Blog #302: Afghanistan’s Courageous Christians

Journalist Jon Brown, writing on the Fox News website, marked the first anniversary of Americans pulling out of Afghanistan with this report: Christians who remain in Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover face routine torture and persecution from both the government and their own friends, families and communities, according to humanitarian and watchdog groups.

“There are still Christians in Afghanistan,” said Todd Nettleton, an author and radio host who works for the international humanitarian nonprofit Voice of the Martyrs. “I think during the time of the Taliban takeover a year ago, there was a lot of coverage that kind of suggested that all the Christians had fled the country.” Nettleton explained that as the Afghan government crumbled last year, many Christians did flee because they knew the Taliban’s hard-line theology and intolerance toward Christians, especially those who had converted from Islam. Many who were widely known to have renounced Islam for Christianity escaped to other countries, he said, but the potentially thousands of Christians who remain face profound challenges. “Those are the people who made the incredible bold decision to stay in the country,” Nettleton said. “And their attitude was, ‘Listen, if all the Christians flee the country, who’s going to be here to share the gospel, who’s going to be here to be the church?’ And so they made that courageous decision to stay, even knowing that the Taliban would be taking over; knowing it was a very risky thing.” Voice of the Martyrs has labeled Afghanistan a “restricted” country, where “beatings, torture and kidnappings are routine” for Christians. Christians are also forbidden to openly worship or evangelize in the country, where the population is 99.8% Muslim and both local and national governments are “highly antagonistic” toward Christian believers. The number of Christians who are martyred there, though small, generally die “without public knowledge,” the guide further explains, and “converts from Islam are often killed by family members or other radicalized Muslims before any legal proceedings can begin.”

Nettleton pointed out that while conditions for religious liberty have “certainly worsened” because of the Taliban, “the first line of persecution is your family members, it’s your neighbors.” Former Muslims who convert and then fail to show up for prayers at the local mosque often face suspicion from their tight-knit communities. He recalled one Afghan man his organization is in contact with who was forced to move his family three times for such reasons during the first eight months of the Taliban’s restored regime.

Nettleton, however, is hopeful that Christian revival is possible in Afghanistan as its people see how poorly the Taliban is treating them. Noting how the Taliban claims to be following in the footsteps of Muhammad and adhering to the purest interpretation of the Koran, he said their oppression might lead some to question the merits of Islam. “They see an economy in shambles, they see people going hungry,” he said. “And they will start to wonder, ‘If this is how the best Muslims run a country, do I really want to be the best Muslim? Do I want to pursue Islam? Does Islam have the answers that I want?’ And so that’s what I hope will happen.” Nettleton added that the persecuted Afghan Christians who speak to his organization ask that their fellow Christians around the world would pray for them.

David Curry, a commissioner on the federal U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) who also serves as CEO of the non-denominational Christian mission Open Doors USA, echoed Nettleton’s assertions, relaying the story of an Afghan Christian his organization knows named Saad, who confirmed that the Taliban had a list of Christians they distributed last year in an attempt to hunt them down. “Many Christians did flee Afghanistan when the Taliban took over,” Curry said. “Some did stay because they want to be ‘salt and light’ in a theological sense in that country, even though it became more hostile.” The phrase “salt and light” traces back to the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus commanded his followers to live righteously as witnesses among nonbelievers. “So, they want to be part of the community,” he added. “They love their country. It’s totally understandable why many fled, but there is an embattled Christian community there in Afghanistan still today.”

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