Open Doors, a ministry that supports persecuted Christians around the world, considers Afghanistan to be only slightly less hostile to Christianity than North Korea. Now, following the Taliban takeover, the Christian community in Afghanistan (estimated to be comprised of a few thousand believers) is under heightened pressure. The last few priests remaining in the country are hoping to flee, and underground Christians are fearing their own deaths.
Even before the Taliban consolidated control over the country, religious freedom was basically non-existent in Afghanistan. As the world’s attention has turned to Afghanistan, we must remember the plight of some of the most vulnerable in Afghan society.
What Is the Recent History of Christianity in Afghanistan?
Christianity has always been a minority religion in Afghanistan, tolerated to varying degrees throughout the country’s history. Following the Taliban’s consolidation of power in 1996, most religious minorities fled the country. Today, hardly any religious minorities remain—the population is 99.7 Muslim.
Under the Taliban’s brutal rule from 1996-2001, a strict form of Sharia law was imposed, and brutally so. Anyone caught violating the law would be publicly beaten, stoned to death, or executed.
The Taliban infamously carried out public executions of men and women in Kabul’s soccer stadium, Ghazi Stadium. The events that took place there traumatized a generation, with some thinking that the souls of innocent victims roam the area at night.
Even after the Taliban was ousted in 2001 and a coalition-backed government was instituted, the government was known to deal swiftly with Afghans who converted from Islam to Christianity. These new believers would be asked to recant. If they refused, they would be expelled from the country, often to India. In 2006, Abdul Rahman was tried in court for converting to Christianity 16 years prior, facing the death penalty.
The only legal church in the country is a Roman Catholic mission located within the Italian Embassy. Yet, even this church was intended to serve only Catholic foreigners temporarily staying in Afghanistan rather than to serve an Afghan Catholic community.
What Is Happening to Christians in Afghanistan Today?
Today, almost all Christians in Afghanistan come from a Muslim background. A mostly young community that worships in underground house churches, they are forced to hide their faith. For many, even their own families do not know they are Christian. Leaving the Islamic faith is thought to be shameful, and being known to be a Christian can be a very dangerous thing.
Christians now fear that the Taliban will hunt them down and ultimately kill them. Unfortunately, there are already reports that these fears are valid. One Christian leader told International Christian Concern, “Some known Christians are already receiving threatening phone calls… In these phone calls, unknown people say, ‘We are coming for you.’”
American Christians are hearing reports from contacts in Afghanistan that many believers feel hopeless. One said, “most expect to meet Jesus face to face in the next two weeks.”
Christians aren’t the only religious minority fearing for their future—very small communities of Sikhs, Hindus, and Shia Muslims are endangered by the Taliban’s takeover as well. Notably, only one sole Jew remains in Afghanistan—even though the Taliban calls him an “infidel,” he’s choosing to stay to look after the country’s only synagogue.
The Taliban has tried to calm international outrage by promising a blanket amnesty. But is today’s Taliban really all that different? They have the same oppressive ideological beliefs, and new images of wounded women and bloodied children outside of the Kabul airport demonstrates that the Taliban of the present is just as bad as it always was.
One desperate Catholic family in Afghanistan is pleading to the pope for help. The family said “the Taliban are going door to door” asking if any Christians live there or if any Christians are known to be in the community.
New technology that wasn’t available under the Taliban’s previous rule also poses new risks to Afghans. According to one report by a Christian media group that broadcasts into the Middle East, Taliban fighters are demanding to see people’s phones, looking for Bible apps.
“It won’t be worse in the level of persecution, but I think it will be worse in terms of the numbers because there are more Christians in Afghanistan than there were 20 years ago,” said Todd Nettleton from Voice of the Martyrs. “We know there are followers of Jesus Christ in every single province of Afghanistan.”
Barnabite Fr. Giovanni Scalese, who served at the country’s lone Catholic mission, pleaded in an interview with Vatican Radio earlier this month, “Pray... pray, pray, pray, for Afghanistan!” May we all answer this call.