Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Religion Unplugged on August 20, 2021.
After days of increasing disbelief, America watched on Aug. 16 as President Joe Biden officially abandoned Afghanistan. We listened to his awkward speech as he publicly dismissed a 20-year American investment in blood and treasure while putting at risk untold thousands of Afghan lives.
Perhaps The Economist summed up the big picture best:
“America has spent $2trn in Afghanistan; more than 2,000 American lives have been lost, not to mention countless Afghan ones. And yet, even if Afghans are more prosperous now than when America invaded, Afghanistan is back to square one. The Taliban control more of the country than they did when they lost power, they are better armed, having seized the weapons America showered on the Afghan army, and they have now won the ultimate affirmation: defeating a superpower.”
But that “defeat” is not the only result of the U.S. pull-out. More than a few of us walked away from Biden’s broadcast stunned, well-aware of our country’s international disgrace. Even worse, we also knew that for many Afghanis – including a little-known community of Christian converts – the worst is yet to come.
By hastily fleeing Afghanistan’s notoriously difficult battlefield after 20 years – where thousands of American fighters gave their lives and countless more were permanently disabled – millions of Afghans are now facing denunciation, personal disaster and death for their loyalty to American military efforts. Still others are already being terrorized by religious persecution of the most dangerous kind – ISIS-like violence against non-observant Muslims and, worse, secret converts from Islam, including underground Christian believers.
First in line for impending abuse are the most obvious: girls and women. Even those who are already covered by robe-and-hijab are scurrying to locate burkas to fully hide their faces and bodies altogether from the Taliban’s vicious scrutiny. Christine Rosen writes for Commentary Magazine:
“Since Kabul fell, reports have poured in of women and girls being beaten by Taliban forces. Some footage shows horrific images of Taliban soldiers beating a woman and her child unconscious. Those attempting to flee are being forcibly turned away at Taliban checkpoints. Girls are being turned away from schools and women’s health clinics shut down in places like Kandahar and Herat. Women report being refused service in stores and told to return only with a male relative as an escort….”
Wall Street Journal reports: “Taliban commanders have demanded that communities turn over unmarried women to become ‘wives’ for their fighters.” There are also fears of young girls being kidnapped for marriage or enslavement. “What is happening in Afghanistan today is going to put this country 200 years back,” says Mahbouba Seraj, the founder of the Afghan Women’s Network. Considering the view of women among radical Islamist males, feminist fears in Afghanistan are reasonable and, indeed, urgent.
But Afghan Christians are also at risk. And until recently, who knew that they even existed in the country?
Well, for one, Open Doors International (ODI) knew. ODI serves as a watchdog on Christian persecution, and their annual World Watch List has listed Afghanistan as the second-worst persecutor of Christians for several years, second only to North Korea. At first this seemed rather unlikely and it raised a few questioning eyebrows. But other reports began to appear, such as Landinfo’s 2021 report from Norway, “Afghanistan: The Situation of Christian Converts”.
Other accounts have followed. It is well known that under strict Shari’a Law, apostacy from Islam is a capital crime, so secret Christian worship by converts is literally a matter of life and death. Voice of the Martyrs describes the situation concisely:
“Afghan Christians cannot worship openly. They must worship in homes or other small venues, and evangelism is forbidden. Christians and seekers are highly secretive about their faith or interest in Christianity, especially following a surge of arrests in the past decade. Beatings, torture and kidnappings are routine…Afghan house churches continue to grow. A small number of Christians are martyred every year in Afghanistan, but their deaths generally occur without public knowledge. A few are also in prison, but …Christian converts from Islam are often killed by family members or other radicalized Muslims before any legal proceedings can begin.”
The actual number of Christians in Afghanistan is generally said to be unknown – various suggestions vary from hundreds to thousands. However, Catholic News Service recently reported that Afghanistan’s Christian community is estimated to be between 10,000 and 12,000 people and is the country’s largest religious minority group. Meanwhile,International Christian Concern writes, “Some known Christians are already receiving threatening phone calls. In these phone calls, unknown people say, ‘We are coming for you.’”
As this story unfolds, many of us are experiencing something like déjà vu. In the summer of 2014 we watched as Islamic State/ISIS rampaged across Iraq and committed genocide against Christian and Yazidi communities in the Ninevah Plains and Sinjar. Thousands were killed; untold tens of thousands remain displaced in miserable refugee camps. ISIS was more or less defeated, thanks to U.S. military assistance.
It must be noted that although Islamic State and the Taliban have fought against each other, they share a number of radical Islamist beliefs. And they practice the same deadly tactics against “infidels” who reject their severe interpretation of Sunni Islam. In short, they are terrorists. They kidnap, enslave and forcibly marry women and girls. They viciously torture and kill those who disagree with their ideology or resist their control. They take pride in publicizing their most atrocious killings, such as the Taliban’s amputation and execution of “convicts” in a Kabul soccer stadium and ISIS beheadings of Christians on a Libyan beach. These similarities are not difficult to recognize. And they raise a disturbing question:
Why has the United States of America handed over the country of Afghanistan to an ISIS-like terrorist organization?