Before the United States began air strikes even before two airliners hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 the Taliban had expelled Christian workers. On Aug. 31, armed guards seized the offices of the International Assistance Mission and ordered workers to leave the country. The incident followed the arrest of eight foreign workers, including two American women in Afghanistan, for allegedly attempting to convert Muslims to Christianity.
Proselytizing violates strict rules in place for years in Afghanistan. Christian workers cannot enter the country as missionaries, but have been able to come in as specialists in fields such as engineering or medicine. For more than three decades, much of the Christian work in Afghanistan has been done through the International Assistance Mission, an umbrella organization representing about two dozen Christian agencies from 10 countries. The workers lived in Afghanistan with their families, in some of the country's poorest areas.
Among projects sponsored by the International Assistance Mission were: Mother and child health care, with clinics in Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif. Ophthalmological rehabilitiation, including the training of Afghans as eye doctors and teaching vocational skills to the visually impaired. Economic and community development, including renewable energy sources. Literacy classes in Dari, the Persian dialect that is the national language. Job training, such as sewing for women. Therapy and prostheses for people, especially children, who have lost limbs to land mines from Soviet invaders and during civil war. Aviation and communication networks to deliver relief supplies. The work was Christian only because it was performed by Christians, not because it overtly aimed to convert.
Workers "tried to live within the restrictions they had," said J. Dudley Woodberry, professor of Islamic studies in the School of World Missions at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "It was very much long-term ministry in Christ's name."
Islam swept into Afghanistan with Arab armies in the late 600s and was largely adopted by the local people over the next 200 years. There are records of a Christian bishop in the Middle Ages, but Christianity was officially terminated in the 1300s when the area was conquered by the Mongol Timur, also known as Tamerlane. Vestiges remained, and a small Armenian church met in Kabul until about 1898, when it was destroyed and its dozen members exiled. Since then, no Afghan nationals have been permitted to participate in Christian worship. Conversion from Islam to Christianity by an Afghan is considered a capital offense.
Freedom of religion was officially allowed in the constitution from 1964 to 1973, but only for expatriates living in the country. Woodberry, a Presbyterian and a former missionary, served as pastor of the international community in Afghanistan during part of that time. A church building completed in 1971 and dedicated as "a house of prayer for all nations" was torn down by the government in 1973. Since then, foreign Christians in Afghanistan have met privately in homes, he said.
To Afghan Muslim leaders, Christianity is part of a greater move of globalization that they see as a threat to their way of life, said Jonathan Bonk, director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven, Conn., and editor of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. "Missionaries are associated with Hollywood," he said. "Everything in the West pornography, violence is Christian. Christian missionaries are seen as part of the overarching juggernaut of Western corruption."
International workers can go into Afghanistan only at the invitation of a local group or institution. "Expatriates who go there for altruistic reasons usually are trying to scratch where people are itching," Bonk said. "They can't just power their way in." Since their expulsion in late summer, international Christian organizations are directing their resources to providing relief for Afghans who have left their homes to relocate within their country or escape to Pakistan.
A shipment of 1,000 shelter kits including a tent, blankets and a ground cover arrived this week in Hazarajat, a region in central Afghanistan, under the auspices of Church World Service, the relief and development arm of the National Council of Churches. The agency also is providing shelter and food for 10,000 families in settlements in Pakistan, said Donna Derr, associate for international emergency response for Church World Service. The sites were coordinated with the United Nations and the government of Pakistan.
Missionaries have more leeway when working with Afghans who've fled to Pakistan. Christianity is allowed in Pakistan, but "the legal situation . . . is complex and in flux," said Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom in Washington. Many Christians there are descendants of the lower Hindu castes who were converted by missionaries more than 100 years ago when modern-day Pakistan was part of India. Most Pakistani Christians are Catholic or Anglican-related, with Catholics mostly in the cities and Protestants in rural communities. Protestant groups formed the Church of Pakistan in 1970.
Pakistan was proclaimed an Islamic republic in 1956, but the constitution guarantees that "every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion; and every religious denomination and every sect thereof shall have the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions."
Despite the guarantee, Pakistani Muslims who convert to Christianity could be charged with blasphemy, a crime punishable by death under a law adopted in 1986, Marshall said. But a much greater threat than the government is radical Islamic vigilante groups. "As far as I know, no Pakistani has been executed under the blasphemy laws," he said, "but many of them are killed before they get to court or are killed in the process." One couple, acquitted by a court, was machine-gunned to death on the courthouse steps after the trial, he said. "Judges have also been threatened and killed when they haven't come up with the decisions the radicals wanted."
Church World Services uses mostly national Christians for its work in Pakistan. The agency has operated there since the 1950s to provide clean water systems, establish cooperatives and teach skills, said Derr. Recently, however, those projects have taken a back seat to relief work.
Forbidden from trying to convert Muslims, "We work very hard to stay focused on meeting the humanitarian need," she said. "We would hope that what we're doing, and the knowledge that it's being done by a Christian organization, speaks for itself."