NEW YORK — Said Musa was freed from a jail in Kabul, Afghanistan, in February. He had awaited death by hanging for the crime of converting from Islam to Christianity. The 46-year-old father of six came to Christ about eight years ago, while working for the Red Cross.
His story was especially compelling because he lost a leg in a landmine explosion while he was a soldier in the Afghan Army; his job with the Red Cross involved fitting amputees with prosthetic limbs.
Amid pain and sadness, Musa experienced Christian conversion.
But in some predominantly Muslim countries, including Afghanistan, when a follower of Islam rejects his religion, it’s called apostasy and can trigger the death penalty. Musa and several others were arrested last May, after an Afghan TV station secretly filmed a church service with prayers and baptism. No Afghan lawyer would take his case, and he was prevented from hiring an attorney from abroad.
So he wrote letters to President Barack Obama and various church leaders in the West. Musa’s release was the successful outcome of an international campaign — a campaign that underscores the brutal reality of religious persecution, not just in rogue states, but in places the United States should expect to be influencing the values of tolerance and freedom. In Afghanistan, the United States has spent approximately $55 billion to rebuild and develop the country. U.S. taxpayers also contribute $10 billion a month for military operations there.
The Afghan government released Musa, but other Christian converts remain in jail. Shoaib Assadullah Musawi, for example, was arrested last October for giving a man a Bible. Over the last year, there has been a crackdown on Muslim converts in Afghanistan — despite the fact that the Christian community is small, with about 99% of the country Muslim.
The Barnabas Fund, a London-based NGO dedicated to helping the persecuted church, initiated a campaign to “Save Afghan Converts to Christianity.” Its international director, Anglican Rev. Patrick Sookhdeo, is also director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity and has lectured NATO military officers on the nature of radical Islam.
He explained that, in Afghanistan, a tension exists between the national constitution and the ability of Islamic courts to step in and enforce sharia (Islamic law).
According to the 2004 Afghan constitution, people are “free to exercise their faith.” However, if it is not clear whether an act is criminal or not, including so-called religious crimes, the case is referred to a sharia court, which is increasingly taking apostasy cases and condemning to the death penalty.
Rev. Sookhdeo is frustrated with the weak Western response and the U.S. government’s ambivalence about confronting the Afghan government on its apostasy law.
“Western governments have not wanted to upset the Muslim applecart,” he said. “The U.S. government understands the implications of sharia law. In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai’s government is breaking every international law and its own pledges on religious freedom. The U.S. sort of urges Islamic clerics [to do the right thing] behind the scenes. The West needs much greater resolve.”
Rev. Sookhdeo proposed several approaches to push back on Muslim governments that allow increasingly radical uses of apostasy and blasphemy laws to intimidate people — and demonize Christians:
Get the United Nations to police its own documents and urge full compliance with the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which protects the right to conversion — both Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, are signatories,
Force the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which has been notoriously “lax,” to enforce religious-liberty agreements and protections for religious minorities,
Call on Muslims living in the U.S. and Western Europe, who demand religious freedom for themselves, to make their co-religionists end the death penalty for apostasy, and
Activate the International Criminal Court in these cases.
“We have reached a point where we need to explore this question: If a government legally kills a convert, should they be tried by the International Criminal Court for a breach of human rights? For too long, we have let governments get away with gross human-rights violations,” Rev. Sookhdeo said.
He thinks the only Christian leader who has addressed the apostasy law is the Pope: “He has clearly sent the message to Muslim states that there must be freedom of religion.” An example is Pope Benedict XVI’s baptism, at the Easter vigil Mass in 2008, of a Muslim-born Italian journalist who covers Islamic affairs.
Anti-Christian Violence Increasing
Afghanistan is not the only country where the Barnabas Fund is tracking radicalization around sharia and a notable deterioration in Muslim-Christian relations since the invasion of Iraq. The fund sees violence against Christians increasing in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and Indonesia.
Brutality similar to Afghanistan is being witnessed in Pakistan — where the U.S. government has spent approximately $22 billion — not including billions in military aid — in the past eight years to cultivate a closer relationship.
Recently, Qamar David, a Pakistani Catholic sentenced to life in prison for blasphemy, died under suspicious circumstances. Although he was apparently healthy, he supposedly had a sudden, fatal heart attack. David had been receiving death threats, according to his lawyer, and his family suspects murder.
Pakistan’s criminal code says that anyone who commits blasphemy against Islam or the prophet Mohammed can be sentenced to death. Even vague insults are considered to apply.
Pakistani Cabinet Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, challenged this law and was assassinated as a result on March 2.
Some Muslim religious leaders are holding a line against brutality. In Egypt last year, the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, the nation’s most important Islamic leader, wrote that there should be no retribution against converts in this world because Muslims who leave their religion will be punished in the life to come.
While concerns grow regarding the punitive treatment of Muslim converts to Christianity, three major Christian organizations have been meeting for over five years to formalize a code of conduct to guide such conversions.
The Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue, the World Council of Churches and the World Evangelical Alliance met in Bangkok in January and adopted “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for a Code of Conduct.” The Vatican has not yet released the document.
The bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which monitors religious liberty and respect for the rights of religious minorities around the world, includes information on its website that points to increasing pressure on Christian institutions and believers living in the Muslim world.
Pakistan is included on the religious-freedom commission list of “Countries of Particular Concern,” the worst offenders of religious freedom. Since 2006, Afghanistan has been on a “Watch List” maintained by the commission, but has not been downgraded to a country of particular concern.
Writing to Obama regarding the unjust incarceration of Said Musa, USCIRF Commissioner Richard Land observed, “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.”
Said Rev. Land, who also serves as president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, “This failure reflects a wider indifference among Western governments to the plight of Christians, and especially converts, in the Muslim world.”
Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.