple. The Taliban promised that they will repair it and provide us security. Let's see what happens."