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Well-founded fear

"Well-founded fear" Continued...

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

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.

Dangerous evidence

Is the video for real?

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.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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