In the midst of ongoing brutality against Afghanistan's small Christian minority, the UN agency in charge of processing international refugees has denied protection to at least eight Afghan Christians and their families who recently fled their country and are living in India. All face deadlines for deportation back to Afghanistan, where recent episodes of violence demonstrate that they have reason to fear persecution-even death.
Amin Ali, together with his wife and four children, is one. He told officers of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in New Delhi that he converted to Christianity in Afghanistan 11 years ago but encountered problems beginning in March 2010. Government officers whom he calls "intelligence spies" began to follow him.
Ali said they monitored him for his Christian activities, and two months later-when a televised broadcast of a baptism service provoked the Karzai government to think that Christianity may be spreading among Afghan Muslims-he felt certain he and his family would be arrested. Security officials did arrest dozens of Christians following the broadcasts and held at least two men for over six months, eventually sentencing them to death but never carrying out the sentence.
Despite assurances in April that his case would likely be decided in his family's favor, the UNHCR denied his claim in May. India's Ministry of Home Affairs has sent Ali and his family a letter authorizing their deportation. "I am not able to return to my home country because right now Afghan Christians are imprisoned, sentenced to death by the Afghan Islamic Republic, and also executed by Muslim Extremists," Ali wrote in a pending appeal with UNHCR. For now he and his family live in India illegally.
"There are severe penalties under Afghan law, including imprisonment and potential execution, for Afghans who convert from Islam to Christianity," said Aidan Clay, regional spokesman in the Middle East for International Christian Concern (ICC), a watchdog group. "Aman, his family, and others whose applications were denied, will likely face a cruel punishment if they are forced to return to Afghanistan."
Cruelty aptly describes the punishment directed at Christians. News recently reached U.S. officials of a beheading that took place outside Herat-a western city and Afghanistan's third-largest-earlier this year. Militants captured the atrocity on video and a two-minute clip eventually found its way to students at Herat University.
In the video four militants claiming to be Taliban recite a death sentence against Abdul Latif, a Christian convert in his 40s taken from his village south of Herat. At least two of the killers carry automatic weapons and all wear suicide explosive vests. Scarves cover their faces.
Pinned to the ground by the militants' feet, his hands tied behind his back and his feet bound, Latif struggles as one militant reads aloud, quoting in Arabic from the Quran: As "a warning to other infidels" he says, "You who are joined with pagans . . . your sentence [is] to be beheaded . . . whoever changes his religion should be executed."
Latif on camera fights his captors from the ground, repeating, "For God's sake, I have children," until one of the militants thrusts a medium-sized blade into the side of his neck. With blood flowing, the militants shout "Allahu Akhbar" ("God is great") over and over until Latif is completely beheaded, his head placed on top of his chest.
The video became available to WORLD through Afghan sources who are not named for their own protection (see sidebar). It caps an agonizing year for Afghanistan's small but determined Christian community. And comes just as President Barack Obama pronounced Afghan forces ready to begin controlling their own country. Ahead of a U.S. withdrawal scheduled to begin later this summer, he declared, "We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength."
Afghanistan's small Christian community, decimated by five years of Taliban rule, began slowly to grow again following the U.S. invasion in 2001. Many believed that new constitutional guarantees that "followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith" might prevail over longstanding reliance on Shariah, or Islamic, law that sentences apostates to death.
But in 2010 TV stations owned by political opponents of Karzai carried videos showing Afghans being baptized and in prayer services. The footage was years old but reaction was severe. Parliamentary leaders called for public execution of converts, and Karzai's own spokesman said the president would take steps to prevent further conversions.
Security officers questioned suspected Christians and Western aid groups. At least two among dozens initially detained were held, charged with apostasy, and sentenced to death. Sayed Musa (often transliterated as Mosa or Mossa), beaten and sexually abused while in a Kabul prison, won release nine months later with the help of Western diplomats and others. Shoaib Assadullah, held in Mazar-e-Sharif, endured similar treatment before his release in March.
At the time Afghan Christians already exiled in New Delhi published an open letter: "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."
Obaid S. Christ helped to draft the statement. Forced to leave Afghanistan with his wife in 2007, he leads one of many small groups of Afghan believers in New Delhi, a community estimated to number about 180. Obaid (who changed his name) grew up in Kabul, the son of a senior government official. His father owned three houses in the Afghan capital, but Obaid and his wife now live in a two-room flat in New Delhi. It's a poor neighborhood, he said, but cheap and safe.
