- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2021

The minuscule community of Christian believers in Afghanistan has gone underground in fear of their lives after the hard-line Islamic Taliban returned to power this week in Kabul, an expert on persecution in the region said this week.

However, estimates suggest there are between 3,000 and 12,000 Christian believers in a nation whose population hovers around 38 million. Definitive numbers are difficult to come by, since publicly identifying as a Christian can subject an Afghan believer to beatings and death.

The return of the Taliban has sparked fears the Islamist insurgency will reimpose the strict Shariah-based law it followed when it ran the country in the years before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Non-Islamic faiths could be one of the first things targeted by the new regime as it consolidates power.

“There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty given the Taliban takeover of the country,” Will Stark, South Asia regional manager for International Christian Concern, an organization headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, said in an interview. “For Afghan Christians, that’s particularly scary or concerning for them, given their status as mostly converts from Islam.”

Mr. Stark said the only recognized religious minorities even before the U.S.-backed Afghan government collapsed were Hindus and Sikhs, permitted to “live as second-class citizens.” Christianity did not have official status, he noted.

“Even under the previous government, conversion from Islam was considered very shameful and could have fairly dire consequences for individuals who became Christians,” Mr. Stark said. He added that “Taliban ideology is much more fundamentalist and extreme” on the question of what the Islamists view as “apostasy” from the nation’s official faith.

“There’s a real concern amongst Afghan Christians that targeted killings will start happening because of their status as Christians,” Mr. Stark said.

“I’ve heard reports from people I know on the ground, that they’re receiving phone calls from unknown [telephone] numbers in which they’re being told, ‘We know who you are, and we are going to come for you.’ And that’s a direct threat and likely coming from Taliban fighters or maybe the Taliban itself, that they will be targeted, because of their faith identity.”

He said undercover Christian believers in the nation — no longer able to flee to neighboring Uzbekistan or Tajikistan — are given stark instructions on how to avoid getting on the Taliban’s radar.

“From what I understand, the folks who are not known [as Christians] are being advised to essentially lay low shelter in place, if you can change your phone number, change your address, go somewhere else, and just kind of lay low for a while if you can,” Mr. Stark reported. “Individuals who had things like Bibles or Christian literature have been told to bury it, dispose of it, and get rid of it. Because if you’re found with that, there is a concern that that could lead to, you know, them being killed for being in possession of a Bible.”

Mr. Stark said it is “not realistic” to imagine that Afghan Christians would be able to safely escape a Taliban-controlled nation via relief flights out of Kabul. A family of four in Kabul with affluence, connections and an exit visa, he explained, would be in a far different situation than a rural family without finances, passports, or a way to emigrate.

What’s worse, he said, is that the Taliban now has access to lists of Afghans who filed to change their religious identity under the previous government. They “are going to be at immediate risk,” he added, “and whatever we can do to get them out, we’ve got to try.”

The other believers will simply have to “lay low” for the time being, he added.

Other U.S. evangelical leaders are speaking to the issue of Afghanistan’s Christians as well.

The Rev. Greg Laurie, the pastor of the Harvest Christian Fellowship megachurch in Orange County, California, said on Facebook, “I would ask that we all specifically remember to pray for our Christian brothers and sisters in Afghanistan right now,” adding, “This is cause for grave concern.”

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez Jr., who pastors the New Season Church in Sacramento, California, and is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said in a statement, “The situation in Afghanistan is a shameful affront to the God-given rights of the Afghan people, especially its women and girls.”

He said President Biden “must regain control of the situation immediately and take responsibility for the overwhelming human cost imposed by this failure. Christians, pray.”

• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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