Kabul, Afghanistan - There is not a single, public Christian church left in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. State Department.
This reflects the state of religious freedom in that country ten years after the United States first invaded it and overthrew its Islamist Taliban regime.
In the intervening decade, U.S. taxpayers have spent $440 billion to support Afghanistan's new government and more than 1,700 U.S. military personnel have died serving in that country.
The last public Christian church in Afghanistan was razed in March 2010, according to the State Department's latest International Religious Freedom Report. The report, which was released last month and covers the period of July 1, 2010 through December 31, 2010, also states that “there were no Christian schools in the country.”
“There is no longer a public Christian church; the courts have not upheld the church's claim to its 99-year lease, and the landowner destroyed the building in March ,” reads the State Department report on religious freedom. “[Private] chapels and churches for the international community of various faiths are located on several military bases, PRTs [Provincial Reconstruction Teams], and at the Italian embassy. Some citizens who converted to Christianity as refugees have returned.”
In recent times, freedom of religion has declined in Afghanistan, according to the State Department.
“The government’s level of respect for religious freedom in law and in practice declined during the reporting period, particularly for Christian groups and individuals,” reads the State Department report.
“Negative societal opinions and suspicion of Christian activities led to targeting of Christian groups and individuals, including Muslim converts to Christianity," said the report. "The lack of government responsiveness and protection for these groups and individuals contributed to the deterioration of religious freedom.”
Most Christians in the country refuse to “state their beliefs or gather openly to worship,” said the State Department.
More than 1,700 U.S. military personnel have died serving in the decade-old Afghanistan war, according to CNSNews.com’s database of all U.S. casualties in Afghanistan. A September audit released jointly by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction and the State Department’s Office of Inspector General, found that the U.S. government will spend at least $1.7 billion to support the civilian effort from 2009-2011.
According to that report, the $1.7 billion excludes additional security costs, which the report says the State Department priced at about $491 million.
A March 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service showed that overall the United States has spent more than $440 billion in the Afghanistan war. Christian aid from the international community has also gone to aid the Afghan government.
Nevertheless, according to the State Department, the lack of non-Muslim religious centers in Afghanistan can be blamed in part on a “strapped government budget,” which is primarily fueled by the U.S. aid.
“There were no explicit restrictions for religious minority groups to establish places of worship and training of clergy to serve their communities,” says the report, “however, very few public places of worship exist for minorities due to a strapped government budget.”
The report acknowledged that Afghanistan’s post-Taliban constitution, which was ratified with the help of U.S. mediation in 2004, can be contradictory when it comes to the free exercise of religion.
While the new constitution states that Islam is the “religion of the state” and that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam,” it also proclaims that “followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law.”
However, “the right to change one’s religion was not respected either in law or in practice,” according to the State Department.
“Muslims who converted away from Islam risked losing their marriages, rejection from their families and villages, and loss of jobs,” according to the report. “Legal aid for imprisoned converts away from Islam remains difficult due to the personal objection of Afghan lawyers to defend apostates.”
The report does note that “in recent years neither the national nor local authorities have imposed criminal penalties on coverts from Islam.” The report says that “conversion from Islam is considered apostasy and is punishable by death under some interpretations of Islamic rule in the country.”
Also, in recent years, the death punishment for blasphemy “has not been carried out,” according to the State Department.
According to the State Department report, the United States continues to promote religious freedom in Afghanistan--even though the country no longer has even one Christian church.
“The U.S. government regularly discusses religious freedom with government officials as part of its overall policy to promote human rights,” according to the report.
According to the State Department report, more than 99 percent of the population, estimated between 24 and 33 million people, is either Sunni (80 percent) or Shia (19 percent) Muslim. Non-Muslim religious groups, including the estimated 500 to 8,000 strong Christian community in the country, make up less than 1 percent of the population. Other non-Muslim groups in the country are Sikhs, Bahais, and Hindus.