Reports received by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and other agencies working closely with religious and other minorities leave us in no doubt about the scale of the crisis facing Christians in Afghanistan. Persecution had been a fear that dare not speak its name, as underground Christians, like so many minorities, have long been conditioned by the need for absolute discretion, with the faithful worshipping privately in small underground house churches, most with fewer than 10 members each. Since the takeover by the Taliban, however, desperate calls have been made to aid organisations from groups helping those who are now desperate to flee, preferably to the West. A contact close to Christians in Afghanistan, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said: “We are all very frightened. We are terrified for the future.” The Christian satellite channel SAT-7 reported a surge in calls from Afghans “desperate for encouragement and hope”.
It is hard for minorities to imagine that the new Taliban regime will be any different from the old one, when Christians and other religious minorities reportedly had to wear yellow armbands and hang yellow cloths or flags to identify their homes, and lived in fear of floggings, amputations and executions.
Credible reports have emerged that, even before the capture of Kabul but after the Taliban took over major towns and cities en route to the Afghan capital, fighters were going house to house, hunting down Christians as well as making threatening calls. Sources within the country have reported to NGOs that the Taliban are demanding people hand over their phones and that people found to have Christian material on their devices, such as Biblical passages, will be killed on the spot. There are particular concerns for girls from Christian and other minority faith backgrounds, who are at risk of being kidnapped and forced to convert as part of a cycle of sexual violence, including forced marriage to Taliban fighters.
Last week came reports that Fr Giovanni Scalese, head of the Catholic mission in Afghanistan, was among many thousands of foreigners who fled the country. The Barnabite priest arrived back in his native Italy along with five Missionary of Charity nuns – among the last Catholic religious to leave the country. With them were 14 orphaned and disabled children and young adults. Following the safe evacuation back to India of two Jesuit priests, Fr Jerome Sequeira and Fr Robert Rodrigues from Jesuit Relief Services, Fr Scalese’s departure is understood to mean that no Catholic priests are left in Afghanistan. This coincides with information I have received that many of the Catholics remaining in the country – perhaps 100 in total – have also been airlifted out of the country. As for the Christians still left in Afghanistan, the future is very uncertain. There are growing calls for them to be evacuated. For these faithful, it is too much to hope that the Taliban will defy the odds, keep its word, and somehow allow some semblance of religious diversity to survive under its rule. So perilous is the situation now for Afghanistan’s beleaguered Christian community that the Church’s very survival there is on a knife edge.