Uncertainty for Afghan Christian refugees
Afghan Christian refugees who fled to India are in hiding over fears they will be deported back to Afghanistan, where possible arrest, imprisonment and execution await them
Published 25 May 2011 | Aidan Clay, International Christian Concern via ASSIST News Service
In May 2010, an Afghan television network broadcast footage of baptisms involving Afghan Muslim converts to Christianity. When a member of parliament called for the execution of the apostates, President Hamid Karzai should have supported the right of Christians to choose their own religion. Instead, the Karzai administration called for an investigation into how aid organisations were promoting Christianity in the region.
The investigation resulted in the arrest of an Afghan Christian named Said Musa, who was charged with apostasy and issued the death sentence in court. After an exhaustive nine month effort by the international community to engage Afghanistan's government, Musa was finally released from prison and able to leave the country.
Although Musa's ordeal is now over, a decision made by the United Nations in New Delhi to deport a number of Afghan converts may drive that small Christian community to a similar fate.
After Musa's arrest, many Afghan Christians fled Kabul for safety - some went into hiding, isolating themselves in obscure villages until the situation calmed, while others went to India or Pakistan. Among them was Aman Ali with his wife and their four children, who arrived in India in June 2010. Aman had converted to Christianity from Islam in 1999 and worked for a foreign aid organization in Kabul. Eventually, Aman's conversion was exposed, making it no longer safe for him and his family to stay in Afghanistan.
"In March 2010, someone had reported my activities to the secret police of Afghanistan and they were looking for evidence to arrest me, but I was so careful and had to stop my work," Aman told ICC. "After the television showed pictures from a baptism ceremony, the Afghan government started arresting believers from different parts of Kabul. [President] Karzai ordered the chief of intelligence to follow up the process of conversion from Islam into Christianity. Most Afghan believers were scared by this declaration and left the country. So did me and my family."
On April 12, Aman attended a meeting with the Deputy Chief of Mission at the United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) office in New Delhi and was told that he would be granted refugee status; however, a letter issued on May 6 stated otherwise. Aman had been denied status based on his failure to meet the criteria set forth in Article 6B of the UNHCR Statute which states that to receive refugee status, one must have a "well-founded fear of persecution by reason of his race, religion, nationality or political opinion and is unable or, because of such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of the government of the country of his nationality." It was clear to Aman that the UN did not take the threats on his life seriously.
Nonetheless, Aman was not alone. Ratimullah, another Afghan convert from Mazar-i-Sharif, fled at the same time as Aman and for the same reasons. Like Aman, Ratimullah's application for refugee status was also rejected along with seven other applicants and their families. The applicants are now in hiding, fearful that if they are caught by the Indian police they will be deported back to Afghanistan.
"I cannot return to my country because I will be arrested and executed by the Afghan Government," Ratimullah wrote in an appeal to the UNHCR.
"A definite death is waiting for me in my homeland; there is no chance of returning for me. There is no identity for me in Afghanistan to live as an Afghan Christian. An Afghan national has to be a Muslim. Conversion is illegal and is considered as a crime according to the law of the country."
An Afghan Christian leader in New Delhi who goes by the name Obaid S. Christ reiterated Ratimullah's fears. "The UNHCR office brutally closed and rejected some refugee applications of our community. This is happening after all our efforts to inform and convince the UNHCR office that it is impossible to live as an Afghan Christian in Afghanistan if your Christian identity is revealed to the public and to the Afghan Islamic Republic. Apostasy is considered as a crime, an illegal action and a sin which is punishable by death by the Islamic Sharia Law that is the base of the Afghan Constitution."
While Afghanistan's Constitution addresses religious freedom, it does not mention converting from one religion to another. In Said Musa's case, the judge did not base his decision on the penal codes of Afghanistan's constitution, but on Islamic law. "According to Afghanistan's constitution, if there is no clear verdict as to whether an act is criminal or not in the penal code of the Afghan Constitution, then it would be referred to Sharia law where the judge has an open hand in reaching a verdict," Qamaruddin Shenwari, director of the Kabul courts' north zone, told CNN.
Despite the UN's apparent trust in Afghan court officials to follow constitutional procedures and protect the freedoms listed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that Afghanistan is a signatory to, recent occurrences indicate the opposite - that Christians will be arrested and possibly executed for apostasy. If the UN refuses to reconsider their decision to deport eight Afghan Christian refugees and their families, the international community may need to start preparing for another long and arduous ordeal that could be necessary to free more imprisoned apostates from Afghanistan's iron grip.