Friday, April 8, 2022

Afghanistan, the Afghan Church, and J. Christy Wilson Jr.

J. Christy Wilson Jn. (1921 – 1999)
No missionaries in Afghanistan? Here I am, send me! 

by Elizabeth Kendal

Kabul, Afghanistan, February 1973. German businessman Hans Mohr stands in the office of the German-educated mayor of Kabul. Having learned that the mayor has ordered his church be demolished, Mohr has come to advocate for Afghanistan’s one and only church. 

A few months earlier, in September 1972, Afghan soldiers armed with demolition tools attacked the church’s perimeter wall. On that occasion, American ambassador Robert Neumann appealed to the king who intervened to restore peace. However, the soldiers returned in February ‘73, while Neumann was out of the country, and demolished the wall entirely.

Dedicated in May 1970, the Community Christian Church of Kabul (CCCK) had been built to serve the foreign community in Kabul. Under the guidance of King Mohammed Zahir Shah, Kabul had been on a path of modernisation since the 1950s. But by 1970, Islam was rising and tensions were soaring. 

Upon leaving the mayor’s office, Hans Mohr issued a warning that proved to be prophetic: “If your government touches that house of God, God will overthrow your government.”

Eventually, all efforts at advocacy proved futile; the church was notified that demolition would commence on 13 June (1973). The church handed over the keys with a note that read: “May God bless you and your country.”

GOD OPENS THE DOOR 

click on map to enlarge

Christianity reached Afghanistan in the fourth Century, via the Silk Route. By the 420s, Isfahan (in Iran), Merv (in Turkmenistan) and Herat (in western Afghanistan) all had bishops. Islam’s arrival brought persecution and subjugation; but it was not until the 14th century that Christianity collapsed across Asia. A vulnerable minority within an Islamic Turco-Mongol super-Caliphate, the Christian communities of Central Asia and Afghanistan were annihilated; their ecclesiastical institutions shredded beyond repair. The killings peaked during the reign of Amir Timur, also known as Timur the Lame, or Tamerlane. The genocidal Turco-Mongol warlord – who ruled from 1370 to 1405 – is believed to be responsible for the deaths of some 17 million people. 

Brave Christian missionaries ventured into Afghanistan in the 17th and 18th centuries. Armenian Christians built a church in Kabul in the late 1700s, but by 1896 it had been destroyed and abandoned. In the 19th century Protestant mission agencies built schools and medical clinics for Afghans, but outside the country, mostly in Peshawar, Pakistan. Afghanistan’s strict bans on proselytisation (Christian witness) and apostasy (leaving Islam) made working inside the country far too dangerous. 

Then came Christy Wilson. 

J. Christy Wilson Jn. was born to US missionary parents in Tabriz, north-western Iran in 1921. As a child he loved to hear stories of converts from Islam and was drawn to Afghanistan primarily through listening to his parents’ prayers for the country. 

When Christy was 5-years old, Pastor Stefan Huviar of Tabriz, asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. 

 “I want to be a missionary to Afghanistan,” Christy answered.

“Well,” said Pastor Huviar, “missionaries aren’t allowed in Afghanistan.” 

“That’s why I want to be one there,” Christy replied. 

After completing studies in Princeton (USA) and Edinburgh (UK), Christy married Betty in 1950. Together they committed to serve in Afghanistan. 

Eager to modernise, Afghanistan was seeking teachers and skilled workers. Missionaries, however, were not allowed. Aware of this, Christy determined to enter Afghanistan as a teacher, so he might live there as a Christian and cultivate relationships with Afghan Muslims. 

Eventually, Christy was offered a job teaching English in Habibia High School, the oldest secondary school in Kabul. 

ZERO CHRISTIANS

One of Kabul's three paved roads - 1951.
More images: The Atlantic

When Christy and Betty Wilson arrived in Afghanistan in 1951, poverty was rampant, and the illiteracy rate was 97 percent. While there were 52 different languages and over 100 people groups the number of known Christians was zero. 

When they first arrived in Kabul, the Wilsons prayed and worshipped secretly with other foreign workers. Discovering Christy was an ordained minister, the group requested he serve as their pastor and preach weekly. Christy devoted himself to the task and the church grew. It was thanks to his ministry that quite a few foreigners found Christ in Kabul! 