Obaid's extended family pressured him to return to Islam after learning of his conversion. When he refused, they filed a complaint against him with the Islamic Supreme Court, which issued an order sentencing him to death. By that time, Obaid and his wife already had left the country. They received refugee status through UNHCR, he said, but are currently working with six other Afghans whose cases UNHCR has closed.
India, Pakistan, and Iran are countries that routinely grant visas to fleeing Afghans. But conditions for arrivals are hard: They cannot get jobs and find little support. Some work as guides or interpreters, Obaid said, or take on menial labor in local markets. Sometimes harassment doesn't stop at the border. Obaid says he has been attacked by people he believes Afghan authorities have sent, and he has moved several times as a result: "They broke my hand and beat me, and tried to run over me with a car, but neighbors helped me escape."
Obaid fears that conditions in India are becoming more like those he left behind: "Even those who are not recognized have to be undergound, and cannot meet and fellowship openly together."
Barnabas Fund, a U.K.-based charity and advocacy organization, is funding community schools and education and helps to provide jobs for many of the Afghan Christians living in New Delhi. "But money is not the issue," said international director Patrick Sookhdeo. "The question is what should you do to protect them."
Under the statute establishing UNHCR in 1951, a refugee is someone chased from his own country "because of a well founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." Since India is not a signatory to the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have its own system to process refugees, the UN refugee agency handles all cases there. UNHCR's office in New Delhi did not return requests for comment on this story.
Continued U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is crucial, according to Obaid: "If U.S. troops are not in Afghanistan, the Taliban will come to power," he said. "We will have the same situation we had in the 1990s when the Russians left Afghanistan, when we had civil war and millions killed."
Obaid and other Afghan Christians criticize the Karzai regime, but more fear the return of Taliban influence and renewed fighting among tribal groups: "At least you cannot fight with each other now. Now you have people from different tribes in the government, but we don't know what will come after."
Despite open friction with the Karzai government, the Obama administration's drawdown plan-bringing home 33,000 troops by September 2012 and the remaining 68,000 by the end of 2014-may end the United States' role before strategic goals are met. U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus said the schedule was "more aggressive" than he advised.
Sookhdeo expects persecution of Christians to "get worse" during the U.S. drawdown phase: "In Afghanistan you are dealing with both the government and the Taliban operating an anti-Christian policy." U.S. forces have failed to protect Christians, he said, leaving little incentive for authorities to improve their own record, especially with the launch of negotiations with the Taliban. "Karzai is not going to want to muddy the waters with religious liberty," said Sookhdeo, and "America and NATO want to get out quickly."
That leaves it up to U.S. diplomats and others to press for justice by other means. And President Obama in his June 22 address to the nation on Afghanistan said nothing about what will happen to what once was touted as a "civilian surge" there. Thousands of U.S. government and private specialists have worked alongside their Afghan counterparts to spur development, modernize the Afghan government, and promote democratic values and individual liberty. On the USAID website the development agency advertises that "over 50 percent of the judiciary has been trained" through these programs. Afghan Christians have yet to see the fruit of those efforts.
In a court of law attorneys would want DNA samples and a paper trail to verify something as explosive as the video footage of Abdul Latif's beheading. "The problem time and again we have with anything having to do with Afghanistan is there is no way to verify who the individual was and confirming his conversion," said Emma Brown, legal advisor to the Barnabas Fund, the U.K.-based charity and advocacy organization.
But Barnabas Fund's experts believed the video checked out in other ways. They provided it in May to the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, and UNHCR, according to international director Patrick Sookhdeo. WORLD's editors, too-after learning about the clip and receiving it from Afghan sources-believe that its contents coincide with other facts on the ground and that the sources are reliable.
The recitation from the Quran of Latif's "sentence" in a translation made available to us is similar to other declarations made in the beheadings captured on video of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was killed in 2002 by al-Qaeda conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Pakistan; and of U.S. defense contractor Nick Berg, killed in Iraq in 2004. Like those, it does not appear doctored photographically. But those victims were identifiable missing Americans, and ID records for Latif have not surfaced, nor are family members likely to come forward.
Once the video reached Afghan Christians exiled to India, it was passed back to an aid worker in Herat Province, who determined from locals that the beheading had taken place and that Latif was a Christian convert (his name and village, in addition to his "infidel" status, are recited in the video). We believe the video is too graphic to be released, but significant enough to describe it as evidence of the dangers awaiting Afghan converts from Islam.