By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN (BosNewsLife)– Christian rights activists launched on Monday, February 7, an international petition urging Afghanistan to release detained converts to Christianity, amid fears they may be executed.
Barnabas Fund, an advocacy group closely following the case, told BosNewsLife that among Christian prisoners in “immediate danger” are 45-year-old Said Musa, a father of six, and another Christian, identified as Shoaib Assadullah, 25. Both men could face execution on charges of apostasy, or abandoning Islam, a crime punished by death under Islamic law and upheld by Afghanistan’s constitution.
Musa was detained in Kabul in May after footage was nationally televised of Muslim converts to Christianity being baptized, BosNewsLife reported earlier. The broadcast triggered protests throughout the country and a national government crackdown against Christian converts, according to rights activists and Christians.
Musa suggested in a handwritten letter carried out of his Kabul prison and published by BosNewsLife last year that so far lawyers refused to defend him. “Nobody [want to be my] defender before the court. When I said ‘I am a Christian man’, he [a potential lawyer] immediately spat on me and abused me and mocked me…I am alone between 400 [people with] terrible values in the jail, like a sheep,” he wrote.
Musa himself is an amputee, dependent on a prosthesis for one of his legs. Despite his own disability, he wrote how a prosecutor and other Afghan judicial officials allegedly refused to protect him after he declined to pay a bribe. Authorities have even encouraged the abuse from fellow prisoners, Musa said.
Barnabas Fund confirmed that Said has been “languishing in prison, where he has been tortured and abused,” since his May arrest. However, “Said is yet to stand trial and no defense lawyer will represent him. They say the case is hopeless because the prisoner refuses to renounce Christianity, or they back out after receiving death threats themselves,” the group added.
Yet, Musa did not ask to be released but to be “transferred” to another prison. He said in his latter that he is ready to suffer for Christ and to speak about his faith with others. “Please, please you should transfer me from this jail to a jail that supervises the believers…I also agree…to sacrifice my life in public [where] I will tell [about my] faith in Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, [so] other believers will take courage and be strong in their faith,” he wrote.
But, “For [the] sake [of] Lord Jesus Christ please pray and immediately help me and rescue me from this jail. Otherwise, they will kill me [here] because I know they’re very very very cruel and hard hearted,” he added.
Shoaib Assadullah is also being held in prison and has “been threatened with the death penalty for apostasy unless he returns to Islam,” Barnabas Fund said. He was reportedly arrested last October after giving a New Testament to another Afghan. Barnabas Fund said it saw no other options to launch a petition for their and other converts’ release, after “working behind the scenes” involving several governments had no result. “High-level talks involving U.S.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and representatives of the French and German governments have failed to move Afghan President Hamid Karzai to act on [Said’s] behalf.”
Barnabas Fund’s International Director Patrick Sookhdeo told BosNewsLife that Said Musa’s plight can be seen as “a test case” for “how Western governments are going to respond to the treatment of converts to Christianity in the Muslim world.”
His group said the developments are a major set-back for a country where international forces, including “hundreds of British and American troops”, lost their lives fighting a violent insurgency by the Taliban, “whose hard-line Islamic regime” was ousted in 2001.
“Despite these ongoing and costly efforts to support the new government and constitution, Afghan citizens – especially converts to Christianity – are being denied the fundamental right to choose their own faith.”
Barnabas Fund also accused key Western leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, Secretary Hillary Clinton and British Prime Minister David Cameron, of “subtly changing their vocabulary in recent months.” They are now “only” calling for “freedom of speech” and “freedom of worship”, not for “freedom of religion”, which covers the right to choose and to change one’s faith, Barnabas Fund said. “Are they no longer concerned to defend this right?”
“As long as the West continues to prop up the Karzai regime and refuses to demand tougher action by the Afghan government to uphold its international agreements, it is surely complicit in the persecution of converts to Christianity such as Said and Shoaib,” Barnabas Fund commented.
STATE DEPARTMENT CONCERN
But the U.S. State Department has said it takes Christian rights serious and recently mentioned in its annual International Religious Freedom Report that “respect for religious freedom” decreased in Afghanistan in the last year, “particularly toward Christian groups and individuals.”
It is not the first time Christians face execution in Afghanistan. In 2006 Italy granted asylum to a Christian convert, Abdul Rahman, who faced the death penalty for “abandoning Islam.”
Despite reported persecution, there may be as many as 10.000 Christian converts in heavily Islamic Afghanistan, according to some Christian rights activists. Other issued figures range from as few as 500 to 8,000 Christians in a country where openly expressing Christian views can reportedly lead to killings by officials, militants or family members.
Sookhdeo said he hopes the Barnabas Fund petition, will put pressure on international leaders “to use their influence to achieve for everyone the universal right to full freedom of religion.”