Afghanistan’s Christians are turning off phones and going into hiding
With the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, governments around the world are frantically making plans to rescue as many at risk Afghans as they can. Germany, which has vowed to evacuate as many as 10,000, and the United Kingdom are currently coordinating with civil society partners to determine who is most in need of rescue and how they can be located and evacuated.
India announced last week that it will prioritize evacuating Hindus and Sikhs, two religious minorities that have already neared extinction in Afghanistan due to the Taliban’s brutal rule 20 years ago.
Canada has expressed a willingness to grant visas to religious minorities whose lives are presumed endangered under the Taliban. Among the country’s most vulnerable minorities are Christians. But the Christian community is becoming increasingly difficult to track down. And fears are growing that, for many, it’s too late and there’s no way out.
Afghanistan’s Christians are estimated to number between 10,000 and 12,000. The vast majority of them are converts from Islam to Christianity. For decades they have largely practiced their faith underground, as conversion is considered a crime punishable by death under Sharia Law.
Yet, since the Taliban’s fall in 2001, the Christian community has not only been growing, it has become emboldened, in part because of the modicum of security leant by the U.S. presence on the ground. In 2019, as the number of children born to converts grew, dozens of Afghan Christians decided to include their religious affiliation on their national identity cards so that future generations wouldn’t have to hide their faith. Only about 30 Christians successfully made this change before the Taliban’s takeover this week.
Now the United States’ highly criticized withdrawal has left Afghan Christians with no choice but to join those who cooperated with the U.S. and Afghan governments in attempting to hide. The memories of public executions, floggings and amputations of Christians and other religious minorities under the Taliban’s previous rule remain vivid. As the Taliban is reportedly already working to track down the known Christians on its list, some local church leaders are counseling their communities to stay inside their homes, even though they know the best and perhaps only long-term hope is to somehow flee the country. Other Christians are reportedly escaping to the hills in attempts to find safety.
Some Christians on the ground have expressed that, with the takeover of Kabul, they expect to be killed, mafia-style. Although some reports say that the Taliban is already conducting targeted killings of Christians and other minorities found using public transportation, as well as executing anyone found with Bible software installed on their cell phones.
Christians also fear for the safety of their children, with the Taliban already publicizing plans to “eradicate the ignorance of irreligion” by taking non-Muslim women and girls as sex slaves and forcing boys to serve as soldiers.
Without any clear plan from the United States to evacuate Afghans under special threat, not to mention the remaining thousands of American citizens, Afghan Christians and many other religious minority groups are stranded. They know the Taliban is seeking them. Christians in hiding have already reported receiving threatening letters or phone calls saying, “We know where you are and what you are doing.” Without knowing how sophisticated the Taliban’s tracking capabilities are, Christians are turning off their phones to avoid surveillance and have started moving to undisclosed locations.
Further complicating any plans to rescue Afghanistan’s vulnerable minorities is the fact that many of them are without passports. It is estimated by locals that only 20-30 percent of the known Christian community have passports. Without passports, it is currently unclear whether any foreign country would accept them, were they able to get out.
Several European government officials are currently discussing the possibility of overlooking immigration documentation requirements for those individuals whose identities and vulnerability status can be verified by civil society groups. But until countries confirm and announce that they are willing to waive passport and visa requirements, many Afghan Christians are unwilling to risk the increasingly perilous journey through Taliban checkpoints to the airport. And, currently, a passport and safe arrival at the airport aren’t even enough; the few passport holding Christians who have reached the airport have not yet been able to leave the country.
With phones off, many Christians will be difficult to contact or locate for rescue, in the event that the American government finally takes direct action to correct some of the worst fallout from its disastrous withdrawal. While the U.S. and the international community must start doing everything in their power to help the most vulnerable, time is quickly running out.
Kelsey Zorzi is president of the U.N.’s NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief and director of advocacy for global religious freedom for ADF International. Her writings have appeared in several outlets including the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and RealClear. Twitter: @KelseyZorzi.