KABUL, -- Zablon Simintov is Afghanistan’s only Jew. The 61-year-old has borne separation from his family and life during civil wars and Taliban oppression to stay in his homeland, Afghanistan.
But Simintov is now planning to leave Afghanistan as the withdrawal of Western forces looms amid ongoing peace efforts that will likely result in the Taliban’s return to government.
“After our important festivals [Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in September], I will leave Afghanistan,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “If you decide to leave then it is difficult to stay,” he added. “If the Taliban return, they are going to push us out with a slap in the face.”
But his increasing worries over the past two years have convinced him to leave.
Simintov, whose wife and two daughters have lived in Israel for more than two decades, used to say it was God’s will that he lived in Afghanistan. But he has worried about his future there ever since Washington began negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban in 2018.
“Peace talks are making people worried that if the Taliban come and if they behave the same as they used to during their regime [in the 1990s] then people will be worried,” he told the BBC in 2019.
Simintov is not the only one leaving his homeland, which in the mid-20th century boasted a 40,000-strong Jewish community.
Afghanistan’s Hindu and Sikh minority has shrunk from more than 200,000 in the 1980s to a few hundred families today. Most members of Afghanistan’s tiny Hindu and Sikh minority have already left while others plan to join exiled members of their community in India. Militant attacks have targeted their temples and leaders, killing scores, while criminals kidnapped members of the community for ransom.
There is a risk that Afghanistan’s non-Muslim minorities, many of whose members fled during the tumultuous decades following the 1978 communist coup, could vanish completely if peace does not follow the departure of international troops this year.
Sandeep Singh, 20, recently relocated to India. He told Radio Free Afghanistan that in addition to the security threats, his community faced systemic discrimination in their homeland.
“When I used to go to school [in Kabul], both the students and the teachers would ridicule me,” he said. “They would pull my hair and turban,” he added. Sikhism requires its adherents to wrap their hair in a turban.
Bushra, 17, is a Sikh high-school student in Kabul. She told Radio Free Afghanistan that she regularly faces harassment and ridicule because of her faith. “Everybody comments on my appearance and taunts me for having small eyes,” she said. “They make fun of how I dress.”
Soni Singh, an Afghan Sikh who now lives in exile in New Delhi, says it is difficult for the community to integrate into their new country while it’s not feasible to return to Afghanistan.
“When we return to Afghanistan and try to use our skills to get ahead, we are told that we come from another country,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Our children are called names because we do not trim our hair,” he added. “They call us Hindus despite the fact that we are Sikhs.”
A Crucial Transition
Afghanistan’s religious minorities face discrimination despite the country’s current constitution guaranteeing protections against discrimination. While minorities have made some progress such as gaining limited government protection, the freedom to worship, and token representation in the government, their future hangs in the balance as Afghanistan braces for a critical transition.
While U.S. forces are unlikely to meet the May 1 deadline in line with Washington’s agreement with the Taliban, President Joe Biden is keen on underscoring the fact that his country’s troops will leave Afghanistan in the near future. The withdrawal looms amid a deadlock between the Taliban and the Afghan government and uncertainty over the peace process.
It is, however, clear that Islam will play a larger role in the country’s politics and public policies if the hard-line Taliban Islamists return to the government, which could see a revival of more literal interpretations of Islamic law.
Afghan clerics and Islamic scholars insist that discrimination against non-Muslims has no place in Islam.
“If religious minorities live in an Islamic country, its government is obliged to protect them,” Mufti Bilal Ahmed Safir, a religious scholar in Kabul, told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Their lives and properties should be protected, and they should be granted all the rights given by Allah.”
During the 1990s, the Taliban and rival Islamist groups pledged protection of minorities, but most Hindus and Sikhs fled to India. Months before its regime fell in December 2001, the Taliban contemplated forcing Hindus to wear identity badges to distinguish them from majority Muslims.
“Despite such efforts, the small communities of religious minorities -- including Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Ahmadi Muslims, and Baha’is, who experienced egregious human rights violations under Taliban rule -- remained endangered, without the ability to observe their faith publicly for fear of violent reprisal by terrorist groups or society at large,” noted the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its annual report last year.
Sardar Gurbachan Singh Ghazniwal, 50, did everything he could to stay in Afghanistan. He even lived inside the Gurdwara, the Sikh temple, in Kabul for years after losing his businesses and properties in the southeastern city of Ghazni.
But after the Islamic State militants attacked the Kabul Gurdwara last year and killed 25 Sikhs – including nine of his relatives -- Ghazniwal made up his mind to move to India.
“Whenever I travel in a bus or taxi, my fellow [Afghan] Muslim brothers ask me, ‘Where do you come from in India, Sardar?’,” Ghazniwal told Radio Free Afghanistan. “They even don’t consider how I can speak Pashto and Dari, [the two major Afghan languages] so well if I had come from Afghanistan,” he added. “Even when I speak fluent Pashto and Dari, I am not considered an equal [citizen].”
The looming uncertainty might force most if not all of Afghanistan’s non-Muslim citizens to follow Ghazniwal’s path.
“If the situation in the country gets worse, I will escape,” Simintov told Reuters.