It has never been easy to work as a Christian-local or foreign-in Afghanistan. But since a video was broadcast on Afghan television showing the baptism of converts in Kabul, the danger has escalated-and the tiny minority suddenly finds itself a potentially sizeable pawn in a game of political chess.
Privately owned Noorin TV first broadcast in late May videotape coverage of a baptism, along with Afghans taking part in Christian prayer meetings in alleged "missionary safe houses" in western Kabul. Although at least two years old, the footage was replayed on several television stations and triggered a frenzied anti-Christian response: Hundreds of students joined street protests at Kabul University, shouting death threats and demanding the expulsion of foreigners. Demonstrations also spread from the capital to other cities, including Herat, Baghlan, and Mazar-e-Sharif.
Two of the Afghan Christians who appeared in the broadcast were arrested and shown again on national television. The next day (May 31), the deputy secretary of the lower house of parliament, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, called from the parliament floor for the public execution of the Afghan converts. Other members of parliament condemned the activities of foreign non-government organizations (NGOs), and that same day two were suspended from working in the country: U.S.-based Church World Service and Norwegian Church Aid.
The groups deny they have been involved in proselytizing. Both have had major operations in Afghanistan: Church World Service employs 190 people there, and Norwegian Church Aid, with 50, was in the midst of an $8 million project.
Waheed Omar, spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, announced on June 1 that the president had ordered steps to prevent further conversions to Christianity. According to sources, authorities drew up a list of 14 NGOs and 25 or more foreign and local Christians to be investigated for Christian activity. A statement released Friday by Barnabas Fund, a U.K.-based aid group, reports that authorities have searched homes in Kabul, and dozens of Afghan Christians have fled their towns, some even leaving the country.
Several NGOs also report that they have been visited by security officials, and in some cases asked to record for the government the names of all employees. WORLD began receiving information about the crackdown at that time, but at the request of several organizations concerned about the safety of their employees and of local Christians agreed not to publish the information then.
But a group of Afghan Christians living in New Delhi issued the following statement: "We do not know how the whole world and especially the global church is silent and closing their eyes while thousands of their brothers and sisters are in pain, facing life danger and death penalty and are tortured, persecuted and called criminals."
Barnabas Fund president Patrick Sookhdeo told me he also believed that Western Christians need to understand and speak out about what's happening to Christians in Afghanistan: "Just as the United States fractured Iraq and so Christians there had to go to the wall while the U.S. did not defend them, much of this is happening again in Afghanistan."
On June 5, the Afghan minister of the Interior and the director of the Security
Department resigned suddenly. The official reason was that they had not prevented a Taliban attack on a peace conference Karzai attended June 2 in Kabul. But both officials also worked at one time for Western NGOs, including Norwegian Church Aid.
Why would government officials go to such lengths to silence a handful of minority religious believers? Because Christians, who in the eyes of many Afghans are associated with Westerners, are seen as a tool to bring pressure and embarrassment on an increasingly unpopular President Karzai. Noorin TV, which first broadcast the tapes, is funded by the Northern Alliance and seen as anti-government. Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president of Afghanistan, now heads an affiliated opposition group in parliament and came out against Karzai during the last election.
The problem also stems from the ambiguity in Afghanistan's constitution, which was largely brokered with assistance from the United States in 2003-2004 (see "Dress rehearsal?" Jan. 17, 2004). It created an Islamic republic that granted freedoms and democracy with "Islam as its sacred religion." While Article 2 grants that followers of other religions "are free to perform their religious ceremonies within the limits of the provisions of law," Article 3 states, "No law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam." Under Islamic law, converts from Islam become guilty of apostasy, which is punishable by death. In 2006 a case surfaced against Abdul Rahman, an Afghan citizen who was arrested for converting to Christianity and threatened with the death penalty. Under heavy international pressure, including from the Vatican, officials released him and he was granted asylum in Italy.
The pressure for Karzai to deal forcibly with converts comes as he is seeking to lure Taliban leadership into peace talks with the government and wants to demonstrate his independence from NATO and U.S. leadership.
But as Sookhdeo of the Barnabas Fund points out, NATO and U.S. funds underwrite the Afghan government, and it is a signatory to UN standards: "It should be held accountable."