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Holding fast

"Holding fast" Continued...

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

During pre-Taliban fighting, a bomb shattered a house in the Kabul neighborhood where Musa lived. Inside eight family members died. The destruction and grief was overwhelming, said Musa. While he worked with others to find survivors amid the rubble, two Western women showed up to help also.

Who are these women? Musa asked a neighbor. "They are Christians, followers of Jesus Christ," was the reply. "That was the first time I heard the name of Jesus Christ," said Musa. "I saw that they were really good people, and I thought I should find who Jesus Christ is." Musa met other Christians while working for the ICRC. "I could not dare to ask but finally I did: 'What is a Christian? Do you have a book?'" he said to one, eventually receiving a Bible and an offer to answer his questions.

Reading it on his own, he said, "I realized this is the word of God. I did not find any difficulty in the Bible, but the Quran for me is difficult. It's in Arabic and I don't speak Arabic. Two thousand years ago Jesus spoke, but for me everything became new." Several weeks later, Musa and his wife were baptized.

Did you tell friends you had become a Christian? I asked. "As I studied the Bible, in my heart it was like a flame. I was never afraid. I spoke of the word of God, and some appreciated it, but some were against me."

Musa discovered enough interest in his newfound faith that the convert opened his home Friday evenings for what became a Bible study and worship time. "Sometimes there were 15 or 20, sometimes 10 or 12," he said. Friends described him as "full of boldness" and one recalled Musa reciting from memory the gospel of Matthew. At an Easter celebration he gave his testimony before an Afghan audience of about 100. Not everyone in the audience was a Christian.

Relatives opposed Musa's conversion, as did some ICRC colleagues. As the 2010 crackdown against Christians erupted, one colleague reported him to authorities. Musa said another alerted him that he would be arrested, so he left his work at ICRC "to go to NATO headquarters because I thought someone there could help me." But on the way a plainclothes policeman arrested him and jailed him in the security directorate prison only blocks from NATO. He had a small pocket Bible, he said, which prison authorities confiscated and never returned to him.

"After that they beat me. They asked me many questions: 'How many Christians are there? How many foreigners are working with you? If you say any foreigners' name I will release you,'" recalls Musa. The beating by security officers continued off and on for two months. He admits, "I lied about some things-because I didn't want others to be treated this way."

Musa was not the only Christian convert to be arrested. In Herat two Afghans along with two Western workers-one South African and another Korean-American-were jailed in August. One of the Afghans, held for 29 days, described for me his Aug. 10 arrest at gunpoint, and said he was beaten and imprisoned with "murderers, the worst people ... they threatened to kill me." The others arrested along with him also were released within a month.

Authorities arrested Shoib Assadullah, 25, in Mazar-e-Sharif in October for allegedly giving someone a New Testament. He remained in jail until April 2011 and, like Musa, reported beatings and mistreatment while imprisoned.

Surprisingly, the 2010 edition of Operation World, an encyclopedic global prayer guide, lists Afghanistan number 2 in a ranking of "Countries with the Fastest Growing Evangelical Population." Number 1 is Iran at 19.6 percent growth over the five-year period 2005-2010, with Afghanistan's growth rate at 16.7 percent and all other countries at less than 10 percent (estimated growth rate in the United States is 0.8 percent).

A major factor in that statistic, according to Operation World editor Jason Mandryk, is that the five-year Taliban regime eradicated indigenous churches and church groups, and Mandryk estimates Afghan Christians to now number in the hundreds. "The increase of Afghan believers is impossible to document, yet undeniable," he said. (The State Department estimates the number of Christians in Afghanistan between 500 and 8,000.)

The growth rate includes the influx of Western aid workers who are Christians, although expatriate workers and Afghan believers rarely worship or congregate together for fear of endangering or drawing attention to one another.

"When you read Scripture you see that persecution is the inevitable result of church growth and people resolutely and radically following Jesus," said Mandryk. "They might not represent large numbers, but the growth rates tend to be higher where persecution is most prevalent and intense."

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