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O'Toole demands Trudeau act to save Afghan interpreters and support staff, religious minorities remain heavily persecuted

A once thriving population of 700,000 Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan has sharply declined to between a few thousand to less than 1,000.

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Alex Anas Ahmed Calgary AB
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Official Opposition leader Erin O’Toole issued a statement Thursday calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to put forward a date when Canada will get Afghan interpreters and support staff out of Afghanistan.

CTV News reported that most US forces have withdrew from Afghanistan ahead of August 31, spurring a Taliban resurgence. They recently captured strategic territory along the border with Pakistan and have overtaken Kandahar’s Panjwai District. It has been nearly 20 years since the Taliban was removed from power in Kabul, the nation's capital.

"While the Taliban continues to take more and more territory in Afghanistan, Justin Trudeau is failing to bring Afghans who worked with our men and women in uniform to Canada," he said. "These brave Afghans risked their lives to help our military heroes. And in their time of need, we are abandoning them."

"It’s patently un-Canadian and wrong," added O’Toole.

France and Germany have already begun or completed evacuations of Afghan interpreters, with the US approving flights out of Afghanistan for special immigrant visa applicants. With allied countries taking immediate action to help Afghans who worked with their armed forces and ensured their safety, O’Toole expressed his vivid displeasure with the Trudeau Liberals for "dithering and delaying."

Ottawa confirmed it would continue sending humanitarian and developmental aid to Afghanistan, but did not announce a plan to get interpreters and other staff out of the country. Trudeau said Wednesday that the federal government will "continue to work to ensure that we’re providing the right path."

He added: "I can assure you that our ministers are working on it."

"There is no excuse why the Canadian government does not have a plan in action to save the lives of these brave Afghan interpreters and support staff," said O'Toole. "These heroes can’t afford to wait," he added, calling on Trudeau to put forward a date for when Canada will them out of Afghanistan.

"If you don’t care about supporting those who supported our men and women in Afghanistan, you have four parties to choose from. If you do, you only have one – Canada’s Conservatives."

According to the 2020 Threat Map by Minority Groups Right International, Afghanistan had the fourth-worst human rights record but did not acknowledge that Sikhs or Hindus were among the most persecuted groups historically in the region.

A once thriving population of 700,000 Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan has sharply declined to between a few thousand to less than 1,000. In the early 1990s, their population numbered 200,000.

Under Taliban rule in the late 1990s, Sikhs and Hindus were asked to identify themselves by wearing yellow armbands. However, the rule was not enforced following considerable public outcry.

A survey released in February 2019 by the Porsesh Research and Studies Organisation (PRSO), a Kabul-based independent nonprofit research organisation, showed that 96.8 percent of Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan fear for their personal safety. The survey also found that more than half of the Hindu and Sikh respondents fear participating in peaceful demonstrations.

Considerable concerns emerged as courts questioned whether Sikhs, Hindus and other minorities constitute an Afghani, emulating from Islamic religious law. Article 62 of the Afghanistan constitution prevents non-Muslim Afghans from becoming president, contradicting Article 22, which guarantees equal rights to all Afghan citizens.

Non-muslims are also required to pay a religious tax or jizya.

The threat of gender-based violence, including abduction, verbal and physical abuse towards women persists amid ineffective protections of Afghanistan's minority populations.

Following the parliamentary rejection of a presidential decree proposing a reserved seat for Hindus and Sikhs in December 2013, the political representation of these groups remained limited in 2014. However, in a historic appointment, in May 2014 the previous Afghan government selected a representative from the dwindling Hindu community for the diplomatic rank of ambassador for the first time.

Nevertheless, despite managing to secure positions in parliament by appointment, Sikhs and Hindus continue to report being pressured to convert and facing disruptions to funeral and cremation ceremonies by local officials. Socially ostracized, Sikhs living in Kabul reportedly face economic hardship, with many refusing to conduct business with them, but also due to land grabs in areas in which Sikhs have historically resided.

In addition to daily economic and social discrimination – sometimes manifesting as physical and verbal abuse – freedom to practise their religion has also been curtailed. Kabul was once home to eight Sikh places of worship or gurdwaras, but only one remains today.

Hindu Gozar and Karte Parwan are said to be traditional Hindu and Sikh neighbourhoods in Kabul. There is one gurdwara in Jalalabad and one in Kabul. Jalalabad has a special religious

significance for Sikhs because of the visit of Guru Nanak in the 15th century.

The persecution of both minority groups is widely documented, with sources indicating that Hindus and Sikhs celebrate discreetly to not provoke the attention of Muslims. They also adopted inconspicuous places of worship.

'It’s hard to leave our birthplace but we have no other option," said one Sikh leader in hiding. "Afghanistan does not want us anymore." The encroaching Islamism led to their exodus with their homes, businesses and places of worship were illegally seized years ago.

The lack of proper crematorial sites in the country has led to conflicts with Muslim communities in residential areas, with the government promising security for cremation ceremonies and pilgrimages.

In February 2020, the government reportedly allocated $650 000 for renovations of Hindu and Sikhs temples in the country.

After the 2018 attack in Jalalabad, president Ghani condemned it and called Hindus and Sikhs 'pride of the nation' and declared support of the communities by his government. In July 2018, another 20 Sikhs and Hindus were killed at a private gathering by Islamist militants in Jalalabad, leaving many questioning their residence in the war-torn country.

Neighbouring countries and international bodies, including the United Nations, expressed "outrage" and "dismay" over the killing of 25 Sikhs at a Kabul gurdwara in 2020. Representatives of both communities were told they can meet with the president and raise their concerns.

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