KABUL, Afghanistan – It’s not a matter for negotiation, say the evangelical aid workers in one of the world’s most hostile environments for Christian activists. Their mission to introduce Afghan Muslims to Jesus comes from the highest authority, and it cannot be questioned.
For Afghan Muslims sought out by the evangelicals, there also can be no middle ground: Conversion is out of the question, and it is punishable by death. Their duty to defend Islam is divinely mandated, they say, and it cannot be questioned.
This volatile mixture of faiths already has led to crisis scenarios, including the jailing of Christian aid workers during the final months of the Taliban regime, repeated death threats and, in the past year, an attempted bombing.
With every day, the potential for violence grows, but so does the resolve of the evangelicals to continue their controversial mission despite strong criticism from Muslim leaders. Nongovernmental groups complain that the evangelicals are putting secular aid workers at risk.
“It puts all of us in a tenuous position,” said Paul Barker, country director of CARE International. “It spreads the message that foreign organizations are what the Taliban and al-Qaeda said we are: Christian-Jewish plots to destroy Islam.”
Christian aid workers acknowledge that the risk factor is high but insist their work must go on.
“I was told by Muslims that if a Muslim leaves his faith, you have to kill him,” said George Taubmann, director of Shelter Now Germany, a Christian aid group in Kabul. “What do you call that? Good? Evil? I don’t want to comment because if I say the wrong thing, I could be killed tomorrow.”
Mr. Taubmann understands the risks better than most. In 2001, the Taliban arrested him and seven other foreigners working for Shelter Now and accused them of proselytizing. They spent more than three months in jail before gaining freedom during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.
Two Texas women, Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry, were among those arrested. They have since acknowledged having met privately with Afghans to discuss Christianity.
That ordeal is so fresh on the minds of Christian aid workers here that few are willing to discuss their work openly. Mr. Taubmann explained that, although the Taliban no longer remains in power, Afghanistan remains a devoutly Muslim nation whose people tend not to tolerate challenges to their religious beliefs.
At the same time, he asserted that Afghans are questioning more and more the role that Islam may have played in their own suffering during 25 years of war.
Afghans who have experienced proselytizing by Christian aid groups say it is not the difference of religious views that most upsets them. Rather, they say it is the seeming lack of respect by evangelicals for the deep devotion Afghans have to their own religion. Muslims recognize Jesus as one of several prophets who preceded Muhammad, the Muslim prophet who, they believe, delivered the final instructions and message of God.
“We don’t want to cause any problems for them or their religion, but we won’t allow them to interfere with our religion, either,” said Dr. Ihsan, a dental surgeon who declined to give his full name.
He and about 150 other doctors attended a week-long dental-surgery course in 2002 sponsored by the U.S.-based International Health Services Foundation. The doctors were extremely satisfied with the level of training they received, Dr. Ihsan said.
But they erupted in angry shouting and threats of violence when, at the conclusion, they received free medical-instrument kits and were told that they were a “gift from Jesus.”
“They told us, ‘Every time you use these instruments, you must remember who it came from,’ ” Dr. Ihsan recalled. “That was their big mistake. Everyone started shouting, ‘No! No!’ We told them that if they came here just to convert us, they should take their instruments back.”
Most of the new dentists returned the instruments to the director of the clinic.
Dr. Nasir Ahmad Hamid, director of the main Kabul periodontology hospital where the training session took place, said he was taken by surprise when the seemingly professional seminar turned into a proselytizing session.
“If I had known they were here for that, I would not have allowed them through the door,” he said.
Careful what you say
According to an evangelical Christian who was present at the time, Afghan translators who worked with the American medical team received death threats. There was one report of a bomber who attempted to kill members of a medical team at a Kabul University clinic operated by evangelical Christians.
“They told the translators, we will kill you first, then we’ll kill the Christians,” the evangelical said.
A Russian-made hand grenade was thrown at the feet of some foreign Christian clinic workers, they said, but it didn’t go off. The man who threw it ran away, and the incident was reported to the U.S embassy.
Out of the hundreds of patients who have visited the clinic, only one or two have converted to Christianity since 2001. One of those, a man, eventually had to leave the country because his father threatened to kill him.
“The law is very strict. Anyone who converts receives three days’ time to reconsider. After that, he must be killed,” said Muhammad Maarouf, 26, imam of the Kabul University mosque. He added that “many, many” students had come to him complaining about the clinic’s activities.
A former translator for the clinic, who asked not to be identified because of death threats he had received, said Afghan staff members ultimately agreed among themselves to deliberately mistranslate any proselytizing remarks made by the Christian doctors.
“They would tell the patients things like, ‘Listen to Christian radio, pray to Jesus, read the Bible.’ We would translate it as, ‘Get lots of exercise, be a good person and be friendly to others,’ ” the translator said.
At the Kabul University clinic, Dr. Mylin Rabara, a Filipina Christian, declined to discuss specifics of any evangelical activities taking place at the facility. She said the original American team operating the clinic departed more than a year ago and left an all-Filipino staff to continue the work.
She said her group was “just here as an NGO,” or nongovernmental organization, to help and serve the country. “For security reasons, we don’t want to endanger the Afghans who work with us,” she said. “We know it’s a restrictive country.”
No Christian symbols or words are in evidence anywhere within the clinic, which was packed earlier this week with Afghan patients. The only indication that religious concerns might color medical duties was located on a six-step list of procedures posted for staff to carry out during patient emergencies.
Step 5 reads: “Intercession. Assist with escorting all patients out of the clinic. Stand just inside the room out of the way and PRAY! PRAY! PRAY!”
Message from Graham
Muslims say they are particularly resentful of messages such as those by Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham and director of the Christian aid organization Samaritan’s Purse, which is active in northern Afghanistan. In November 2001, Franklin Graham told MSNBC that he regarded Islam as a “very evil and wicked religion.”
He later issued a clarification stating that he does not view Muslims as evil “because of their faith” but because of acts committed in the name of Islam. He added, “While I respect the rights of all people to adopt their own beliefs, I would respectfully disagree with any religion that teaches people to put their faith in other gods.”
The U.S. Agency for International Development lists Samaritan’s Purse among nonprofit groups it recommends to donors seeking to help Afghans.
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