In this series we are examining some of the reasons why Christians in various contexts face opposition and persecution.
The land that is now Afghanistan and Pakistan has been highly significant throughout history. This is the point at which China and the Far East, the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East, and Central Asia converge.
Afghanistan has been at the centre of trading routes for many centuries, including the famous Silk Road. The land has often been fought over – by Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Mongols and Uzbeks. In the nineteenth century Afghanistan and what is now northern Pakistan were caught between the Russian and British empires. In the late twentieth century Afghanistan was a key Cold War battleground between the Soviet Union and the West.
Many of the international borders in this region are the artificial creations of the West – most notably the border that partitioned India from Pakistan in 1947, leading to the forced relocation of millions and between half a million and two million deaths.
The Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan is such a border. Established in 1893 as the border between a nominally independent Afghanistan and then-British India, it cut across family lands and tribal regions. Though it is recognised internationally, Afghanistan has never fully accepted it, while Pashtun and Baloch peoples in northern Pakistan also reject a line that divides them from their kin in Afghanistan.
The boundaries set by imperial administrators are just one way that foreign interference has damaged the region, and made life more difficult for its Christian population.
This is a highly Islamic region. The population of Afghanistan is almost entirely Muslim, and in Pakistan it is between 90% and 95% Muslim. Any religion other than Sunni Islam is rejected fiercely and often violently. Christians and other religious minorities suffer systemic oppression and marginalisation in Pakistan. In Afghanistan, Christians face the death penalty as apostates from Islam.
CHRISTIANITY IN AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN
Christianity has had a presence here since ancient times, despite the perception by Muslims that churches and Christian communities have been imposed by the West. Christianity was firmly established in the Indian sub-continent by the third century, and by the sixth century there were many believers aligned to the Church of the East.
These believers suffered persecution through successive waves of Muslim invasion into northern India from 1001 AD onwards. While Christian communities survived in southern India, the church in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan appeared to have died out by the fourteenth century.
From the sixteenth century Christianity was revived, with the help of missionaries from Europe and occasionally with the official tolerance of the rulers of these lands. In the eighteenth century there was a Christian presence in Lahore, served by a minister who visited twice a year and also made visitations to Christian communities further north in Kabul and Kandahar.
Western missionary activity increased across India in the nineteenth century, including in the areas now part of Pakistan, eventually winning many converts. A large number of these converts were from the Chuhra, a marginalised group that initially practised a form of Hinduism influenced by Islam. The Chuhra conversions began in 1873 with an elderly man called Ditt, followed by some of his family and neighbours, then many others across the Punjab. “Chuhra” remains a pejorative term for Christians, implying low status individuals who perform dirty, menial jobs.
Today it is estimated that 3% of the population of Pakistan is Christian. The number of Christians in Afghanistan is unknown, but was probably between 5,000 and 8,000 before the Taliban return to power in August 2021.
GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES – AND CHRISTIANS
The psyche of Afghanistan – and especially the dominant Pashtun tribal group, including those in northern Pakistan – has been shaped by centuries of resistance towards imperial powers. In the nineteenth century, the “Great Game” – the geopolitical power struggle between Russia and the UK – led to constant meddling in the government of Afghanistan.
British fears that Afghanistan would side with Russia led to the first Anglo-Afghan War (1838-42). A second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-79) resulted in Afghanistan being treated as a British protectorate – nominally outside the British Empire, but with foreign policy controlled by the UK in order to maintain Afghanistan as a buffer zone between Russian Central Asia and British India.
The third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 was fought over the division of Pashtun lands caused by the Durand Line. The Treaty of Rawalpindi ended the war and acknowledged the independence of Afghanistan, but the line remained fixed.
This may seem like ancient history to those in the West, but it remains deeply significant for the people of Afghanistan, including their kin across the Durand Line. Until 1978 Afghanistan held an annual national commemoration for each of these three wars, and the US-led occupation of Afghanistan (2001-21) was regarded as a fourth Anglo-Afghan War.
Afghanistan has earned the title “Graveyard of Empires”. Yet it is often Afghan – and Pakistani – Christians who bear the brunt of this legacy, being unfairly linked in the minds of the Muslim-majority population with the Western powers. When gunmen shot and killed 15 Christians at a church service in Bahawalpur, Punjab, on Sunday 28 October 2001, they shouted as they sprayed bullets, “Pakistan and Afghanistan – Graveyard of Christians.”
THE GROWTH OF ISLAMISM IN AFGHANISTAN
Islam first appeared in Afghanistan in the seventh century, and by the ninth century was the dominant religion. Yet its transformation into the world’s strictest Islamic country and a breeding ground for Islamist terrorism is relatively recent.
In the mid-1960s Afghanistan was transforming into a democracy, with the establishment of a parliament (the Shura) that incorporated a fully elected lower house and partly elected upper house. The first free elections were held in 1965.
This did not last. In 1973 a Soviet-backed coup deposed the King Zahir Shah who had overseen the democratic reform. In 1978 the country became the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, aligned to and dependent on Moscow but not officially part of the USSR. The communist parties that gained power implemented radical secularism and the redistribution of land.
Conservative Islamic groups in Afghanistan objected to this left-wing programme, leading to an anti-Soviet jihad and the rise of the mujahideen (meaning jihadists) – a loose coalition of Islamist groups fighting the Soviet-aligned government. In a bid to sustain communist rule, the Soviet Union launched its invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.
Afghanistan became a Cold War battleground, with the United States and other Western powers channelling financial and military aid through Pakistan to support the mujahideen. Support also came from China and Saudi Arabia. Secular anti-communist groups in Afghanistan were squeezed out, receiving no overseas support. The Soviets were forced to negotiate a withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.
