Fifteen months ahead of the planned withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan, an anti-Christian hate campaign involving several leading Afghan lawmakers and some media outlets is raising additional concerns about the future of religious freedom in the conservative Islamic country.
Advocacy groups say the anger is directed at Afghan Christians in India – where thousands of Afghan refugees remain and a small church congregation meets in New Delhi – and that the lawmakers concerned are calling for them to face the death penalty.
Converts from Islam to Christianity should be killed according to Islamic law (shari’a), in a bid to stop the growth of Christianity among Afghans inside and outside the country, according to one leading member of parliament cited by the Afghan Voice Agency news service.
Mohabat News, an independent Iranian Christian news agency, reported on Sunday that Nazir Ahmad Hanafi said several weeks ago that “Afghani citizens continue to convert to Christianity in India.
Numerous Afghanis have become Christians in India. This is an offense to Islamic laws and according to the Qur’an they need to be executed.”
Hanafi, an independent who represents the province of Herat, is a prominent lawmaker who heads the parliament’s Legislative Commission and reportedly received the third highest number of votes in the 2010 parliamentary election.
Barnabas Fund, an international charity that supports minority Christians in Islamic countries, said Hanafi made the comments during a parliamentary session on the subject.
It said that two days earlier another lawmaker, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, demanded that the Afghan government put pressure on Indian authorities to provide a list of Afghans who have converted to Christianity there.
That would enable the Afghan government to arrest and punish them if they return home in the future, he said.
Khawasi has a history of calling for the death penalty for “apostates” from Islam. Last July he began leading a campaign to outlaw popular local television programs modeled on such successful shows in the West as American Idol and the X Factor, complaining that they feature unveiled women singing and dancing.
Mohabat said another lawmaker, Abdul Latif Pedram, blamed the reported increase in conversions to Christianity on the presence of U.S. forces.
“The presence of the U.S. in Afghanistan results in the conversion of Afghans to Christianity,” it quoted Pedram – an unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2004 and 2009 – as saying. “The United States’ long-term plan is to attack Afghani culture. Converting Afghan citizens serves that purpose.”
Mohabat and Barnabas Fund both noted that the speaker of the national parliament, Abdul Rauf Rahimi, also waded in to the debate over converts, instructing the parliamentary national security committee to follow up the issue.
Barnabas Fund said that after the parliamentary debates some media outlets got involved.
“For ten consecutive nights at the end of August, two TV channels broadcast photos of the leader of the Afghan church in Delhi, calling for him to be executed, and also showed images of other Afghan converts in India plus footage of baptisms,” it said.
The Union of Catholic Asia News reported last month on the New Delhi congregation of Afghan Christians, quoting a pastor as saying its members are frequently threatened by Afghan Muslims, and saying the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) did not pay proper attention to the plight of Afghan Christians.
Queries sent to the UNHCR did not bring a reply by press time, but the agency has in the past declined to discuss cases.
More than 2,100 American service personnel have been killed in Afghanistan since late 2001, of a total of more than 3,300 foreign coalition troops.
Three days to recant, or face death
Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a decree reserving one seat in the national parliament for a representative of the Hindu and Sikh minorities. Those tiny minorities are targeted for discrimination and harassment too, although they are arguably better off than their Christian compatriots.
According to the State Department there were 13 Sikh places of worship (gurdwaras) in Afghanistan last year and five Hindu temples, but not a single church for a community which could be anywhere from 500- to 8,000-strong.
The department’s latest international religious freedom report, which covers 2012, also noted that there were no Christian schools. There were several Sikh schools and some Hindus sent their children to those, it says.
Conversion from Islam is a highly sensitive matter.
“Under some interpretations of Islamic law, converting from Islam to another religion is deemed apostasy and considered an egregious crime,” the report said. “Male citizens over age 18, or female citizens over age 16 of sound mind, who convert from Islam have three days to recant their conversions or possibly face death by stoning, deprivation of all property and possessions, and/or the invalidation of their marriage.”
“Legal aid for imprisoned converts from Islam remained difficult due to most lawyers’ personal objection to defending apostates,” it added.
The Taliban seized control of most of Afghanistan in 1996 and ruled it under its ultra-strict interpretation of Islamic law until toppled by U.S.-led military action after September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Refugees who subsequently returned home included a small number of Afghans who had converted to Christianity while living abroad.
A little over two years later Karzai’s U.S.-backed government signed a new constitution into law which both claims to uphold freedom of religion and enshrines the primacy of shari’a.
Article two states that while Islam is the official religion, “followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law.”
But article three states that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” Article 149 says adherence to the tenets of Islam “cannot be amended.”
Two years after the constitution was approved, a Christian convert named Abdul Rahman was sentenced to death for apostasy in a case that caused an uproar. Only after the U.S. and other coalition countries put pressure on Karzai was Rahman allowed to seek asylum abroad.
In 2010, Afghan Christians were again in the spotlight, when authorities arrested 26 Christians after a television station screened footage of converts being baptized, sparking calls in parliament, from Khawasi among others, for their execution. They were eventually released and many fled to India.
Afghanistan is ranked number three this year on the annual Open Doors USA watchlist of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians.