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Persecution in the Middle East

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 – and has often been fought over by Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Mongols and Uzbeks. In the 19th century Afghanistan and what is now northern Pakistan were caught between the Russian and British empires, and in the 20th 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. The border that partitioned India from Pakistan in 1947 (which resulted in the forced relocation of millions and between half a million and two million deaths) and the Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan are two such borders. Established in 1893 as the border between a nominally independent Afghanistan and then-British India, the latter 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 and separates 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 percent and 95 percent Muslim. Any religion other than Sunni Islam is rejected fiercely and often violently. Christians and other religious minorities suffer oppression and marginalisation in Pakistan, while in Afghanistan Christians face the death penalty as apostates from Islam.

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 had been firmly established in the Indian sub-continent by the 3rd century, and by the 6th 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 onwards. While Christian communities survived in southern India the church in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan appeared to have died out by the 14th century, but from the 16th century Christianity was revived with the help of missionaries from Europe and occasionally with the official tolerance by the rulers of these lands. In the 18th century there was a Christian presence in Lahore, served by a minister who visited twice a year while also making visitations to Christian communities further north in Kabul and Kandahar.

Western missionary activity increased across India in the 19th century (including areas that are now part of Pakistan) eventually winning many converts. A large number of these converts were from the Chuhra, a marginalised group that initially practiced a form of Hinduism influenced by Islam. Chuhra conversions began in 1873 with an elderly man called Ditt, followed by some of his family and nearby neighbours and then many others across the Punjab. “Chuhra” remains a contemptible term for Christians, implying low-status individuals who perform dirty, menial tasks. Today it is estimated that only 3 percent of the population in Pakistan is Christian. The number of Christians in Afghanistan is unknown, but was probably between 5,000 and 8,000 before the Taliban returned to power in August 2021.

The psyche of Afghanistan (especially the dominant Pashtun tribal group, including those in northern Pakistan) has been shaped by many centuries of resistance towards Imperial powers. In the 19th 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 the country would side with Russia led to the first Anglo-Afghan War between 1838 and 1842. The second Anglo-Afghan War in 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 this war and acknowledged the independence of Afghanistan, but the line remained fixed.

This may be 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 the country between 2002 and 2021 was regarded as a fourth Anglo-Afghan War. Afghanistan has earned the title “Graveyard of Empires” yet it is often Afghani and Pakistani Christians who bear the brunt of this legacy, being unfairly linked in the minds of the Muslim-majority population with Western powers. When gunmen shot and killed 15 Christians at a church service in the Punjab on Sunday 28 October 2001 they shouted as they sprayed bullets “Pakistan and Afghanistan – Graveyard of Christians!”

Islam first appeared in Afghanistan in the 7th century, and by the 9th century it was the dominant religion. Yet its transformation into the world's strictest Islamic country and a breeding ground for Islamic 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 a partly-elected upper house. The first free elections were held in 1965, but sadly this situation did not last. In 1973 a Soviet-backed coup deposed 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 quickly implemented radical secularism and the redistribution of land. Conservative Islamic groups objected to this left-wing programme, which led to anti-Soviet resistance and the rise of the mujahideen – a loose coalition of Islamic groups fighting the Soviet-aligned government. Afghanistan became a Cold War battleground, with the US and other Western powers channelling financial and military aid via Pakistan. Support also came from China and Saudi Arabia. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989 and Western countries lost interest, Islamists were finally able to establish themselves as the dominant group. Foreign miscalculation and interference from all sides had created a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.

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 that lasted from 1996 until the US-led invasion of 2001. The original membership of the Taliban consisted mainly of students from the east and south, who demanded strict adherence to sharia law, opposition to any innovations in religion and jihad (meritorious struggle) as a sacred duty. Life under the Taliban is therefore impossible for Afghan Christians who, being converts from Islam, face the death penalty for apostasy. Those who could fled to neighbouring countries, while others remain in hiding inside Afghanistan.

The creation of Pakistan also helped in the development of Islamism, both in the country 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. The idea that Pakistan is an exclusive Muslim land causes difficulties for Christians, who are regarded as second-class citizens and mistreated if they are seen to step out of line. An example of this is the persistent misuse of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which have existed in the region since 1927 and were incorporated into the country's Penal Code at its founding. The laws were subsequently strengthened under the military government of General Zia-ul-Haq, which included the addition of mandatory life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran and the death penalty for defiling the name of Muhammed.

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