Friday, April 8, 2022

Afghanistan: Islam, the Taliban and the Underground Church


By Elizabeth Kendal

Taliban in Kabul, August 2021
(Rahmat Gul / AP)
 

On Sunday 15 August 2021, thousands of heavily armed Taliban fighters swept into Kabul and fanned out across the capital. As in provincial capitals around the country, the Afghan Army simply collapsed. Unwilling to fight, Afghan government troops surrendered Bagram airbase to the Taliban, complete with some 700 trucks, more than 300 Humvees, and dozens of armoured vehicles, artillery systems and a maximum-security prison. Roughly 5,000 prisoners were released, of whom at least 2,300 were known battle hardened militants affiliated with the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)), al-Qaeda, and Islamic State. 

A few days later, Global Catalytic Ministries – an organisation which supports underground churches in Islamic countries – released grainy footage from a young, clearly distraught, Afghan Christian. “All of our work over the past 20 years has been lost overnight,” he cries. “[We feel like the] whole world has abandoned us.” [See RLPB 612 (25 Aug 2021).]

LONG AN UNGERGROUND CHURCH

Because the Afghan Church has long been an imperilled, underground Church, the exact number of believers is unknown. After the fall of Kabul, one Afghan Church leader estimated the Christian population at 10,000 to 12,000; while another put the figure at 5,000 to 8,000. Both feared the Taliban would eventually move to “eliminate the Christian population”. 

In May 2021, just prior to the Taliban takeover, a foreign worker inside Afghanistan told World News Group correspondent Mindy Belz: “There are basically three types of believers: those who have been forced to leave the country, those who survive by exercising their faith underground, and those who are dead.”

Belz explains: “The shrouded group of believers – who meet in homes and small, trusted fellowship circles – exists entirely underground.” Yet, as she notes, Muslims continue to come to faith across the country. “Internet access coming even to remote parts of the country has brought online evangelism and private discipleship. Some Afghan church leaders became Christians while living as refugees abroad and they teach online or have returned to disciple others.” However, “Conversion from Islam continues to carry a high cost in the Afghan honour-and-shame culture. It often means loss of family, inheritance, and a job.”

“For these reasons,” writes Belz, “fellowship among believers can be rare, often taking place in online chat rooms accessed through VPNs [Virtual Private Networks], a secure connection to the internet that makes the user hard to trace. When believers do gather, they do so in small groups over lunch at an office or behind curtains in a safe house in an otherwise nondescript neighbourhood of dusty streets. Bibles are usually contraband, so Scripture is shared using the internet or with cell phone SIM cards. For all the risks, bold church leaders evangelise Muslims and baptise new believers.” 

CHRISTIAN WITNESS NOT ALLOWED

Baptisms must be performed in secret. The last time Afghans were caught participating in baptism was May 2010. On that occasion a privately-run Afghan television station, Noorin TV, broadcast footage showing Afghans being baptised and worshipping with foreign Christians in alleged “missionary safe houses” in western Kabul. 

The footage triggered a tsunami of Islamic rage in Kabul. Protestors hit the streets, demanding the expulsion of foreigners who try to convert Muslims. To appease the Muslim masses President Karzai appointed a commission to investigate all non-government organisations (NGOs) suspected of promoting Christianity. He also instructed his interior minister and the head of country’s spy agency “to take immediate and serious action to prevent this phenomenon”. In parliament, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, a deputy of the lower house, called for Muslim converts to Christianity to be executed. Qazi Nazir Ahmad, a lawmaker from the western province of Herat, affirmed that killing an apostate is “not a crime”. Twenty-five Christians were immediately arrested; over 100 Afghan converts fled to India. 

The situation for Afghan converts had been deteriorating since 2005, a consequence of the Taliban revival. Over the border, in Pakistan, US-ally President Pervez Musharraf had brokered a series of land-for-peace deals with the Taliban-al-Qaeda-tribal alliance. In February 2005 he ceded South Waziristan, and on 5 September 2006 he ceded North Waziristan, providing the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance with an autonomous mini-state – “The Islamic Emirate of Waziristan” – within Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area, along the porous border with Afghanistan.

