KABUL - Religious attacks in Afghanistan have skyrocketed in the past two years with the Shia community the main target, the United Nations said Tuesday, days before a key event in the Muslim calendar.

Since January 2016 there have been 51 incidents resulting in 273 deaths and 577 wounded-nearly double the number of casualties for the previous seven years, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a report.

The incidents involve attacks against mosques and worshippers as well as targeted killings, abductions and intimidation of religious leaders. “The unprincipled brutality of such attacks is reflected in the appalling human cost,” UNAMA said.

The extremist group Islamic State has claimed most of the attacks on Shia worshippers as it seeks to stir up sectarian violence in the country.

The UN called on the Afghan government to take “additional measures to protect all Afghans exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief, especially those vulnerable to sectarian attacks”.

“Attacks against Shi’a (Shia) Muslims and their places of worship may be expected to continue-or increase-if action is not taken,” the UN said.