Well-founded fear

Afghanistan | Afghan Christians face growing threats and diminished protection as U.S. pullout nears

Issue: "Focus on Mitt Romney," July 16, 2011

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.

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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.


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