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Taliban Tactic of Forcing Mosque Attendance Comes Under Fire

November 2, 1996

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ It’s time for midday prayers, and a holy man summons worshippers with a high-pitched wail, amplified by loudspeakers, from a minaret above Kabul’s bullet-scarred Blue Mosque.

Fighters of the Taliban religious army flock to the mosque, carrying their AK-47 assault rifles inside with them. Many Kabul residents also go inside, some because they want to be there, others because Taliban soldiers wielding sticks and knives told them to.

Across town, one of Kabul’s most respected mullahs, or Islamic priests, lashes out at the way the Taliban are promoting religion through force. Some Taliban fighters are in attendance, though the group so far has not tried to silence Mullah Abdul Rahof.

``If they keep this up, the people will turn against them. The Taliban are not better Muslims than others,″ Rahof said later in an interview.

``Force-feeding religion is not the way to bring people closer to Islam, in fact it is un-Islamic,″ he said. ``The best way is by being God’s messenger, inviting people and discussing Islam with them.″

Such outspokenness has cost Rahof dearly.

Seven years ago, communist President Najibullah came into the mosque where Rahof was preaching. Diverting from his sermon, Rahof said Najibullah was there only for show, and questioned whether he was a real Muslim.

Two days later, Rahof was thrown into jail. He was there for eight months and 10 days, during which time he was frequently tortured.

Now Rahof laughs as he shows an Associated Press reporter his scars: on his leg where Najibullah’s secret police pulled out a hunk of meat with pliers, and on his abdomen, where his torturers stabbed him.

The Taliban, who hanged Najibullah for war crimes when the army of former religious students captured Kabul on Sept. 27, have not moved against Rahof. But they demand mosque attendance and preach their strict version of Islam.

``We motivate people to go to the mosque. Those who are forced to go will benefit from prayer,″ explained 20-year-old Taliban fighter Abdul Wasy, as he herded passersby into the Blue Mosque with a stick and ordered market stalls in front of the mosque closed during prayers on Friday. When one vendor hesitated, another Taliban enforcer slammed his foot-long dagger onto the counter. The stall was hastily closed.

As Mullah Galaluddin Sheenwari began delivering the sermon, his voice echoing off skeletons of buildings destroyed in Afghanistan’s war, Wasy also went to pray.

With the mosque full, Wasy laid his assault rifle down at an entrance, removed a blanket from around his shoulders, knelt on it and bowed deeply, touching his forehead to his impromptu prayer mat.

Lined up next to him were shoes of worshippers, one with a prosthetic leg sticking out. Thousands of Afghans have lost limbs to land mines and other explosives.

After the service, Sheenwari, one of the Taliban’s most senior clerics and the government’s deputy minister of religious education, justified forced mosque attendance.

``The motive is to lead people to the way of Islam, so they stop being corrupt,″ he said. ``When a person is forced to the mosque, they will be with us spiritually in the future because of our preaching.″

Amir Khan Mutaqi, the Taliban government’s information minister and himself a mullah, said upon leaving the mosque: ``Finally a time will come when everyone will come to the mosque of their own free will and we won’t have to push them anymore.″