In late 1952, the group planted the Community Christian Church of Kabul – an evangelical interdenominational congregation for the foreign community. Eager to focus on pastoral ministry, Christy asked the Afghan government if it would permit him to stay in Kabul as a pastor for the foreign community, rather than as an English teacher. The government agreed!

Children in a Kabul street, 1961.
More images: The Atlantic

Though not free to openly share the Gospel, Christy was free to rise early and pray, ‘to show the fruits of the Spirit’, and to help those in need. To his delight, local Afghans were constantly at his door and on the phone, requesting help, seeking advice, and asking questions. 

Before long, the number of known Afghan Christians was no longer zero. 

AN UNDERGROUND CHURCH IS BORN

When one young Afghan convert was discovered and imprisoned, in shackles in ankle deep water, Christy gathered the church to pray. 

Late at night there was a knock at the door. Assuming another believer had come to join the secret meeting, the homeowner sent his daughter Cathy to let them in. When she opened the door, Cathy found the young Afghan believer for whom they were praying. Shocked, she ran back into the house, leaving the young man standing at the door. Cathy was knick-named Rhoda after that (Acts 12:3-19).

Released for unknown reasons, the convert had come straight to Christy’s home. Once they had tended to him, the believers had the convert smuggled out of the country. 

On another occasion, the brother of a martyred convert arrived at Christy’s door in anguish. He’d had a dream in which he saw his martyred brother alive in a garden full of beautiful fruit. When he asked for some fruit, his brother told him to “go to the home of Christy Wilson and ask him to you show the way”. 

“I’ve seen my brother in heaven,” he exclaimed, “and he sent me to your home! You must have the truth. What is it?” 

Despite being arrested and tortured, this convert never renounced his faith in Christ.

THE BUILDING IS CONSTRUCTED 

In 1956 the community of foreign Christians in Kabul began to pray for permission to construct a church building. Every request met with rejection. In 1959, Christy decided to take the advocacy up a level. He contacted a pastor friend in Washington DC who he knew had forged a relationship with President Eisenhower. The issue would be reciprocity: since the US government had built a mosque in Washington DC, might the Afghan government allow the construction of a church for foreign Christians in Kabul? 

Eager for US aid, the Afghan government agreed, albeit reluctantly. Still, the church faced obstacle after obstacle. In 1966 the Prime Minister’s office granted the church permission to buy land. By July 1969 enough money had been raised for construction to begin. Eventually, the Community Christian Church of Kabul was complete. A service of dedicated was held on Pentecost Sunday 17 May 1970.  

ISLAM RISING

After two world wars in which Muslims (first the Turks, then the Arabs) fought on the losing side, many assumed Islam – which had been in decline for centuries – was as good as dead. But they were wrong. For while the West was consumed with Cold War intrigues, Islam had embarked on a path to revival.  

In February 1973, having ordered the church be demolished, the Afghan government decided Christy Wilson should be expelled. The US Ambassador warned the Wilsons that their safety could no longer be guaranteed. On 24 March 1973, Christy and Betty fled Afghanistan – a land, and whose people, they loved and had served for 22 years. 

The demolition of the Community Christian Church of Kabul commenced on 13 June 1973. After a few weeks, the church had been totally razed and the rubble cleared. Then, to everyone’s surprise, the bulldozers didn’t leave – instead they started to dig! Having heard rumors of an “underground church” Afghan secret police ordered the bulldozers dig “twelve feet” below the foundations!  

Finally, on 17 July 1973, having completed the demolition, and having failed to find any “underground church”, the bulldozers packed up and went home. 

That very evening, Mohammed Daoud Khan – the king’s cousin and former prime minister – seized power in a bloodless coup. Khan abolished the monarchy and declared himself President of the Republic of Afghanistan. 

Hans Mohr’s prophecy had come to pass. Afghanistan has been wracked with conflict and bloodshed ever since. 

Despite the bloodshed and terror, Afghanistan’s underground church has both survived and grown, for God – the one who knows – is the one who holds the keys. He has opened the door – a door on-one is able to shut (Rev 3:7-13).   

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article based on the biography:
Where No-one Has Heard: the Life of J. Christy Wilson Jr.
By Ken Wilson (William Carey Library, Pasadena, CA, 2015)

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See also:
Afghanistan: Islam, the Taliban, and the Underground Church
By Elizabeth Kendal, 8 April 2022

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Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate, and an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).