In Afghanistan, religious minorities face strident official discrimination and societal abuses. The Afghan law does not recognize confessions other than Islamic ones. The constitution states that Islam "is the religion of the state" and that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” Islam functions as the state religion, and apostasy, the act of renouncing Islam, is punishable by death absent recantation. For Christians in Afghanistan, this translates into the necessity to conceal one’s faith in public, or risk severe punishment and discrimination.
Scholarly Analysis: Christian Responses to Persecution in Afghanistan
India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Laos, Pakistan, Indonesia
Panel: Findings from South Asia, with Dr. Paul Bhatti, Advisor to the Prime Minister of Pakistan for Minority Affairs
Moderator: Chad Bauman, Butler University
Speakers: Robert Hefner, Boston University
James Ponniah, University of Madras
Reginald Reimer, Expert on Christianity in Vietnam & Laos
Sara Singha, Georgetown University
The Afghan government does not recognize any of its nationals as non-Muslims. Muslims comprise 99 percent of the population of Afghanistan—80 percent Shi’a and 19 percent Sunni—and there are no clear estimates with regards to the remaining 1 percent of the population. In its 2013 Afghanistan International Religious Freedom Report, the US Department of State estimates that there are roughly 2,000–3,000 Christians in Afghanistan. It is believed that they often converted while living outside of their country. There are no public churches in Afghanistan and Christians practice either alone or in small congregations, meeting in private homes. The fact that Christians do not openly practice adds to the difficulty of having clear estimates of the number of Christians in Afghanistan.
History of the Afghan Christian Community
Christianity in the area which is now known as Afghanistan dates back to the second century A.D. and is believed to have been brought by the Apostle Thomas. Subsequent Muslim and Mongol conquests at the end of the first millennium, however, erased any influence the church possessed in the region. In the twentieth century, the post-Soviet rise of extremist Islamic governments in Afghanistan under the Taliban has continued to strangle the possibility of a large non-Muslim community within Afghanistan and has built an overwhelming social taboo toward the public practice of Christianity. The current Christian community is largely underground, as in the case of the small native Christian community.
Current Situation of the Christian Community
In Afghanistan, religious minorities face strident official discrimination and societal abuses. The Afghan law does not recognize confessions other than Islamic ones. The constitution states that Islam “is the religion of the state” and that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” Islam functions as the state religion, and apostasy, the act of renouncing Islam, is punishable by death absent recantation. For Christians in Afghanistan, this translates into the necessity to conceal one’s faith in public, or risk severe punishment and discrimination. Most Christians in Afghanistan select the former path. The production of printed materials contrary to the beliefs of Islam is also prohibited. Additionally, the state automatically considers all citizens to be Muslims and subjects them to Islamic jurisprudence. In 2013, public officials called for the execution of Christian converts as well as public investigations into the spread of Christianity in Afghanistan. Public opinion, too, remains hostile to Christian converts and proselytizing. Generally, then, Christians in Afghanistan are few in number and avoid public exercise or display of their faith because of the severe legal and societal violence against non-Muslims. Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban government has declared that no Christians are present in Afghanistan and has reinstated its Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which enforces a stringent interpretation of Sharia law. Meanwhile, Christians have been driven into hiding by threatening messages and house visits from Taliban militants.
A Summary of Christian Responses to Persecution in Afghanistan
Afghan Christians respond to their oppressive political reality in several ways. Because of increased pressure and persecution, many Christians are migrating to countries with more social and religious freedom. Christian converts started to leave Afghanistan in 2005 when an influential member of the Afghan Parliament, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, called for the execution of apostates. In 2009, after a period of increased violence and persecution, an additional 100 Christians left Afghanistan and migrated to India. During the 2021 Taliban takeover, an unknown number of Christians were among the over 120,000 Afghans evacuated by the U.S. government. Christians have also independently fled to nations neighboring Afghanistan.
These migrations would not have occurred without international support. Since August 2021, international support has been demonstrated broadly by efforts such as the U.S. government’s Operation Allies Welcome, which aims to assist Afghan refugees in resettling in the United States. Furthermore, over the past two decades, international organizations have helped Christians relocate and negotiated with host countries for their safe arrival. Government statistics report that between 200 and 250 Afghan converts to Christianity have migrated to India because they feared persecution by local authorities and the Taliban. This small Afghan Christian community is establishing a new Christian Afghan diaspora. In Delhi, with the support of a local evangelical church, these Christian converts now have a public church, worship freely, and no longer hide their religious identity from the state.
Meanwhile, the Christians who choose to remain in Afghanistan are continuing to practice their faith and uphold their beliefs in the face of immense political and social pressure that has only intensified since the installment of a Taliban government. Many conceal their identity for fear of violence and assault. There are no public churches in Afghanistan, so denominational diversity is difficult to ascertain, but reports suggest that the majority of Afghan Christians worship alone or in house churches that are not recognized by the government.
This country profile draws on research by Dr. Sara Singha and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project. It was updated by Joseph London at the University of Notre Dame in June 2022.