The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan could represent a turning point in world affairs. It also could lead to a new wave of persecution of Christians and followers of other religions.
Todd Nettleton of the Voice of the Martyrs USA said the Taliban has been “waiting in the wings” the past 20 years.
“Now it seems … they will control the entire country,” Nettleton said. “It is not good news for our Christian brothers and sisters. It’s not good news for anybody in Afghanistan.”
Here are five things Christians should know about the Taliban and Afghanistan:
1. The Taliban Has Roots in the 1990s
Historians trace the Taliban’s origins to the early and mid-1990s, when Afghanistan was facing social upheaval after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had controlled the country from 1979 to 1989. A group of Islamic leaders who were pledging to restore peace and security – and who were promising to enforce a strict form of Sharia law – won support in the southern province of Kandahār. By 1996, the Taliban had gained control of the capital of Kabul, and by 2001, it controlled most of the country.
But when terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, the eyes of the world focused once again on the Taliban, which was allowing terrorists to train inside of Afghanistan. One of those terrorists was Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban refused to hand him over to the United States.
“Only Allah changes the regime,” the Taliban's then-ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said in 2001.
The U.S. then led a coalition of nations in invading Afghanistan, booting the Taliban from power.
The word “Taliban” means “students” in Pashto, one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan.
The Taliban is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.
2. The Taliban Has a Record of Persecuting Christians
Afghanistan is home to an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Christians – most of them converts from Islam, according to International Christian Concern (ICC). The Taliban promotes a strict form of Islam, Sharia law, that forbids the conversion of Muslims to Christianity and requires punishment – often, death – for those who do.
“In many cases, known Christians must flee Afghanistan or risk being killed,” ICC reported.
The Taliban has a history of persecuting those of other faiths.
Before it lost power in 2001, the Taliban forced Hindus to wear a label to distinguish them from Muslims.
In 2018, when the Taliban was trying to regain power in certain parts of the country, it assassinated leaders and detonated explosive devices in mosques that were critical of the Taliban.
In 2016, the Taliban took credit for an Easter Day bomb explosion in Pakistan that killed more than 70 people. The bomb targeted Christians.
3. Afghanistan Already Had a Poor Record on Religious Liberty
Even before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the country had a poor record on religious freedom, ranking No. 2 in Open Doors’ annual list of the most dangerous countries to be a Christian. (North Korea is No. 1.) The list was released this year.
“If a Christian’s family discovers they have converted, their family, clan or tribe has to save its ‘honor’ by disowning the believer, or even killing them. Christians from a Muslim background can also be sectioned in a psychiatric hospital, because leaving Islam is considered a sign of insanity,” Open Doors reported this year.
Still, Christians in the country say persecution will only intensify under Taliban rule.
“We are telling people to stay in their houses because going out now is too dangerous,” a Christian leader in Afghanistan told ICC in August after the Taliban took control. “Some known Christians are already receiving threatening phone calls. In these phone calls, unknown people say, ‘We are coming for you’”
Open Doors’ field director for Asia said the “vulnerability” of Christians “increases tenfold” under the Taliban.
“It would be almost impossible to be a follower of Jesus in this country,” he said.
4. The Taliban Opposes Women’s Rights
For the past 20 years, women and girls in Afghanistan have enjoyed a level of freedom that was not available under Taliban rule from 1996 through 2001.
During the last two decades, women have been able to hold jobs outside the home and attend college – two freedoms previously banned under the Taliban.
Middle-aged and elderly women in Afghanistan have now seen rights given and taken away – twice.
According to a 2001 report from the U.S. State Department, in the early 1990s – that is, before Taliban rule – 70 percent of schoolteachers, 50 percent of government workers and university students, and 40 percent of doctors in Kabul were women.
Then the Taliban took control and the “assault on the status of women began immediately.”
“The Taliban closed the women's university and forced nearly all women to quit their jobs, closing down an important source of talent and expertise for the country,” the State Department report said. “It restricted access to medical care for women, brutally enforced a restrictive dress code, and limited the ability of women to move about the city. The Taliban perpetrated egregious acts of violence against women, including rape, abduction, and forced marriage. Some families resorted to sending their daughters to Pakistan or Iran to protect them.”
5. Afghans Need Our Prayers
Open Doors sent out an “urgent” prayer request to its email list this month, asking Christians to pray for five specific things:
- Pray for the small group of believers in the country. “They are walking on eggshells and are uncertain who to trust. Pray that they find strength, wisdom and supernatural peace in God’s promises,” Open Doors said.
- Pray for the displaced. “A new wave of refugees is expected to come from Afghanistan to many parts of the Middle East and the rest of the world. Pray for God’s protection and provision over them in their journeys.”
- Pray for the women. “Many women fear that Taliban rule means they will be stripped of opportunities for education. Women involved in education during the past years could also be at risk – pray for their protection.”
- Pray for the sick. “Though under-reported in international media, COVID-19 cases are spiking in the country and hospitals are limited in what they can offer. There is no certainty as to how the healthcare system will be able to sustain itself with the new Taliban government. Pray that the healthcare system will not collapse.”
- Pray that Afghanistan will not be a haven for extremists. “The Taliban government of 20 years ago are known enablers of extremist Islamic organizations. With their newfound control over Afghanistan, the country could be host to a new generation of terror groups.”
Todd Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs USA said he believes the Taliban’s takeover could present a unique opportunity for the gospel.
“We’ve heard reports of an openness among Muslims who are watching what the Taliban is doing,” he said. “Remember, the Taliban says, ‘We are the best Muslims, we are following Muhammad the way he should be followed,’ and so when they come in, and there is violence and abuse of women, people look at that and say, ‘Wait a minute, if that’s what the best Muslims do, what other teachings are out there?’”
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Belyay
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.