Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic where Sharia law prevails, and is one of the most oppressive countries in the world for Christians – many have fled abroad to find refuge. Decades of violent conflict brought terrible suffering to the people of Afghanistan and ruined the economy and infrastructure. It is dependent on foreign aid and remains unstable, with more than a third of the country controlled by the resurgent Taliban (especially in the south and east) and Islamic State becoming active in recent years.

The Taliban imposed an extremely repressive form of Wahhabist Islam on Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, when it was overthrown and Hamid Karzai was sworn in as head of an interim government. However, after the adoption of a new constitution in 2004, the Taliban re-grouped and violence increased. In September 2014, President Karzai was replaced by President Ashraf Ghani, whose wife Rula Ghani is a Lebanese Christian.

Christians in Afghanistan

The 2004 constitution, which states that Islam is the “religion of the state”, allows non-Muslims to exercise their faith “within the limits of the provisions of law”, but states that no law can be contrary to Islam.

Although Afghanistan had a significant Christian population before the Muslim invasions of the 7th century, Christianity is now viewed as a Western religion, and Afghans who are discovered to have left Islam for Christianity are seen as traitors, bringing shame on the family. They are considered to have committed apostasy, for which the punishment under Sharia law is death. Converts face hostility from the government, armed groups, community and family members who sometimes use violence to force them to return to Islam.

Christians must meet in extreme secrecy, changing the times and locations of their meetings to avoid detection. There is no public church building, even for expats, and foreign Christians are at risk of attack. They face great danger from the Taliban. Despite the risk of discrimination, harassment, arrest and violence (including murder), the church has grown rapidly in recent years, with increasing numbers of Afghan Christians meeting in small groups.

Deteriorating conditions

In Spring 2010, Afghan TV repeatedly broadcast images of Christian converts worshipping and being baptised, and Christian aid organisations were accused of evangelism. The broadcast sparked widespread protests, with hundreds of protesters shouting death threats against Afghan Christians and demanding the expulsion of Christian organisations. Many converts fled their neighbourhoods or left the country and several arrests and court cases took place. In June 2010, the deputy secretary of the Afghan Parliament, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, said: “Those Afghans who appeared on this video film should be executed in public.”

In May 2010, Christian doctor Said Musa (pictured) was arrested and imprisoned on apostasy charges, having left Islam eight years previously. Another Christian, Shoib Assadullah (25) was arrested and imprisoned in October 2010, because he gave a New Testament to a man who later reported him to local authorities. Both men were released in spring 2011 and fled the country immediately.

In July 2013, an MP called for the execution of converts from Islam to Christianity, the parliamentary speaker ordered the national security services to stop the spread of Christianity and the media campaigned against converts.

In April 2014, the Taliban attacked a building they suspected of being a secret church. In June 2014, a priest working for refugees was abducted and disappeared. In July 2014, two Finnish women working for a Christian aid ministry were killed in Herat by two gunmen on motorbikes, who shot them in a taxi. No group claimed responsibility.

In November 2014, the Taliban killed a South African Christian aid worker and his two children at a guesthouse in Kabul. One of the three attackers was a suicide bomber, while the other two were armed with guns. They took other staff members hostage and set the house alight.

In May 2017, a German aid worker and her Afghan guard were killed and a Finnish aid worker was kidnapped at an international guesthouse in Kabul run by a Swedish Christian relief and development charity, which employed the two women. No group claimed responsibility. The Finnish aid worker was released in September 2017.

(BBC, Barnabas, International Christian Concern, Open Doors, Operation World, Release, Voice of the Martyrs Canada, World Watch List)

AFGHANISTAN: A letter from prison

Shoib AssadullahShoib Assadullah, a Christian who was formerly a Muslim, is facing the death penalty and is being ill-treated in prison, according to a letter dated 17 February 2011, which has been smuggled out.

Shoib writes: “My name is Shoib Said Assadullah. I am 23 years old. For the last four months I have been imprisoned in Qasre Shahi prison, Mazar-e Sharif for the crime of apostasy, which means I’ve changed my beliefs.