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Photo by Mindy Belz for WORLD

Holding fast

Religion | As churches around the world prepare for Persecution Sunday this month, Afghan Christian Sayed Musa tells how he survived government-led imprisonment and abuse

Issue: "Food stamps surge," Nov. 19, 2011

It's 67 stone steps up a hill beneath shade trees and across a busy intersection to the gate of the three-story building where Sayed Musa lives in a two-room apartment with his family of eight. I ring the bell and someone buzzes me in.

In the hallway I'm greeted by smiling children and ushered into a bright kitchen where the white tiles shine and the counter is clean and cleared like you see only in glossy magazines. At a flat-screen television two children are watching an episode of Alias. Then from the bedroom emerges Musa himself, wearing a pressed shirt over creased khakis, looking thin but nothing like the man many of us came to know a year ago. Then Musa's home was a prison in downtown Kabul. Our meeting marks the first time the Christian convert, 46, has met with a reporter to tell his story since gaining freedom and finding himself in a new, undisclosed location outside Afghanistan.

Musa's story made headlines and stirred officials worldwide last year after agents from Afghanistan's National Security Directorate (akin to the CIA) jailed him for converting from Islam to Christianity. His is a penetrating study of the persecution of converts from Islam-often labeled apostates under Islamic law who can be put to death-as churches and faith-based organizations highlight the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church on Nov. 13.

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Musa was one of several Christians arrested in May 2010, following the nationwide broadcast of a videotape showing an Afghan-American and others baptizing Afghans. The videotape turned out to be two years old, but a parliamentary election campaign was on, and Nasto Nadiri, host of a Noorin TV show that first aired the clips, was running for a seat. Taking a stand against Christians and the West was a way to stake a position against the Karzai government and its supporting parties.

The television station announced it would take evidence of Christian evangelism to parliament, and Karzai's allies took the bait: Abdul Sattar Khawasi, deputy secretary of the lower house, said all Afghan nationals who converted to Christianity should be publicly executed. Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar ordered authorities to draw up a list of foreign organizations working in Afghanistan to investigate possible Christian activity.

Throughout June and July, 13 mostly faith-based organizations-many with longstanding humanitarian work in Afghanistan-had their offices and in some cases homes of workers visited and records searched by security officers. The government ultimately cleared them.

Up to 25 Christians were jailed then released, locals said, but no one knew what had become of Musa. For two months authorities handed out no notice of his arrest or charges against him. His wife didn't learn of his whereabouts until an inmate released from the same jail visited her with news of her husband. She saw him for the first time following his arrest on July 27.

The crackdown jolted religious freedom advocates. The Karzai government is a signatory to the UN Declaration on Human Rights, which calls for freedom of religion and equal access to "a fair and public hearing." It also forbids "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment."

Afghanistan's constitution, drafted with U.S. oversight in 2004, states in Article 2: "Followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law."

The jailing of religious minorities after nearly a decade of fighting marked a bipartisan setback for the United States-as both Presidents Bush and Obama were on record promoting broad-based, representative government in Afghanistan with equal rights for all as an essential way to tamp down al-Qaeda and affiliated insurgents. The imprisonment of Musa-an amputee with six children (including one who is handicapped and cannot speak), a medical worker who had done nothing more violent than change his religion-spelled reversal of U.S. aims.

Sayed Musa was born in a village in central Afghanistan, the son of hardworking Hazaras, an oppressed ethnic minority: "I was Muslim and I went to the mosques, I prayed and was strict." The name "Sayed" means direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad. (The name "Musa" often has been transliterated Mosa or Mossa, including by WORLD.)

As a first officer in the army under the Soviet-backed government in 1989, Musa stepped on a landmine on patrol in Kandahar. The explosion forced partial amputation of his left leg, and Musa spent the next month in a hospital and most of the next year in rehab. But the trauma led him to a career working with the disabled. He became an orthopedic therapist for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Kabul-a position he would hold through the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the U.S. invasion in 2001, and until his arrest last year.

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