The Waziristan Accord provided Taliban and al-Qaeda militants with a safe-haven, a sanctuary from where they could consolidate, strategise, recruit, train, deploy, enforce their writ, and expand their sphere of influence. Six months later, in February 2007, the Washington based Center for Security Policy reported that Taliban-al-Qaeda cross-border attacks inside Afghanistan had increased by 300 percent. 

Not only were terror attacks on the rise, but an apostasy trial had lit a fuse that was threatening to blow the Karzai government out of office. 

APOSTASY NOT ALLOWED

Abdul Rahman, in court March 2006 (Reuters)

Arrested in February 2006, Abdul Rahman was the first Afghan convert to be put on trial in Kabul for apostasy (the capital crime of leaving Islam). 

Afghanistan’s new US-backed Constitution – signed into law in January 2004 – states: “Followers of other religions [i.e. non-Muslims] are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law” (Article Two); and, “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam” (Article Three). In other words, nothing had changed! Afghan Muslims still had zero religious liberty.

Within months of the new US-backed Constitution being signed into law, five Afghan converts were summary executed. Concerning one execution, Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi told Reuters newsgroup, “A group of Taliban dragged out Mullah Assad Ullah and slit his throat with a knife because he was propagating Christianity.”

Vigilant killings aside, the trial of Abdul Rahman was the first real test of the Karzai government. Having failed to understand the Afghan Constitution, Western governments demanded religious freedom be respected. Meanwhile, Afghan Muslims demanded Islamic Sharia Law be upheld. Karzai was stuck between the threat of Western sanctions and the threat of Islamic riots. 

Desperate for aid, Karzai had Rahman released from prison and secretly smuggled out of the country. The Afghan response was brutal. 

On Wednesday 29 March 2006, after a two-hour debate, Afghanistan’s Wolesi Jirga (lower chamber of parliament) voted unanimously to declare the decision to release Rahman, “contrary to the laws in place in Afghanistan”. Unaware that he was already on his way to Europe, the MPs insisted Rahman not be permitted to leave the country. Justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari complained that Islamic laws were being ignored and that some government officials were not upholding Islamic values. 

The Taliban issued a statement claiming Rahman’s release was a conspiracy masterminded by foreign forces. The statement called on the mullahs and judges to admit that they had sold themselves as servants of infidels. “We condemn this crime of the puppet administration,” railed the Taliban. “We ask our Muslim brothers to take their position against this offence by the enemies of Islam and to act, based on their responsibility to their religion and God, and to start jihad against Karzai’s administration.”

In July 2006, to appease the Taliban, Karzai reinstituted the religious police of the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Disbanded after the Taliban was ousted in 2001, this force – famous for beating women, destroying art, and turning executions into spectator sport – was back! 

[For detailed reports see Religious Liberty Monitoring; label: Afghanistan]

“USED TO BEING AN UNDERGROUND CHURCH”

As Andrew Boyd of Release International UK (Voice of the Martyrs) notes, Afghan Christians “are used to being an underground church; they are used to working under the most intense pressure and persecution.”  

In October 2021, an Afghan church leader told GCM: “Today I went to visit some families. In one home, half of them are believers and half of them are not. It has been very special, when they see me they are so happy and grateful that I have not left them. I know this is the light of Jesus they are responding to. That is what I hear the most when I go visit people, that my presence gives them hope, and I know that is from the light of God. God works supernatural miracles, signs, and wonders in this part of the world often, but what I am seeing now is more of a natural kind of miracle where He is touching the hearts of people. From what I am seeing in the streets I do think things are getting worse, but it is a very special time and I think the church here will explode in growth.”            

The “light of Jesus” has not left Afghanistan, and we – the Body of Christ – can help keep that light shining. 

The humanitarian crisis facing Afghans is extreme. Reports abound of Afghans selling a kidney, a litre of blood, or even a child, just to survive. 

We - the Body of Christ - can and must help the Afghan Church survive and grow. 

SPEAK, PRAY, GIVE.

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For more on Afghanistan and the history of the Afghan Church, see:
Afghanistan, the Afghan Church, and J. Christy Wilson Jr
By Elizabeth Kendal

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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).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com