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.
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.
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."
Arrested with Musa was Ahmed Shah Reza, whom Musa had met at Christian gatherings but soon discovered to be a spy working, he said, for Grand Ayatollah Mohseni, a hardline Shiite cleric who runs an Islamic school in Tehran. In jail Reza renounced Christianity and was released by order of the attorney general. Musa was accused of apostasy, and the attorney general's office announced he could be hanged pending a trial. But scheduled court appearances came and went, postponed as the government faced mounting embarrassment over the case.
Americans working in Afghanistan who knew Musa wrote to the U.S. embassy in Kabul to protest that he was illegally detained and denied due process. An Aug. 1 letter read: "If it is found that Mossa's life is in jeopardy because he exercised his right to choose his own faith, I entreat that the US Embassy do what it can to ensure his safety. ... The US government has been actively engaged in Afghanistan since 2001, spending billions of dollars, exerting millions of hours of manpower, and losing precious American lives in order to ensure that the Afghan people enjoy these basic human rights. If one cannot enjoy these rights, none can enjoy them."
Members of Congress and European diplomats also began to press their respective embassies to pressure the Karzai government for his release. Five members of the House international religious freedom caucus also wrote to Kabul ICRC head Stocker Reto. Yet throughout Musa's ordeal, and despite over 15 years working for the Red Cross, ICRC representatives never visited him or intervened on his behalf. Reto and ICRC officers in Geneva said the agency had to remain "neutral."
Kabul prisons have come under new scrutiny since the UN released a report in October on prison conditions, documenting beatings and torture under the watch of the National Security Directorate and other branches. Under the Leahy Amendment, the United States is blocked from funding facilities where such abuse takes place. But while the report focused on Taliban detainees, transfers from Guantanamo, and other "armed conflict" prisoners, it said nothing about those jailed over non-violent issues, like Musa-even though the ICRC assisted in the survey for the report.
The staunchest advocates Musa had outside the prison were a European couple, former neighbors in Kabul. They contacted officials, organized prayer meetings, and set up prison visits-sometimes successful, often not. They are not named in this story because they continue to work in Kabul.
But none of the mounting international pressure then made a difference. Colder weather set in and Musa began his sixth month in captivity in an unheated, overcrowded detention room. He didn't have a blanket or change of clothes until late September and slept on a mat on the floor. Meals of rice and soup came twice a day.
Worse, taunts and beatings grew constant. A man he describes as the "prison mullah" called him an infidel and encouraged inmates to abuse him. They beat him with wooden sticks, kicked him to the floor, punched him, and spit in his face. Someone produced a skullcap, forced it on him, and mocked him as Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. Then he was raped.
Seated in his bright kitchen now, Musa struggles to recall that time with words. He was "in despair," he said. His family had been forced to flee to Pakistan, kicked out of their home by the landlord and threatened by neighbors. He had only visits from the European couple to look forward to, and little news from outside. He began to write and smuggle out letters-24 in all-sent with the couple from the prison in a bag containing his dirty laundry.
One, a two-page letter addressed in Musa's cursive to "the international church of the world and to the president brother Barack Obama," caught the attention of political and church leaders. He described the torture in prison, his lack of legal representation (several government-appointed lawyers had refused the case of an "infidel"), and said: "I am alone between 400 holders of terrible values in the jail like a sheep." He signed it, "your destitute brother."
For weeks Musa said he believed he was only awaiting his execution. When officials told him he would be hanged in three days unless he converted back to Islam, he asked them to be sure to hang him publicly.
U.S. officials grew increasingly aware that the case was a black eye on the already bruised record of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. After the letter was publicized, the U.S. embassy and others successfully pressured Afghan officials to move Musa to the Kabul Detention Center, a facility inside the provincial governor's compound reserved mostly for Taliban fighters, where Musa slept in a corridor to avoid further beatings.
According to NATO sources, Gen. David Petraeus-then commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan-raised the case in an early December meeting with Karzai (spokesmen for both governments would not confirm the discussion). Sima Samar, who chairs the Afghanistan Independent Rights Commission and was one of two female cabinet ministers under Karzai's interim administration in 2001-2002, confirmed in December that Karzai was aware of Musa's case.
But as snow blanketed Kabul and the year ended, Musa's despair deepened. One night he says, "I cried and asked the Lord, 'Why did you do this? I did not do any bad things. Why don't you help me?' During the night I saw a dream and in it Jesus ... saying, 'Musa, I am always with you.' I am lying on the ground and Jesus gave me His hand."
Musa said he woke up in a sweat, but afterward, "When people in prison speak bad to me, I laugh at them because I see that my Lord is alive."
The ordeal wasn't over, and when British Sunday Times reporter Miles Amoore visited Musa in early February, he described the convert as weak and limping, "looking haggard and speaking nervously in Dari, the local language." Guards had forbidden him to speak in English. "I don't care if they crucify me upside down," Musa told Amoore. "My spirit will still be alive. I am only afraid of God. Only he can send my soul to hell."
Not long after that interview, officers sent Musa to the attorney general's office to meet two officials, one an ambassador from the undisclosed country where Musa now lives and then U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. Both apparently were prepared to offer Musa and his family asylum (the U.S. embassy in Kabul did not confirm that the meeting took place, and several sources close to the case asked that further details not be divulged).
Musa says he told both diplomats, "I love much my country, I do not want to go, I love my community, I love my people, I love my work and my patients. But if you insist then you know better." He said he would not volunteer for asylum, he would have to be forced to leave. The ambassadors departed, and officials from the attorney general's office returned. They made it clear to Musa that the only way he could remain in Afghanistan was to renounce Christianity and return to Islam. He refused.
Someone came to take his picture, and several days later diplomats came to collect him from jail. At night they took him to the airport, where he boarded a jet and was flown from Afghanistan in February. His family joined him three weeks later.
In a new land, Musa and his family have some support from the government and a charity group, but he can't legally hold a job yet, and for eight months his children did not attend school. Now five of his six children, who range in age from 17 to 5 years old, are in school. The family has received important medical care-including overdue treatment for Musa's amputated stump and surgery to remove shrapnel from his other leg. And they have found a supportive church that is providing fellowship along with clothing and other essentials.
Challenges remain. Culture shock runs deep. The family must learn a new language to manage, and Musa says they have been cautious about interacting with other Afghan refugees because most are Muslims who may again put Musa's life in danger. In Norway Afghans at a refugee processing center attacked a Christian convert in September, scalding him with boiling water and acid. And just this month, Afghan refugees in India came under new threats of attack (see "Well-founded fear," July 16, 2011). For now, he is careful not to discuss his whereabouts and is not sure what his family's long-term plan will be.
Musa, who often calls himself "the sinnest person in the world," said he gradually came to see that "if I die or if I am released, it is the same." But now that he is released, he says, "Life is really good. I have my family, they are OK, and it was all the plan of God."