Hana Nasri, an Open Doors senior partner based in the Gulf region (real name changed for security reasons), speaks to Christian Today about the plight of Christians in Afghanistan after the country rose to number one on the Open Doors 2022 World Watch List for persecution following the Taliban takeover.
CT: The fall of Afghanistan last summer was a huge event but how much do you know about what is happening now on the ground when it comes to Christians?
Hana: It was very hard to communicate with our partners in the immediate aftermath but we were prepared for that because things have always been bad there. In spite of some media freedoms in the last 10 to 12 years, for churches and believers it's always been very difficult and so there was always the question of what would happen in the event of a complete withdrawal, when all communication would fail.
We are grateful that ahead of time, we had prepared back-up contingency plans to be able to connect with people inside Afghanistan when that happened. So we are connected, we know people, pastors, care workers who have been working there for generations. It did get difficult but the news does still continue to come out and generally the story is devastatingly the same. It is the story of being silenced and the fear of being forgotten.
CT: When the Taliban first took over there were reports of door to door searches and Christians being killed. Do you know if that is still happening and what Christians are experiencing now?
Hana: Through the radio calls we have been getting, and through our partners and contacts, it has been very evident that there is extreme fear. We know that there were these door to door visits and raids on homes, not only on the homes of believers but on everyone, but when believers were found they were dealt with very, very severely.
The first priority of the Taliban in conducting these door to door searches was actually to ascertain how much support they had and to drench the people with fear. But in the midst of that, they uncovered many believers who had been worshipping and surviving in secret. Either they were discovered to be believers or people told on them in order to safeguard their own property and families.
One of the ways the Taliban then responded to this was to commit the young girls to a marriage with a Taliban fighter, sort of like putting a stamp on them and setting them aside for this marriage in the future. So even if they are not being forced into the marriage right away, they are at least threatened with it.
And this is not only Christians but anyone who was moderate in their ideology or were educating their daughters. They came under the magnifying glass of the Taliban. But the people worst affected were the Christians or people sympathetic to Christianity.
Even prior to the fall of Afghanistan, when a believer was attacked or found out, our contingency plan always considered how to protect the women. Because once they were labelled infidels, then the worst dishonour the Taliban could bring upon that family would be to traffic their daughters. And so there has always been this fear among Afghanistan's Christians of their daughters being trafficked.
CT: Even the surrounding countries are very hostile to Christianity and so it's been very difficult for many Christians in Afghanistan to leave. How can the Christians still in Afghanistan be helped or supported - or has that become very difficult now?
Hana: Christians there have always wrestled with this question of: do we stay or do we leave? Do we stay for the sake of the next generation or do we leave for the sake of the next generation?
People in this trio of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran are a people who always look to the future and think about what they will leave for the next generation. That's just how they think. And so the question for believers also has always been: what do we do? Because the threat levels are so high and there is this continual awareness that our women, our daughters will be trafficked and that's a huge thing in an honour-shame context. Or there is the fear that the men of the family will be targeted and physically persecuted, beaten, tortured and so on.
Yet, Jesus has continually turned up in the dreams and visions of people in that country and he has faithfully built his Church there. It has never been about how people will escape; it has always been about an obedient journey with him as his disciples. And sometimes he has moved them from one part of the country to another part to serve him, or they have crossed borders or travelled vast distances. The same scenario continues today.
CT: What can we be praying for?
Hana: What we need to be praying for is for people to know the wisdom of how to safeguard their families. The most important thing in a barbaric regime that undermines human dignity is for families to be preserved because at this point in time people are safeguarding that which they are absolutely sure of. Everything else is being shaken.
But the question of relocating is so far away in their minds from the question of preserving. Relocating is a question many international organisations are grappling with but if every last believer was taken away to safety in another part of the world, would God not turn up in a dream or vision tonight and the Church continue to grow? Can we re-locate every believer in that country? We can't. The Church will continue to grow in that country.
And so we are asking for prayers for us as we continue to strive and exist and survive and lift up holy hands and say that we belong to him. Even if it's in hiding or we hit the mute button when we sing so nobody can hear us. We want prayers so that we can continue to be the presence of Jesus here because his work will not stop.
