The release of Said Musa, an imprisoned and horribly abused Afghan Christian convert who worked with the Red Cross, is now making headlines around the world. U.S. Embassy officials confirmed on Feb. 21 that he was safely out of the country. Musa was imprisoned in Afghanistan on charges of apostasy, an offense punishable by death under Islamic law.
Social and mainstream news media played a compelling role in Said Musa's release. Yet ironically, it was media attention that first landed Musa in prison more than eight months ago. Footage of a worship service and baptism of Afghan Christian converts was broadcast on national television in Afghanistan in May of 2010, and the fragile situation of Christian believers in the predominately Muslim country deteriorated dramatically after it aired. Musa was arrested within days of the video's release while attempting to seek asylum at the German embassy. The videos also led to the suspension of several Christian NGOs, and numerous others were placed under investigation.
Behind the Scenes Advocacy
The intimidating environment created by the baptism footage's release caused concerns on how best to approach a campaign for Said's release. Christian organizations and advocates debated on the best course of action. "The fear was that publicity could lead to harm against Christian believers and Christian work in Afghanistan," said Aidan Clay, International Christian Concern's Regional Manager for the Middle East. As a result, a quieter approach of behind-the-scenes diplomacy ensued.
"There were many factors involved," said Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute, "The US Embassy in Kabul, as well as the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) did diligent work on the case. There were good NGOs on the ground who could work with the family."
Not until Musa's handwritten letter emerged from prison did the case garner international publicity.
"That's when the case really started to progress," Aidan Clay said. "That's when immediate international pressure began. Within a week of that letter, Said was moved to a safer prison. So that's when we started to see the process progressing. The media pressure encouraged the US and other governments to act more quickly."
The case developed further when representatives from several embassies visited Musa in prison. After their visit, Musa reported that he was confronted by Afghan officials who told that if he recanted his faith in Christ, he could be released within 24 hours. He refused. "I told them I cannot (follow) Islam," Said recounted in his letter, "I am Jesus Christ's servant. They pushed me much and much. I refused their demands."
Mistreated in Prison
Musa's refusal to recant his faith made for a dismal stay in prison. He suffered horrific abuse and acts of cruelty that were recounted in a letter written to President Obama by Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "Since his arrest, Mr. Musa has experienced beatings, sexual assault and sleep deprivation," Land wrote. "Our current administration appropriately condemned this kind of treatment of our own terror suspects."
In fact, Musa himself has been a victim of terror. He is an amputee who served in the Afghan Army as well as with Red Cross Red Crescent. With a wife and six children, and a passion for helping other amputees, Musa's imprisonment seemed particularly unjust. Rights advocates believe this is part of the reason news of his case spread so quickly once his letter was smuggled out of prison.
A "Joint Effort"
In the last week it is amazing how many people knew about Said Musa," Marshall said. "Our own government and the Afghan government were aware that there was strong concern about the case."
Saddleback Chuch Pastor Rick Warren raised awareness of Said's case among hundreds of thousands of Twitter users when he tweeted, "Media CLAIM to champion free speech but if they really did, they'd report these stories everyday." His tweet linked to a National Review article questioning why Obama publicly focused on the Florida pastor who threatened to burn a Koran, but was silent on Said Musa's case.
"What has been extremely encouraging is that we have seen a lot of churches coming together, the international community uniting, Rich Warren and John Piper tweeting about the case, people joining together in prayer around the world," Clay said. "Said Musa's release has truly been a joint effort and this something we can all celebrate together."
Speaking Out for the Persecuted
In the midst of joy and gratitude, the sobering reality of anti-Christian persecution in Afghanistan and other nations remains. "[Said] never should have been arrested or imprisoned in the first place," said Faith McDonnell of the Institute for Religion and Democracy. "We must continue to encourage closer adherence to human rights and religious freedom for all people in this country in which U.S. troops have paid the ultimate price."
Clay speaks with a similar perspective on the battle for religious freedom in the Middle East. "It's not over yet. We need to continue to pray, be a voice for our imprisoned brothers and sisters around the world."
But for now, Said Musa's case is a cause for rejoicing, and the advocacy tactics implemented in his campaign are worth applying to future cases. Another imprisoned Afghan Christian convert, Shoaib Assadullah, could benefit from the prayers and actions of Christians around the world in the wake of Musa's release.
"Shoaib is facing the same charges as Said was facing," Clay explained. "His circumstance is no different, we just haven't heard as much about him because of where he is located. Also, Said was able to smuggle many letters out of prison, so he was able to be an advocate for himself, whereas Shoaib has been mostly silent." He has been silent except for one letter -- a letter revealing that he is fearful of facing the death penalty, a fear that Clay said is "very real." Shoaib is only 23 years old.
Shoaib, like Said, represents thousands of persecuted Christians throughout the world. And for Carl Moeller, President of Open Doors USA, the good news of Said's release is tempered by the reality of the violent persecution suffered by thousands of Christians. "Secret Believers like Shoaib and thousands more in Muslim-dominated countries need our support and prayers," he said.
Image of Said Musa attributed to Release International.
Kristin Butler has visited with Christian communities throughout the Middle East and Asia. She is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com, where she covers topics related to religious freedom, human rights, and philanthropy. For further articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.net or email firstname.lastname@example.org.