Successful Elections a 'Major Step' for Democracy in Afghanistan

Sept. 19 – Millions of Afghans voted Sunday for a new parliament, defying a Taliban boycott and militant attacks. The U.S. government hailed the elections a success, acknowledging it as a big step made for the reconstruction of the war-torn Islamic country.

"I congratulate the Afghan people and Afghan Government for today's successful parliamentary elections, which are a major step forward in Afghanistan's development as a democratic state governed by the rule of law," said U.S. President George W. Bush from the White House on Sunday.

Sunday’s polls were the first legislative elections in Afghanistan since 1969. They were also part of an international plan to restore democracy after U.S.-led forces overthrew the hard-line Taliban government in late 2001, according to a report by Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Monday.

Though conditions for freedom of religion or belief improved markedly after the fall of the Taliban regime and the establishment of the transitional government in 2002, religious rights groups say concerns about religious freedom have remained.

Due to continued security problems, the government does not exercise full control over the country, the noted the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its annual report. As a result, the situation for religious freedom and other human rights remains “both precarious and problematic in some parts of the country.”

Taliban remnants remain active in various regions and continue to pose a threat to the stability of the government, the Commission reported.

The USCIRF noted that the right to religious freedom is now largely respected in the areas under government control, in contrast to the Taliban era, but also said that “some discrimination continues.”

Christian persecution watchdog groups such as Open Doors report that under the Sharia (Islamic law) legislation – which the current government of Afghanistan kept even after the Taliban was overthrown – Afghan Christians and other religious minorities are subjected to severe persecution.

Under Sharia law, conversion from Islam to Christianity or any other religion is considered apostasy and is punishable by death. Furthermore, persecution watchdog groups report that evangelism is restricted, that Christian churches are not permitted, and that freedom of worship is not present. In addition, the equal rights between men and women have long been a highlighted issue in the Islamic society.

Currently, Afghanistan is on the USCIRF’s Watch List for its violation of international human rights standard in terms of religious rights.

There have, however, been improvements.

In January 2004, Afghanistan adopted a new Constitution that contains an explicit recognition of equality between men and women and a reference to Afghanistan’s commitment to its international human rights obligations.

The USCIRF also noted in its 2005 annual report that conditions for freedom of religion or belief also improved markedly after the fall of the Taliban regime and the establishment of the transitional government headed by President Hamid Karzai, who was popularly elected president under Afghanistan’s new Constitution in October 2004.

In his address on Sunday, President Bush commended “the tremendous progress that the Afghan people have made in recent years.”

He also pledged “the full support of the United States as Afghanistan acts to meet the new challenges ahead.”

According to AFP, election officials said Sunday that about a quarter of the seats on the 249-seat parliament were reserved for women in this election, as were at least two seats on each of the 34 provincial councils. Meanwhile, around 10 percent of the 5,800 candidates nationwide are women.

Election officials also noted that women made up around 44 percent of registered voters within the nation, compared to 41 percent in the last vote.

"I was afraid to come," 38-year-old Lailoma told AFP. "The rebels said they will attack those who take part in the election. They threatened to kill me. But I will sacrifice my life for the reconstruction of Afghanistan."

Female electorate Khadija also stressed the importance of the time, telling AFP, "It is time that Afghans wake up and start respecting their rights through these democratic elections."

"In my time we were asleep," she said. "This is a great opportunity for the next generation."

AFP reported that despite of threats from Taliban insurgents, early estimates showed a turnout of just over 50 percent, out of the 12.5 million registered voters.

Peter Erben, the chief international election officer with the U.N.-assisted Joint Elections Management Board said that the turnout figure compared well with other post-war countries, though it was over 20 percent less than the October 2004 presidential poll won by Hamid Karzai, AFP reported.

"It's a day of self-determination for the Afghan people," Karzai said, according to the New York Times. "After 30 years of wars, interventions, occupation and misery, today Afghanistan is moving forward, making an economy, making political institutions."

In Operation World, the definitive global mission prayer guide, Christians are urged to pray for peace and reconstruction of Afghanistan, as well as an awakening to moderation and tolerance and a realization that only the Good News of Jesus can provide the solutions to heal the land.

Currently, Christian leaders are also urging for believers to pray for the Afghanistan government, which says the counting of ballots will begin on Tuesday, with final results due in late October.