The following urgent message from Obaid S. Christ, an Afghan Christian living in New Delhi, arrived in my inbox two weeks ago:
"I just received a warning call from a person who introduced himself as an [official at the Afghan embassy]… If I don't go to the embassy in two hours to meet him, he will arrest [me] and present me to the embassy through the Indian police… Please pray and be in contact, and if in case something happens, my wife will contact you. He was claiming that I convert people from Islam to Christianity."
The calls continued throughout the day. "They were very angry and saying that they will hit me by knife and kill me," the exile, who changed his name after fleeing Afghanistan in 2007 when an Islamic court issued an arrest warrant for his conversion, told me in reference to the third call he received late that night.
Threats against Afghan converts to Christianity should not be taken lightly. Conversion is viewed as a serious crime in Afghanistan and Christians are frequently targeted by both the government and extremists. Earlier this year, a video was released of the beheading of an Afghan man, Abdul Latif, by four Islamist militants near Herat. The militants, who claim to be the Taliban, read a passage from the Hadiths before executing the victim: "Mohammad (peace be upon him) says, 'Whoever changes his religion should be executed.'"
Neither are Afghan Christians safe outside their homeland. In September, an Afghan convert was scalded with boiling water and acid at a refugee processing center in Norway. "If you do not return to Islam, we will kill you," his attackers reportedly told him.
For Obaid, the menacing calls were not the first time he felt threatened since arriving in India. "Our community is a persecuted and rejected community," he told me last April. "We left behind all our belongings in Afghanistan just to save our lives by leaving Afghanistan. Here in India, we are receiving no legal and physical protection from the UNHCR Office or Indian government. We are harassed, attacked, insulted and persecuted by Indian Muslims and Afghan Muslim refugees in this city."
The persecution of Afghan Christian refugees is sometimes ignored by the very agencies that are mandated to protect them. Aman Ali and his family fled Afghanistan in June 2010 following a television broadcast showing footage of Afghans being baptized. Though Aman's conversion was already known in his community, the broadcast stirred animosity towards Christians which led to nationwide protests and the arrests of several converts.
"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… Most Afghan believers were scared… and left the country. So did me and my family."
Aman immediately applied for refugee status with the United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) upon arrival in New Delhi, but was rejected and told that he failed to meet the criteria set forth in Article 6B of the UNHCR Statute which states that in order to receive refugee status, one must have a "well-founded fear of persecution by reason of his race, religion, nationality or political opinion." It was clear to Aman that the UNHCR did not consider his conversion as a legitimate threat to his life.
Ratimullah 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. The applicants have spent months in hiding, fearful that if 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."
Afghan Christian refugees in India are not alone. Similar requests have been denied by the UNHCR in other countries as well, including Britain. The Guardian reported an Afghan Christian asylum seeker, Ahmed Faizi, as saying, "If the Taliban don't execute me for being a Christian, my family will," just before his deportation last April.
"They will kill me for being Christian," Ali Hussani, another deportee, said. "There are only Muslims there."
Their predictions are ringing true amidst renewed threats by the Taliban to purge Christians -- both foreign and national -- from the country. A statement posted on an official website on October 18 warned that "special plans" have been made to "destroy all (Christian) centers one by one." A translation of the notice declares: "Under the name of this shameful and corrupt democracy, there are all kinds of pagans entering into our country. Thousands of Christian missionaries have also entered our country under the name and cover of aid societies and NGOs (organizations). They are busy with their activities (evangelizing) and have the support of foreign and Afghan forces, claiming that they are giving humanitarian and social help to people…
"According to our reports, these Christian evangelists and social organizations are directly inviting Afghans to Christianity… These infidels, enemies of Islam under the name of corrupt democracy and their lords, need to know that the Afghan Islamic Emirate is seriously taking your activities into consideration… The Afghan Islamic Emirate will take practical measures and has already made special plans to destroy all [their] centers one by one; the centers where plans are made that destroy the holy religion of Islam and Afghan culture."
The warning should not be ignored, Obaid told me. "The centers' activities are being observed, Afghan converts are identified, and it is planned to destroy the centers. This is serious!" Some foreign aid workers in the country, however, have heard similar declarations in the past and view the threat as merely Taliban propaganda.
Hundreds of Afghan Christians, like Obaid, remain on the run from religious-based persecution that targets them at home and abroad. "In the modern world, where we have NATO, the UN, human rights commissions, and governments which claim they fight for democracy and give protection for those who are persecuted, I cannot find a place in this world where I am protected," Obaid lamented.