Hidden Afghan Christians who were denied aid a year after US withdrawal

KABUL, Afghanistan (BP) — Christians in Afghanistan are being forced into greater secrecy and largely cut off from humanitarian aid, International Christian Concern (ICC) said in its report marking the first anniversary of the US withdrawal from the Muslim country.

The ICC’s estimate of 10,000 to 12,000 Christians in the country is the same as estimates immediately before the Taliban took control there early reports of a mass exodus by Christians who were already praying there in secret.

Because belonging to Christianity and other minority religions is punishable by death under the Taliban’s strict Sharia law, many Christians would like to leave the country but have no safe way out, the ICC said in its report, which outlines a long-term strategy in the international calls for humanitarian aid.

“Most Christians see no future in Afghanistan. Emigration is a severely restricted privilege enjoyed by a select few,” ICC said in the report. “Widows, unmarried women and the elderly are among those least able to travel, creating an unsustainable environment in which they must choose between risking their lives or fleeing illegally.”

Despite being ostracized by family and friends, Christians enjoyed limited freedom to serve their immediate communities under US occupation, the ICC said, but continue to be ostracized in the current climate.

“Whether staying in Afghanistan or migrating elsewhere, Afghan Christians cannot seek humanitarian aid with the same capacity and through the same channels as other Afghans,” said ICC Senior Association Manager Claire Evans when the report was released. “Consequently, providing humanitarian assistance to Afghan Christians requires a long-term strategy that reflects the changing situation on the ground.”

Voice of the Martyrs (VOM), a global ministry for persecuted Christians, said many Christians were deliberately left behind.

“You may have heard a year ago, after the fall of Kabul, that every follower of Christ in Afghanistan fled the country, was killed, or went into hiding trying to cross the border,” said VOM spokesman Todd Nettleton to Baptist Press. “That’s just not true. Courageous believers in Christ deliberately made the decision to remain in the country—knowing full well that their lives were in danger—to serve their countrymen and continue spreading the gospel.”

BYM encouraged prayer for Christians whereabouts in Afghanistan.

In another advocacy group, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) will host virtual listening August 24 at 9:30 am Central, focuses on religious persecution in Afghanistan, US policy and recommendations for US government action.

“The Taliban’s imposition of their narrow interpretation of Sunni Islam on society at large poses a serious threat to Afghans who interpret Islam differently, have a different faith, or choose not to have any faith at all,” USCIRF said at the Webinar Announcement. “Furthermore, despite continued promises to protect all ethnic and religious communities based in Afghanistan, the Taliban de facto government has been unable to protect religious minorities from attacks by the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K). While some minority religious communities face extinction, others struggle to practice their faith in secret for fear of reprisals.”

In addition to death for apostasy, Sharia law imposes harsh penalties for other acts considered criminal, including stoning or a specified number of lashes by flogging for adultery; crucifixion, death, amputation, or banishment for highway robbery; flogging or beating for improper clothing; and execution by various means for murder and homosexuality, USCIRF reported.

More than 99 percent of Afghanistan’s 39 million people are Muslim, and the Taliban work to track down and punish those who do not adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam, the ICC said in its report. The Taliban confiscate phones from suspected Christians and monitor mosques to see who is not attending regular prayers.

“Before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Christian pastors experienced a relatively safe environment to proselytize in their respective congregations. Threats from Islamic radicals were widespread but less egregious during the post-9/11 war,” ICC said. “However, the current reign of Taliban extremism in Afghanistan presents a much more challenging context for Christians to continue evangelising.”

The ICC identified church leaders, women, ethnic minorities and former civil servants as the most vulnerable under Taliban rule. Humanitarian assistance is “incredibly limited,” ICC said, as bank transfers are impossible and cash availability at recipient locations is unreliable.

“Any leadership role within a church requires, at a minimum, welcoming newcomers, providing spiritual direction, and coordinating logistics. Because conversion to Christianity is not permitted, a Christian leader who ministers to another Christian can be considered proselytizing even if proselytizing never occurred,” the ICC said in its report. “A relative who is upset about their family member’s Christian identity may search the names of other believers. The angry family member can then report those names to the Taliban. As such, anyone who has accepted a leadership role within the Church is at significant risk.”

The international community can help by finding sustainable ways for refugees to fend for themselves and by denying diplomatic recognition to the Taliban unless the regime guarantees human rights for all Afghans, regardless of religious affiliation, he said ICC.

“The Taliban claim to be tolerant, but they are one of the worst oppressors of Christians and have a long track record of brutal crimes against vulnerable minorities,” the ICC said. “Despite hopes to the contrary, the world has seen a breakdown in basic human rights such as women’s rights, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, right of assembly” and other freedoms.

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