Christians in Afghanistan

Under Suspicion

For centuries, Afghanistan remained largely isolated. Now the country is increasingly confronted with foreign influences and other religions, Christianity in particular. Islamic hardliners are fiercely resisting this development. Martin Gerner reports

Man in Afghanistan (photo: AP)
"Afghans working for Christian NGOs must still be very careful not to be suspected of sympathizing with Christian beliefs," a UNHCR report states

​​"At this time there are no Christians living in Afghanistan, and there is no organized church," states a report by the UN refugee aid organization UNHCR. When Afghans do come into contact with Christians, it is usually in connection with one of more than 3,000 international aid organizations now working in the country. In contrast to the days of Taliban rule, it has become relatively unproblematic for Christian aid organizations to work in Afghanistan.

The Green Helmets, initiated by Rupert Neudeck, the former founder of Cap Anamur, has the official aim of bringing Christians and Muslims together to cooperate on relief work. In one case this even led to a former German staff member converting to Islam.

The case of Abdul Rahman is just the opposite: "Afghans working for Christian NGOs must still be very careful not to be suspected of sympathizing with Christian beliefs," the UNHCR report states. In the Abdul Rahman case the Christian aid organization Shelter Now has come under fire once again.

Increasing number of conversions to Christianity?

The converted Afghan is said to have worked for the organization, a claim which Shelter Now denies. In August 2001, 24 Shelter Now staff members, among them four Germans, were kidnapped by the Taliban. They were accused of unauthorized missionary work. Shelter Now continues to vehemently deny the accusation.

There are no reliable data on Muslims who have unofficially converted to Christianity. "Experts believe that conversions have become more common recently," claims journalist Harald Biskup, but cites no grounds for this conclusion. He could be referring to information according to which a total of five Afghan converts to Christianity have been murdered in the conservative province of Ghazni and other regions of Afghanistan.

One of the victims is said to have been a former Mullah who was accused of spreading Christianity with "suspicious books." All five converts were stabbed or beaten to death.

Centuries of geographic and social isolation

The fact that many Afghans know little about foreigners in general and Christians in particular is the result of centuries of geographic and social isolation. The apostle Thomas preached Christianity in what is now Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan between 42 and 49 A. D., but there are no records of Christianity taking hold along the Hindukush.

By contrast, Sikhs, Hindus and Jews have lived in Afghanistan for centuries, guaranteeing religious diversity. Of more than 3,500 Sikh and Hindu families – most of whom fled under the Taliban – a number have now returned. They have their own places of worship and political lobbies. Jewish life in Afghanistan flourished in the wake of immigration after the Russian Revolution of 1917, lasting until the religious and political radicalization of the early 80s. Today there is only one Jew living in the entire country.

The remote Afghan province of Nuristan, formerly known as Kafiristan (or "Land of the Heathens") was not Islamicized until 1896. In these mountain regions the Kalash and some of their animistic rituals are still tolerated today. Afghanistan has no Christian minorities comparable to the Armenians in Iran.

Ecumenical service in arms

Today Christian services in Afghanistan are held either by a chaplain in the Kabul barracks of the ISAF peacekeeping troops or in the Italian Embassy, just outside the grounds of the Presidential Palace. An ecumenical service is held every week: several dozen development aid workers kneel alongside American soldiers who take their weapons along even when praying in church.

The enlightened position of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, which expresses regret over conversions from Islam, but recognizes them as a civil right, is not widespread in Afghanistan, nor does it have the potential to persuade a majority. It cannot even be openly discussed in the newspapers.

What is more, the hardliners in the Afghan justice system feel put on the defensive by the Abdul Rahman case. In the face of rapid changes and Western "benefits" such as alcohol, gambling and the sex industry, which have taken hold over the past four years, they see terms like "democracy" as opening the gates to a situation in which everything is permissible. And those importing these new developments to Afghanistan are, for the most part, Christians.

Democracy and Afghan law

No quick solution to the dilemma is in the offing. The conflict is anchored in the Afghan constitution, which recognizes human rights and freedom of religion, but prohibits violations of Islamic law. The Abdul Rahman case is unlikely to be the last eruption of this conflict.

In the Afghan context, education would be helpful. Many Afghans do not know what Christianity stands for, or that it, like Islam, is rooted in the Old Testament.

The Abdul Rahman case has led to renewed demands not to deport Afghan converts to Christianity currently living in Europe back to Afghanistan. At present hundreds of converts are threatened with this fate. This raises the question of whether Afghans living in German might now use a conversion to Christianity in a bid to ensure their right to stay in Germany.

Martin Gerner

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

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