CT: Do you see a role for Western countries in influencing the Taliban in Afghanistan or hostile surrounding countries in improving religious freedom in the region?
Hana: Absolutely. We need greater lobbying for the freedom and dignity of the Afghan people, which right now is being undermined by this very, very barbaric regime. I have thought about it a lot and I just cannot clinically sanitize the terrible things they are doing and the evil regime it is.
We need to lobby for the freedom of the people, regardless of whether they are believers or not, at a time when there are so many natural and economic disasters - a lack of water, the fact that people are starving to death and babies and old people are dying in this bitter cold.
Foreign governments can put pressure particularly on those governments that are supportive or sympathetic of the Taliban and which have influence with the current regime there, like Pakistan, Qatar or Turkey. Put a squeeze on these governments with trade agreements and use these channels to push for greater freedoms in Afghanistan.
You can see the benefits to the economy in an emirate like Dubai just from giving religious freedom to the people and educational empowerment to women. If you look at where these two things are being snatched away, like in Myanmar or Pakistan, there is always greater devastation and suffering of the people.
The withdrawal of the US troops in August represented the withdrawal of freedom. It was only 2,500 troops, it wasn't a large number, but they represented a very strong message of freedom. The withdrawal of these troops said to the people that the symbol of freedom was gone and it made them despair and feel hopeless.
What our faith gives us is this hope and our hope is that we would prayerfully trust that God will lay on the hearts of governments in the freer West to put pressure on countries with influence like Turkey and Pakistan which already depend very much on their trade with the West.
CT: For some Christians in Afghanistan, they may want to leave and come to countries like the UK. What do you think the Church in countries like the UK can do to support those who do decide to leave Afghanistan and come here to start a new life?
Hana: Educate them. We can never be sure of where people are at in their faith journey; there's no test for that. And one of the painful experiences from the previous influx of refugees in the last five years was that they would be asked questions like the Apostles Creed or something ridiculous that a two-day old believer who only had a dream of Jesus may not be able to answer and they were sent back on that basis.
So the Church needs to be willing to disciple these new believers. Discipleship programmes are really important in churches because when the people come, whether their intentions are positive or negative, are churches going to be ready to disciple them? And these need to be specific discipleship programmes geared towards people who have grown up in conflict, trauma and an environment that has been hostile of Christians.
Let's not pretend that there won't be people who pretend to be Christian just to get naturalisation in the UK but will there be robust discipleship programmes in churches to draw these people closer to Jesus? It is the responsibility of the Church to lead these people in wisdom and stature to Jesus.
And those who are coming need good education that leads them to ask the questions that need to be asked because perhaps tomorrow they will be the ones who go and bring freedom back to their country.
CT: When you look at the whole Middle East region, is there any place where you are seeing some good news or positive trends in terms of religious freedom?
Hana: There have been some progressive steps taken by the Saudis and this says a lot. The increased presence of people from Israel is also very telling.
But the allegiance of most Muslims in the Gulf was towards Saudi Arabia and now there is a shift, looking more towards Turkey and a caliphate emerging through the Turkish system. The progressive moves of Saudi Arabia are not all being supported by the Islamic bloc and Muslim people living in these countries. There is some hostility towards that and some disgruntled groups. So there is this conflict within the Arab Muslim world about the shift in ideology.
This is the reality within which the Church exists. But when we are working with the least of these, taking the basin and towel that Jesus gives us and tells us to wash feet with, we encounter some very beautiful feet - those who are on fire to take the Gospel and to reach out to those who may never have heard, those who may be searching or seeking, and just be the hands and feet of Jesus.
Just this week, some of us were out with those in hiding because they cannot be known and they were in hiding so much that they were physically starving. The team went to give them some relief parcels and meet with them, pray with them and sing with them. One of the songs we sang with them was "Take me Lord and make me your hands and feet". So yes, I see hope. As the darkness seems to get deeper, the light in the hearts of people seems to be brighter and people are responding with the compassion that Jesus calls them to.