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Taliban: Hindu Labels 'Not Discrimination'

Afghanistan's hardline Taliban militia on Wednesday defended its decision to require Hindus to wear a yellow piece of cloth on their shirt pockets, saying it will shield them from religious police enforcing Islamic law.

"This is not any kind of discrimination," said Mohammed Suhail Shaheen, deputy head of the Afghan Embassy in Pakistan. "They (the Hindus) can carry out their rituals as before ... They will enjoy full rights."

The labeling plan was first approved by Afghanistan's senior council of Islamic scholars, or ulema. The Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which runs the religious police, then specified that the label should be a yellow cloth, Abdul Annan Himat, head of the Taliban's Bakhtar news agency, told The Associated Press.

The plan — reminiscent of a Nazi policy in the 1930s and 40s that required European Jews to wear yellow Stars of David — was criticized by the United States and Hindu-dominated India as a human rights violation.

Balbir Singh, a Hindu shopkeeper in the Afghan capital of Kabul, said Wednesday that the mark could cause "security problems" for him when he travels to the countryside where people might not like Hindus.

"We don't feel safe with this," he said.

Bakhtar and Taliban radio announced the measure, which would also require Hindu women to be veiled for the first time.

Hindus in Afghanistan have not been the target of persecution and have generally been allowed to practice their religion freely. However, over decades of war, the number of Hindus has dwindled from a high of about 50,000 during the 1970s to 500 in the capital and small pockets elsewhere.

The head of the religious police, Mohammed Wali, said on Tuesday that the plan would be implemented soon.

Shaheen said that the main purpose for the measure was to keep Hindus from being stopped by religious police and to prevent Muslims from claiming they are Hindu when violating religious laws.

Muslim men are required to wear beards in Afghanistan, and they sometimes claim they're Hindu when arrested for shaving, Shaheen said. Conversely, clean-shaven Hindus are sometimes arrested erroneously, he added. Also — until this ruling — Hindu women in Afghanistan were not forced to wear the head-to-toe covering called a burqa as Muslim women are.

A U.S. State Department spokesman called the requirement "the latest in a long list of outrageous oppressions" by the Taliban.

"We want to make quite clear that forcing social groups to wear distinctive clothing or identifying marks stigmatizes and isolates those groups and can never, never be justified," spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington.

Indian officials also said the Taliban plan discriminates against minorities. Dozens of protesters marched down a busy thoroughfare in the central Indian city of Bhopal on Tuesday carrying an effigy of a bearded Taliban soldier. Some shouted, "Taliban, die!"

The Taliban, who control 95 percent f Afghanistan, have imposed a harsh brand of Islam, banning education for girls, beating men for trimming their beards and prohibiting many forms of entertainment.

Most of the Islamic world, including pro-Taliban Pakistan, has differed with the Taliban's narrow interpretation of Islam and say the militia is tarnishing Islam's image.

The Taliban provoked an international outcry in March by destroying ancient Buddha statues they said were forbidden by Islam. Last week, members of the religious police closed down an Italian-funded hospital used for treating civil-war victims and beat its staff, accusing it of violating Islamic law by allowing men and women to eat together.

Earlier this week the Taliban closed four of six U.N. political offices in Afghanistan to protest international sanctions imposed because of the alleged sponsorship of terrorism.

The Taliban stance is hardening while Afghanistan suffers one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. Drought and civil war have displaced hundreds of thousands of people in recent months. The United States last week announced a $43 million emergency aid package, saying 4 million people risked starvation.

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