On a dusty residential street in western Kabul, goats rummage through heaps of trash and a boy waits for a kite of colorful tissue paper caught in a tree to fall. In a safe house nearby, a man in his 30s named Najib is waiting also. He and his children-ages 9-14-have holed up here for over a week, unsure where to go next.
Najib has acted the fugitive for over a month, caught in a crackdown against the country's tiny Christian minority. After an Afghan television station in May broadcast videotape of a baptism and prayer service, Christians like Najib (not his real name) have been the target of government wrath-apparently caught in a political tug of war. The deputy secretary of the lower house of parliament called for the public execution of the Afghan converts shown in the film. President Hamid Karzai followed, perhaps not wanting to appear soft on apostates as he is wooing Taliban leaders. His spokesman announced June 1 that he would take steps to prevent further conversions.
Authorities drew up lists of international organizations and local and foreign Christians. About 25 Afghan Christians were arrested the same day. One of them, a close friend of Najib, has worked for over a decade with the International Red Cross-and the local magazine, Afghan Scene, just carried a photo of him helping amputees. "That very night I left Kabul," says Najib.
He and other Christians tell me that hundreds fled-to farther cities or in some cases out of the country. Najib fled, too, but returned when he felt he had nowhere else to go. That's when he learned that his extended family-who are Muslims-had sold all he owned-house, car, belongings-and taken the proceeds.
As we talk over tea, the children watch cartoons on television. The oldest, a boy, asks his sister to thread a needle, then mends a tear in the armhole of a shirt spread over his lap. Najib says he and his children have one change of clothes. "I am not sad about that. What saddens me is that all the society of believers is scattered and we don't know where they are, how to reach them, or how to help their families," says Najib, who is tall and thin and showing signs of missing a haircut.
At the same time, investigators with the government's Ministry of the Economy have visited some NGO offices to demand lists of employees, internal audits, and other records-an apparent effort to root out Western groups suspected of proselytizing or showing favoritism to Christians. A pall has fallen over believers throughout the city; even the international fellowship that is legal and customarily draws only foreigners has had to change or cancel meetings, so uncertain is the protection of human rights for Christians.
In this climate of fear and distrust, rumors complicate fact. Najib and others say 20 Christians remain imprisoned; another source tells me two are jailed. The only word about Najib's friend from the International Red Cross-a group that works to protect political prisoners the world over-arrived when a fellow inmate was released and brought news of his whereabouts to the family. Some Afghans believe that the man who made the video and provided it to television stations was a spy, someone who professed faith in Christ but remained a Muslim and is suspected of working for Iran.
Najib himself converted to Christianity in Iran almost 10 years ago, working to dig wells when he met Iranian believers. "They were singing songs and worshipping God," he said. "I thought you could only worship God with sorrow. This was good news for me."
Such conversions under the Taliban were punishable by death. Najib is waiting-unbelievably-to find out whether they remain punishable under a U.S.-sponsored government, one that is a signatory to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Its Article 18 reads, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."
Email Mindy Belz