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* Minorities in Orakzai and Khyber tribal regions warned by extremists to convert or leave

PESHAWAR: Sitting on a broken chair outside a Sikh temple in a crowded part of Peshawar, Aman Deep Singh is frantic about his future after losing his business in Khyber.

When the Taliban gave Sikhs and Hindus an ultimatum – leave the land of your forefathers or pay “jizya”, an Islamic tax in protection money — Singh packed up and left his native Tirah valley for Peshawar..“We were living under fear. Fear of the Taliban, fear of Lashkar-e-Islam and fear of other armed groups,” Singh said.

He swapped a general store in the mountains for unemployment in the NWFP capital, where he struggles to feed the nine members of his family. Aman Deep is a fake name. He wants his real name hidden for safety purposes.

“I am not the only one. About 400 Sikh and 57 Hindu families migrated from (the town of) Bara and Tirah,” Singh said. Local Sikhs mostly trade in cloth, and also run grocer, garment and herbal medicine shops. They are people who can afford the Rs 1,000 (12 dollars) per man, per year jizya.

In the region of Orakzai, the Taliban demanded the tax of adult male Sikhs, forcibly occupying Sikh-owned shops and houses. After two months, the tax spread to Khyber, the legendary tribal region on the main supply route to Afghanistan. It was there that Lashkar-e-Islam, an extremist group headed by Mangal Bagh, announced Sikhs and Hindus would be free to live anywhere — as long as they paid jizya.. But threats made the situation increasing tense. Hundreds of Sikh and Hindu families fled to nearby areas, especially Peshawar.

Grave tidings: “Minorities in Orakzai and Khyber were warned by some militant groups to convert or leave the area. This was a real threat,” Singh said. “They’re running a parallel government. Hindu and Sikh families did not feel safe, in Orakzai, in Bara and in Tirah. We preferred to migrate, at least here we can breathe in peace and feel safe,” he said.

The same sentiment was echoed by other shopkeepers in Bara. “No female Muslim or non-Muslim is allowed out without a male relative. All women, even the elderly, have to wear a burqa,” said Gulab Khan Afridi, a 38-year-old Muslim. Khan said growing a beard and wearing a cap had become compulsory, otherwise Lashkar extremists would dole out beatings or a 200 to 500-rupee fine. Much like the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Islam acts like a moral police, enforces prayers five times a day and punishes people accused of prostitution and other vices.

Scholars say only a true Islamic government, no one else, can collect jizya and on condition that those who pay feel safe, but Lashkar-e-Islam insisted the tax was proper payment for services rendered. “Women, children and the handicapped have been exempted,” Misri Gul, a spokesman for the group, said. “Jizya is according to Islamic sharia. We will provide them protection in exchange for this,” he said. afp
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