By Alejandro Bermudez/Catholic News Agency
As the situation in Afghanistan rapidly deteriorates and the U.S. withdrawal date of Tuesday, Aug. 31 approaches, these are five things you need to know about the Christian minority in Afghanistan right now.
1. Christians in Afghanistan live in the second worst country for Christians, according to the Open Doors World Watch List. Afghanistan secured the No. 2 slot behind the authoritarian regime in North Korea. Due to the practice of honor killings and apostasy laws, the situation in Afghanistan was already extremely dangerous for Christians, most of whom risked their lives to convert from Islam.
“[Conversion] is considered in the Taliban’s eyes to be apostasy that must be punished with death,” said the former head of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom and current director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, Nina Shea, in an interview with Christian Today.
“It is impossible to live openly as a Christian in Afghanistan,” concluded the Open Doors report. “Leaving Islam is considered shameful, and Christian converts face dire consequences if their new faith is discovered. Either they have to flee the country or they will be killed.”
2. The Holy Father, Pope Francis, has asked for Christians to fast and pray for the people of Afghanistan.
“As Christians the situation in Afghanistan obligates us. In historic moments like this, we cannot remain indifferent,” said Pope Francis. “For this reason, I address an appeal to everyone to intensify your prayer and practice fasting, asking the Lord for mercy and forgiveness.”
Though the number of Christians is officially less than 10,000, several international charities argue that there are many more who remain uncounted and underground. The 2016 Report on International Religious Freedom – Afghanistan states that “other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Bahais, and Christians, comprise less than 0.3 percent of the population,” while Global Christian organizations such as Open Doors and International Christian Concern estimate place the number of Christians between 8,000 and 12,000, less than .01% of the 38 million Afghans who make up the total population, all of whom are in need of prayer.
3. The US government has not agreed to provide Christians with a special status that would allow them to enter the US despite efforts by several humanitarian organizations and even members of Congress requesting special status for them. Special designations include journalists, pilots, academics, civil society, and women at risk, to name a few, but not Christians or other religious minorities.
The US Department of State, in conjunction with nearly 100 other countries, issued a statement on Sunday, August 29th, that the Taliban are ensuring that “all foreign nationals and any Afghan citizen with travel authorization from our countries will be allowed to proceed in a safe and orderly manner to points of departure and travel outside the country” beyond the August 31st deadline set by the Biden administration. But the extension will not benefit Christians or other minorities unless the US government decides to include them.
4. Private efforts to assist Christians out of Afghanistan have allegedly been blocked by the State Department.
Taliban checkpoints, set up during Saturday night around the airport, as well as de facto control of the gates during the days leading up to Saturday, consistently hampered efforts for Christians to exit the country via the airport. On Sunday, several blogs and news groups of religious freedom activists alleged that the State Department has blocked private evacuation operations at the airport.
The Nazarene Fund, a charity that raised $28 million over the course of three days thanks in part to radio personality Glenn Beck, still has planes in the vicinity of Afghanistan. Beck has told media outlets that the charity has so far flown 5,200 Christians and other Afghans to safety. Without permission from the State Department to conduct operations and cooperation from the Taliban, the charity cannot extricate additional Christians to countries other than the U.S. that have agreed to receive them.
In response to CNA’s questions about allegations by Beck and others that the State Department was blocking private efforts to rescue Afghan Christians waiting at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA), a department spokesperson provided the following statement on Saturday: “The United States Government has no role in organizing private charter evacuation flights. The U.S. is not communicating through third parties related to HKIA access nor does the USG endorse any third parties claiming to provide access to HKIA.”
5. Several Christians contacted by CNA say that their fate is very dark despite reassurances by the Taliban leadership to Western governments.
“What will be our fate?” asked one Afghan Christian with an emoji of a face with streaming tears when he learned that options for him to flee from Afghanistan via plane were effectively ended.
Already last week Christian media reported Afghan Christians were being killed on the spot after identifying as Christian. Reports from Afghan civilians near airport gates said the Taliban was searching the crowds to find Christians.
According to Open Doors latest report, “Christians are also disappointed and feel abandoned by those who they had hoped would protect them—the foreign troops left and the government fled. At the same time, they knew this day was going to come. In that sense, they were prepared. But it doesn’t make it any less painful.”
The reality on the ground paints a grim picture: rumors among Christians in Kabul stipulate that the Taliban is reserving special punishments for Christians unable to escape via the airport.
“Today morning I tried to get in to airport but there were everywhere talibaans (sic) beating the people,” wrote one Afghan Christian in a message to CNA. “People say that talibaans issued some kind of skin [p]unishments for afghan christians I am scared.”
“I am suffering every hour every day,” he said. “I don’t know what Jesus decided for me.”