Sombre mood as Taleban is back at Friday prayers

Men attend Friday prayers at the Pul-i-Khishti Mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 20, 2021, the first since the Taleban recently took control of the city. PHOTO: NYTIMES

KABUL (AFP) - Gunmen flanked an Islamic scholar as he delivered a fiery speech on Friday (Aug 20) to a packed Kabul mosque at the most important prayers of the week - the first since the Taleban seized power in Afghanistan five days ago.

The preacher rallied the faithful at the Abdul Rahman Mosque with a history lesson on how Afghans had beaten the British empire, the Soviet Union and now the United States on the battlefield.

"Afghans have once again shown collective pride," he said, adding "Afghans by nature are a brave nation".

Sermons at Friday prayers are usually coordinated by the government to deliver thinly veiled or overt political messages on national unity and other topics.

Following the Taleban's return to power last weekend, Friday's prayers were closely scrutinised for any message the hardline Islamist movement was trying to impart.

The Taleban has been trying to project a softer image compared to the reputation they earned during their first incarnation that ended in 2001.

Then, shops, schools, government offices and even traffic came to a halt for Friday prayers - and anyone tardy as the muezzin called the faithful risked a lashing across the back of the legs.

The gunmen flanking the scholar at Abdul Rahman mosque on Friday cut imposing figures as the congregation knelt on the floor - some men fidgeting with rosary beads.

Several other attendees filmed the proceedings with their mobile phones.

At mosques across the capital the overarching theme appeared to be an appeal for Afghans to give the new regime a chance: instead of fleeing the country, help rebuild it, was the message.

Hundreds attended the Hazarat Mostafa mosque in the western suburbs of Kabul where the local Imam made no mention of the Taleban and focused mostly on traditional Quranic verses.

He did, however, touch briefly on the tragic scenes at the airport - where thousands are desperately trying to enter in the hope of getting an evacuation flight out.

"Those with weak faith are running after or hanging from American planes. They should stay and build their country," the Imam said.

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The United States has flown in thousands of troops to Kabul's airport in a desperate effort to evacuate Afghans who worked for US interests during the 20-year occupation that was due to end by Aug 31.

One attendee at Hazarat Mostafa mosque noted many present were starting to grow beards - which the Taleban insisted all men did two decades ago.

"There were some Taleban among the crowd, but they were quiet and peaceful," he said.

The Taleban insists it will continue to rule according to Islamic principles, but just how strictly they are interpreted remains to be seen.

"Let us see what happens," said shopkeeper Wahid at a smaller mosque elsewhere in the city.

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