Once the Soviets withdrew and Western powers lost interest in Afghanistan, Islamists were able to establish themselves. Foreign interference and miscalculation from all sides had created a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalism and Islamist terrorism.
THE RISE OF THE TALIBAN
The Taliban emerged from the mujahideen during the civil wars that engulfed Afghanistan after the fall of the Soviet-backed government in 1992. Supported by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Taliban quickly established an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that lasted from 1996 until the US-led invasion of 2001.
Despite support from Pakistan for the Afghan Taliban, a Pakistani movement – the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – emerged in 2007, pledging to overthrow the Pakistani state. Both groups are dominated by Pashtun Islamists, some of whom support the idea of an independent Pashtunistan that would incorporate areas currently part of southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, and be ruled according to the Taliban’s strict interpretation of sharia (Islamic law).
The original membership of the Taliban consisted mainly of students (the word Taliban literally means “students”) from Deobandi madrassas in eastern and southern Afghanistan. The Deobandi school of Islam emerged in Deoband, Uttar Pradesh, northern India in 1867. Deobandis stressed strict adherence to sharia, opposition to any innovations (bid’a) in religion, and jihad as a sacred duty.
Islamist groups in Afghanistan have also been influenced by Wahhabism – a Saudi Arabian movement that calls for a return to a more “pure” form of Islam, unsullied by the modern world – via the Saudi financial support given to Islamist forces and Deobandi madrassas.
Life under the Taliban is therefore impossible for Afghan Christians, who being converts from Islam face the death penalty for apostasy. When Western forces withdrew from Afghanistan, Christians were faced with a choice: convert, flee, or be killed. Those who could fled to neighbouring countries, while others remain in hiding inside Afghanistan.
It can be added to the list of Western strategic and moral failures that, when in 2010 NATO’s International Security Assistance Force wanted to prove the sharia credentials of the then Afghan government, they helped disseminate a fatwa calling for the killing of those who leave Islam. The Western powers therefore reinforced fundamentalist Islamist dogma, and placed Christians in even greater peril.
ISLAMISM IN PAKISTAN
The creation of Pakistan also helped in the development of Islamism, both in Pakistan and around the world. When Pakistan was formed in 1947 it was the first state in modern times to be created on the basis of religion. Conservative Muslims were greatly encouraged by a Muslim-majority nation that could be governed according to sharia – even though Muahammad Ali Jinnah, considered the founder of Pakistan, originally envisaged a society in which people of all religions would be treated as equal citizens.
“You are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. […] We are starting with the fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one state.”
– speech by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, 11 August 1947
This perspective was perhaps strengthened by the name chosen for the new country. Derived from the names of the provinces that made up Pakistan1 – the initial letters of Punjab, Afghania (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly North West Frontier Province), Kashmir and Sind, and the last three letters of Baluchistan – the name also means in Persian, “pure land” or “land of the pure”. This, it seemed, was a sign that Pakistan would operate according to a purified understanding of Islam – a theme dear to both Deobandi and Wahhabi Islam.
The idea that Pakistan is an exclusively Muslim land causes difficulties for Christians. The Islamic concept of dhimmi – People of the Book, that is, Christians and Jews, who must live in subjection to Islamic rule – is not formally part of Pakistan’s constitution, but shapes the way many Muslims view the Christian minority as second-class citizens and mistreat them if they are seen to step out of line.
An example of this is the persistent misuse of Pakistan’s “blasphemy” laws, which disproportionately affects Christians and other religious minorities.
“Blasphemy” laws have existed in the region since 1927 and were incorporated into Pakistan’s Penal Code at the country’s founding. The laws were strengthened under the military government of General Zia-ul-Haq (in office 1978-88), including the addition of mandatory life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran (1982) and the death sentence for defiling the name of Muhammad, the Islamic prophet (1986). A subsequent decision by Pakistan’s constitutional court making the death sentence for “blasphemy” against Muhammad mandatory came into effect in 1991.
The most well-known case is that of Aasia Bibi, who was accused of “blasphemy” after an argument with co-workers in 2009, arrested, and subsequently sentenced to death. Aasia was not acquitted until a Supreme Court decision in 2018, after which she sought refuge in a Western country in fear for her life. In January 2022, Zafar Bhatti – another Christian convicted of “blasphemy” – was appealing against his conviction and life sentence at Rawalpindi District Court, when the judge chose instead to sentence him to death.
It is thought that six Christians are currently on death row having been convicted of “blasphemy”. Between 1990 and 2019, 15 Christians were murdered because of “blasphemy” allegations, even before a trial could be conducted. Entire Christian communities have been violently targeted by Muslims following allegations.
The strength of feeling among the Muslim population is such that the government fears to amend the laws – President Pervez Musharraf (2001-08) tried in vain the make them less susceptible to abuse – while judges are often afraid for their own safety if they acquit those who have done no wrong.
Politicians in Pakistan must pay lip service to fundamentalist Islam. Failing to do so risks creating opportunity for hard-line groups to move against the government. Anti-Western, Islamist rhetoric is also an easy way of gaining popularity. Furthermore, the government of Pakistan must always ensure a friendly government in Kabul as a means of strengthening its geopolitical position against India.
Hence Imran Khan – prime minister from 2018 until April 2022 – did much to support Christians and other minorities, but was also criticised for referring in 2020 to Osama bin Laden as a “martyr” and for praising in 2021 the resurgent Taliban for breaking the “shackles of slavery” to the West.
ISLAMIST ATTITUDES AND WESTERN HUBRIS
On Sunday 30 January, William Siraj – a lay pastor near Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – was shot and killed as he returned home from church. It is believed that the gunmen had come over the border from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. William was the victim of deep-seated Islamist attitudes to Christians and a security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan worsened by the amoral hubris of the West and other global powers over several centuries.