Christians in Afghanistan have been paralyzed with fear at the news that the Taliban has taken control of the country. Nadine Maenza, chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom said the Taliban takeover ‘is the worst possible development for religious minorities. While most from these communities left Afghanistan in recent years, those that remain, and women in particular, are now in imminent danger.’
News received by Aid to the Church in Need echoed reports that leaders of underground house churches in Afghanistan had received letters from the Taliban warning them that they 'know where they are and what they are doing'.
According to Pew, around 90 per cent of the 37 million population is Sunni and 9.7 per cent Shia, with the remaining 0.3 per cent belonging to other religions. The number of Christians in the country is thought to be below 20,000, perhaps as low as 1,000. Most Christians in Afghanistan are underground, so getting a precise estimate of their number is nigh-on impossible.
There is only one Catholic church in the whole of Afghanistan, hidden away in the Italian embassy but that was forced to shut due to the pandemic. In 2018, there were an estimated 200 Catholics in the country. The Catholic charity Caritas, which has been present in Afghanistan since the 1990s, said they may now need to suspend their activities.
Open Doors, a charity that challenges Christian persecution, ranks Afghanistan as the second-worst country for believers. It says that under former president Ashraf Ghani, Christians faced ‘clan pressure’: in other words, persecution was most likely to come from friends and family. Converts to Christianity risked being killed, or at least disowned, by their family, clan or tribe. In some cases, conversion was treated as a psychiatric condition. There are cases of former Muslims being sectioned.
The constitution of Afghanistan establishes Islam as the state religion and, according to a US Department of State report, religious minorities have to exercise their faith ‘within the limits of the law’. Conversion from Islam is apostasy and can be punished by death, imprisonment or confiscation of property. Proselytizing is also punishable by death.
In Taliban-controlled parts of the country, the treatment of Christians has been harsher. In 2010, the extremist group murdered ten humanitarian aid workers during a medical mission to Badakhshan in the north. They accused them of being foreign spies and of spreading Christianity.
A man named Brother Firas — not his real name — a convert from Islam to Christianity, told International Christian Concern how the takeover move has been received by believers and how the Taliban will operate. According to the charity, he said:
“They will kill the known Christians and want to spread fear. There are already posters appearing that if you have single girls, 15 years old, you have to marry them to Taliban soldiers. Christians fear their daughters will be taken away from them and forced to marry Taliban. They will be sent to madrasas to brainwash them. The parents may or may not be killed... One man received a letter that his house now belongs to the Taliban. He is a simple man who makes crafts and his entire savings are in his house. The Taliban will take the property and assets of the Christians and all their women will be taken.
The Taliban’s swift and efficient rise to power, seemingly out of nowhere, suggests that extremist groups can lie dormant for years, ready to return. This brings to mind Isis in Iraq and Syria. Despite being militarily defeated, many of their members are still at large and therefore still pose a threat to the region’s Christians.
Fr Andrzej Halemba, former head of Middle East projects at Aid to the Church in Need, said that Christians in Syria and Iraq could yet see militant Islamism repeat the atrocities seen in Afghanistan. He said:
“Daesh wanted to eradicate Christians. The genocidal mentality is alive with Al-Nusra and other groups. If Christians can stay together and help each other, they can stay in the Middle East. If they don’t, it could be like Turkey after the terrible genocide in 1915.
Christians in Afghanistan will be bracing themselves. Will they be forced to convert back to Islam? Will they be killed if they refuse? Will their property be confiscated? Will they manage to remain undetected? To judge by the desperate and disturbing scenes of those trying to flee their country, the future is bleak for Afghanistan’s beleaguered Christian population.