Kabul: Thousands of Afghan clerics pledged loyalty to the Taliban Saturday, but ended a three-day meeting without recommendations on how the hardline Islamist group should govern the crisis-hit country. The men-only gathering was called to rubber-stamp the Taliban’s rule, and ahead of the meeting officials said criticism would be tolerated and they could also discuss thorny issues such as secondary school education for girls. Media were barred from the event, although speeches were broadcast on state radio — including a rare appearance by the Taliban’s reclusive supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada. Taliban officials presented the gathering as an opportunity for clerics to independently say how they wanted the country to be governed, but the meeting’s final declaration was mostly a regurgitation of their own doctrine. It called for allegiance to Akhundzada, loyalty to the Taliban, and the complete acceptance of sharia law as the basic principle of rule. “By the grace of God, the Islamic system has come to rule in Afghanistan,” the declaration read. “We not only strongly support it, but will also defend it. We consider this to be the national and religious duty of the entire nation.” The highlight of the clerics’ meeting was appearance by Akhundzada, who has not been filmed or photographed in public since the Taliban returned to power. The “Commander of the Faithful”, as he is known, rarely leaves the Taliban’s birthplace and spiritual heartland of Kandahar and apart from one undated photograph and several audio recordings of speeches, has almost no digital footprint. In Geneva on Friday, the United Nations human rights chief urged the Taliban to look to other Muslim countries for inspiration on improving the rights of women in a religious context. Addressing an urgent council debate on the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan, Michelle Bachelet said they were “experiencing the most significant and rapid roll-back in enjoyment of their rights across the board in decades”. “I strongly encourage the de facto authorities to engage with predominantly Muslim countries with experience in promoting women and girls’ rights, as guaranteed in international law, in that religious context,” she said.