Christians in Afghanistan have been fleeing the cities to escape the Taliban, according to partners of Release International, which supports persecuted Christians worldwide. Many Christians who remain are trapped inside the country, unable to leave through sealed borders.
Some have received death threats. Others have fled to remote areas to escape the Taliban. Release is appealing for funds to support Christians forced to flee around the world.
UK-based Release International is concerned about false reporting of persecution under the Taliban, which is obscuring the real hardship faced by the Afghan Christians who remain.
Such reports have presented images from Iraq of Isis atrocities, and of a protest in Colombia, claimed to have been filmed in Afghanistan. Even a 2009 rumour of missionaries about to be executed in Iraq has been amplified and applied to Afghanistan.
‘Understandably, there is a great deal of fear and rumour,’ says Release International CEO, Paul Robinson. ‘This is why we talk to partners who are working directly with the underground church.’
Release International partners with SAT-7 Pars, which broadcasts programmes via satellite TV into Afghanistan. Adds Paul Robinson: ‘SAT-7 is hearing directly from its audience about what is happening in that country.’
The executive director of SAT-7 Pars, Panayiotis Keenan, told Release International: ‘Since the Taliban has taken over, we are receiving many messages from Afghanistan that the persecution is getting harder.
Church in hiding
‘Afghan Christians are contacting us on a daily basis, describing how difficult the situation is. They are hiding and meeting in secret locations. But winter is coming and that will soon become more and more difficult.’
One caller sent in a prayer request saying: ‘Oh Lord God, please protect us, because we are facing hell.’
Another said: ‘My family and I came to Christ two years ago. I and my family have received death threats. I have no other way but to escape from the country. Help us to be heard so we can flee from this hell.’
Another sent a message into a live programme: ‘The terrorists are in the process of occupying us, demolishing what we own. Where can we go? What can we do? Please continue to pray for us.’
Nowhere to go
Although many Christians managed to leave ahead of the Taliban advance, there are still thought to be several thousand in Afghanistan. Even if they wanted to leave, they could not. There is nowhere for them to go. The borders are controlled by the Taliban and they are unable to fly out of the country.
Pakistan and Iran are the natural escape routes for Afghans fleeing their country. But officially, the Pakistan border is closed to refugees from Afghanistan, and both Pakistan and Iran say they have reached their limit of refugees and asylum seekers. Meanwhile, Turkey has redoubled its efforts to build a wall to keep out refugees from Iran.
The UK has pledged to take 20,000 Afghan refugees, with priority given to women, children and those facing persecution. At the same time, the UK government is pressing ahead with a Nationalities and Borders Bill which some, including the UN, claim could criminalise refugees taking unauthorised routes into the UK. That would include refugees from Afghanistan.
‘Increasing numbers of Christians around the world are having to flee in the face of extremism,’ says Release International CEO Paul Robinson. ‘We are pleased to see the UK government is prioritising Afghan refugees who are facing persecution. Let us continue to do all we can as a country to support those who have been uprooted from their homes because of their faith. They need our welcome and support.’
Release International is supporting Christians around the world who have been forced to flee because of their faith. There has been a huge exodus of Christians from the Middle East since the rise of Isis in Iraq and the spread of Islamist terrorism around the region. Jihadist groups are also gaining ground in Africa, attacking churches and Christian communities in Nigeria and the Sahel.
Appeal for support
Release is appealing for support for Christians who have been driven from their homes. Release is also supporting the families of Christians who have been killed for their faith around the world. Sadly, this number is growing. For more information, please see Appeal
Although the Church in Afghanistan was never large and many Christians have had to escape the country, some draw a parallel with events in Iran where under harsh persecution, the Church has multiplied.
Before the Islamic revolution there were said to be a few hundred Christians in Iran. Now, despite the oppression, the Iranian church is said to be the fastest growing in the world.
‘We have a sovereign God and we know he has a plan,’ said Panayiotis Keenan. ‘To think about it, you would say there was no chance for the church in Afghanistan. But we have seen in the last 10 to 15 years how rapidly Christianity has grown. If that can happen in Iran, why not Afghanistan?’
Weather the storm
Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan was one of the most hostile countries to be a Christian. ‘The one good thing we can say about this is that the underground Church is increasingly well-equipped to weather the storm,’ says Paul Robinson of Release International. ‘The Church is invisible and is has already learned how to operate underground.’
Release International has been partnering with a range of Christian organisations to provide broadcasts to encourage and equip believers in Afghanistan, including refugees who have now fled to neighbouring countries. These partners are also producing Christian literature and digital discipleship material.
‘Support and encouragement through the airwaves, whether by radio, satellite television or social media, has never been more needed than it is today,’ says Release CEO Paul Robinson. ‘The Church is having to learn to operate much as the early Church in the book of Acts - under the continual threat of persecution.’
Through its international network of missions, Release International is active in some 25 countries around the world, supporting pastors, Christian prisoners and their families; supplying Christian literature and bibles, and working for justice.