WASHINGTON — Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen (both D-Md.) today joined colleagues in urging the Trump Administration to grant emergency refugee protections to Sikh and Hindu communities in Afghanistan facing persecution as religious minorities. In a bipartisan letter addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the senators called on the State Department to prioritize resettlement opportunities under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program allocation ceilings for Afghan Sikh and Hindu communities, whose populations have plummeted markedly due to years of persecution by the Taliban and more recent terrorist actions perpetrated by ISIS Khorasan (ISIS-K).
“This Administration has repeatedly highlighted protecting religious freedom as a top foreign policy priority,” the senators wrote. “Sikh and Hindu communities in Afghanistan face an existential threat from ISIS-K because of their religion. To protect religious freedom, we urgently ask that you take these essential steps to defend these threatened religious minorities.”
The letter also calls on Secretary Pompeo to offer additional support to members of the Sikh and Hindu communities that choose to remain in Afghanistan, and to ensure that Afghan religious minorities benefit from the $20.6 million in American aid already provided to address COVID-19.
“Ensuring that religious minorities receive U.S. COVID-19 assistance should be a priority in all countries where protection of religious minorities is a challenge,” the senators added.
This letter was also signed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Senators Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), and James Lankford (R-Okla.).
A copy of the letter may be found here and below:
June 25, 2020
Dear Secretary Pompeo:
We are writing to express our concern about the serious threats facing religious minorities in Afghanistan. Terrorist attacks by ISIS Khorasan (ISIS-K) threaten the very survival of Afghanistan’s Sikh and Hindu communities, which have already reached historically low numbers. To protect members of these vulnerable religious minority communities, we urge the State Department to provide emergency refugee protection to Afghanistan’s Sikhs and Hindus as they face terrorist violence at the hands of ISIS-K. We further urge the State Department and USAID to ensure that U.S. COVID-19 assistance reaches religious minorities in Afghanistan.
ISIS-K targets religious minorities in Afghanistan and poses an existential threat to Afghanistan’s Sikh and Hindu communities in particular. The Sikh and Hindu communities once numbered around 250,000 people but now have fewer than 1,000 individuals due to decades of persecution. The communities continue to face discrimination in access to housing and employment, and the Taliban has previously mandated that Sikhs and Hindus wear yellow armbands or patches as a marker of their religious status. In recent years a new threat to Afghanistan’s Sikh and Hindu communities has emerged: terrorist attacks from ISIS-K. In March, ISIS-K launched an attack on a Sikh gurdwara in Kabul that killed 25 worshippers, and later detonated an explosion during a funeral service for those victims. As ISIS-K continues to attack civilians and international troops draw down in Afghanistan, Sikhs and Hindus are likely to face more violence.
In light of this existential threat, we urge the State Department to provide emergency refugee protection to Afghanistan’s Sikhs and Hindus by referring them to the FY20 U.S. Refugee Admissions Program through Priority 1 (P1) embassy referrals. We further request that the Department consider designating this group for Priority 2 (P2) referrals. We believe the potential to eliminate this population of less than 1,000 people represents a dire circumstance that requires both the urgency of individual P1 referrals as well as access to the P2 designation. A P2 designation would maximize opportunities for resettlement of Afghanistan’s Sikhs and Hindus under the FY20 allocations ceilings for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, including the allocation for refugees who “have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of religion.” For members of the Sikh and Hindu communities who prefer to remain in Afghanistan despite this existential threat, we urge State to work with the Government of Afghanistan to ensure that it provides proper protection for these communities.
In addition, the United States has provided $20.6 million in total assistance to Afghanistan to address COVID-19. We urge the State Department and USAID to ensure that religious minorities in Afghanistan benefit from this assistance, as well as from any future COVID-19 assistance sent there. Ensuring that religious minorities receive U.S. COVID-19 assistance should be a priority in all countries where protection of religious minorities is a challenge.
Finally, we recommend that you engage with other members of the International Religious Freedom Alliance and encourage them to help ensure the security of vulnerable religious minorities in Afghanistan in the face of this existential threat.
This Administration has repeatedly highlighted protecting religious freedom as a top foreign policy priority. Sikh and Hindu communities in Afghanistan face an existential threat from ISIS-K because of their religion. To protect religious freedom, we urgently ask that you take these essential steps to defend these threatened religious minorities.