Panel: U.S. should monitor religious freedom in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON - The United States should assign an official in its embassy in Kabul to monitor religious freedoms as Afghanistan sheds the effects of harsh Taliban rule, a federal panel suggested Tuesday.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom offered that finding as part of its general recommendations on Afghanistan, which is in the process of building a permanent government. Afghan officials are now selecting members for an emergency Loya Jirga, which is to begin work later this month.

The commission, an independent federal advisory body, said it is prepared to dispatch such a person to the region if the Bush administration does not wish to do so. It noted that there are still reports of human rights abuses throughout Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan has been, and will continue to be, an Islamic state," the commission said. "Although the establishment of a state religion, by itself, is not incompatible with international norms of religious freedom, it should not result in any impairment of civil and political rights or in any discrimination against adherents of other religions or non-believers."

The religious suppression and mistreatment of women and girls that took place under the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islamic law were not limited to that government, and "remain of grave concern in the post-Taliban era," the report said.

Specifically, the commission called on U.S. officials to press Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai to establish a truth commission. Karzai endorsed the idea last March, during a visit to Kabul by the U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights.

"The experiences of other countries that have emerged from oppressive rule suggest that Afghanistan will need to establish a means for accounting for the severe human rights abuses of the past — including the killing of civilians, torture and rape — before reconciliation can occur," the report said. "Failure to do so may lead to an atmosphere of impunity for further abuses."

The U.S. monitor should be responsible for promoting religious freedom and reporting on compliance with United Nations guidelines that tie recovery and reconstruction assistance to a demonstrated respect for human rights, the panel said.

"National security structures are being created, and units are being trained. Training should have a human rights dimension," the commission said. "Freedom of religion and belief cannot take root in Afghanistan in the absence of respect for other human rights."

Roughly 99 percent of Afghanistan's 25 million people are Muslim, and the remaining few adhere to other religions, mainly Hindu or Sikh. Small but ancient Jewish and Zoroastrian communities have all but diminished over the past 20 years.