ICC Note: Afghanistan is one of the toughest places for Christians to exist in the world. On Open Doors World Watch List, it is ranked the second most dangerous country for Christians. With this extreme level of persecution, many of Afghanistan’s small Christian community are forced to flee the country and seek refuge abroad.
07/31/2018 Afghanistan (Live Mint) – I meet AP in a basement in Delhi. It is our first meeting. Peering through his rectangular-framed glasses, AP, who is in his early 60s, does not shake my hand. Instead he places his hand on his chest and greets me with a gentle nod of the head. “Hello, sister,” he says.
The basement is practically invisible in the sprawling landscape of Delhi. Outside, the city, with its copper sky and sticky air, tall buildings and labyrinthine lanes, busies itself in its everyday agenda. The basement, in contrast, is quiet. All one can hear is the low hum of the air conditioner. On one of the walls is a religious cross made of paper. Across it are the words of a Farsi children’s hymn, “I am here to worship”, delicately calligraphed.
In 2015, AP, a successful “right hand of a judge” in Kabul, Afghanistan, was forced to flee and seek refuge in India because of his faith. He is one of the few Afghan refugees in Delhi who practices Christianity. “My country is an Islamic nation. We are not allowed to worship any other God,” he says. Islam is Afghanistan’s official religion—about 99.7% of the population is Muslim. The remaining is made up by Hindus and Sikhs, among others.
AP renounced Islam 22 years ago, at the age of 38. He lives with his wife and children in Delhi, and holds a refugee card. In the eyes of the family he left behind in Afghanistan, he is a kafir (unbeliever): “My brothers and sisters have cut all contact.” In the eyes of the state, he is an apostate.
Afghan Christians are a minority who exist on the periphery of society, often living closeted lives. In conservative Afghanistan, it is an offence by law for a Muslim to practice a faith other than Islam. For years therefore, Afghan Muslims who have adopted Christianity have been victims of persecution—either by the Taliban or the state—in their own land. Due to this, the converts practice their faith in isolation—often in small, discreet underground establishments hidden from public view.
Afghanistan’s Islamic law considers apostasy a criminal offence, and is often served with a death sentence. This includes the 2006 case of Abdul Rahman, which made international headlines when he was arrested and sentenced to death by the Afghan government for converting to Christianity.
Following unprecedented criticism from foreign nations, the government was compelled to release him. Rahman currently resides in Italy as a refugee. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are approximately 2.6 million registered Afghan refugees scattered across the globe. Not all of them however, necessarily practice religions other than Islam.
As AP directs me to a chair, he requests me to not record his voice on the dictaphone. “Write it down,” he says in the smattering of Hindi that he knows. “And please do not reveal my identity.” AP’s body language is stiff, conveying a sense of insecurity. A lifetime singed with trauma, his inability to trust people is understandable. As we sit, he introduces me to a 23-year-old man, also an Afghan Christian, who sits across from us as his interpreter.
In Kabul, AP often visited a makeshift church (two rooms in a residential neighborhood) which had been provided to a community of converted Christians, by an NGO. On the afternoon of 29 November 2014, while in the middle of a regular sermon, AP and his fellow practitioners heard a disturbing sound—“It was the sound of bullets,” he recalls. The security guard standing outside had been murdered. “The Taliban had located our place of prayer. Almost immediately, we rushed to turn off the lights and hid under tables and in corners.”
When the Taliban entered the darkened room, they began shooting blindly and aggressively. “At that moment, all I thought was that we all were going to die,” he says taking a deep breath. That night, AP lost five of his friends and received a bullet injury in his leg. The police soon arrived and a 4-hour-long combat between the Taliban and the police ensued. AP was taken to the hospital. He was later imprisoned for a week, where he was interrogated about why he had converted and asked about the whereabouts of other similar churches. On his release, he was forbidden to leave Kabul.
“But I had a six-month Indian visa,” he explains in Farsi. Fearing for his life, one night he packed his bags and fled the country, leaving behind his wife and children, whom he would call once he settled in India. Finding a home in Delhi would be a challenge, but not impossible. Within this vast metropolis, pockets of Afghan refugee settlements thrive, scattered across parts of Malviya Nagar, Lajpat Nagar, Wazirabad and Bhogal.
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