Christian Afghans Flee Taliban and Find Safety in India

New Delhi -- Thirty-year-old Aziza smiled and tucked strands of her hair behind her ear as she began to tell her story after church. She held her wriggly son loosely, his sandals making dust prints on her dress. The narrow basement buzzed with fast-spoken Dari as other Afghani women kissed each other on the cheeks and teenage boys passed out small paper cups of Coca-Cola.

“We came here after my husband was killed by the Taliban,” Aziza said.

To her left sat her mother, and to her right, her dad’s second wife, her step-sister, her brother, and her father, Abdul.

The Sultani family in 2018. Submitted photo.

The Sultani family in 2018. Submitted photo.

The Afghan embassy estimates there are 30,000 Afghan refugees living in Delhi today. Less than 11,000 of them have registered with the UNHCR, and another 1,300 have registered as asylum-seekers. People seeking international protection are generally considered asylum-seekers until further determination may grant them refugee status. Only exceptional cases are then resettled by UNHCR in a third country, often in the West.

Many Afghans in Delhi are Hindu and Sikh whose families migrated from India before Afghanistan’s independence in 1919. After the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, and the Taliban’s power increased in the nineties, many of those Afghans fled to India for religious freedom and settled in a South Delhi colony that today has temples, mosques, gurudwaras and even an unmarked, underground church.

An Unlikely (and Illegal) Conversion

In 1989, Abdul Aziz Sultani, a Muslim, didn’t know how much a simple radio broadcast would change his life. He had left Afghanistan for a better job and stability in Pakistan, as a TV and radio repairman. While tinkering on a radio dial one day, he heard a Christian pastor talk about God.

Abdul with two of his grandsons, Aziza's sons.

Abdul with two of his grandsons, Aziza's sons.

“I knew that God had chosen me,” Abdul, now 52, said. “Jesus says follow me, and freely we follow Jesus.”

That’s what he told a customer in Pakistan, too. Shortly after, a group of masked men shot Abdul in the arm as a warning. He quickly moved back to Kabul.

For a while back in the city, the family’s lot seemed to improve. Abdul began working for an educational NGO run by foreign Christians, largely funded from Western countries.

“When my father was Muslim, everywhere we would go he would slap us,” Aziza said. “He took two wives,” she said, glancing at him across the room and smirking. “But when he began reading the Bible, he became more peaceful.”

“We don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” he said. “We came here for now to save our lives.”
— Abdul Aziz Sultani, Asylum seeker

Abdul passed on some teachings he learned from Christian pastors in Pakistan to his family and began reading to them from the Bible at home. Afghanistan’s constitution establishes Islam as the state religion, allowing other faiths to practice privately within limits. But it’s illegal to convert from Islam, punishable by death.

While America’s war in Afghanistan continued into its 17th year this week (the longest-running US war), the Taliban is far from falling to the Afghan military or its allies. In January, a BBC report found that 70 percent of the country is now controlled by the Taliban and that the Islamic State is more active in Afghanistan than it’s ever been. The two terrorist groups target religious minorities and those with links to the government.

One night, Aziza had a dream that God descended and gave her a white flower. “I knew the meaning when I woke up, that God had chosen me.”

Following her father’s wishes, Aziza married a Muslim man, a distant relative. “These missionaries cried at the wedding, saying ‘you should not give your daughter to a Muslim man,’” Abdul said. “But I told them, by using Aziza, I want to invite him to be Christian.”

Taliban Cross-Fire

One day Aziza’s husband Hassan asked her why she wasn’t praying fives times a day like other Muslims. “I was scared to tell him,” Aziza said. “When I told him I’m Christian, he went silent and left the room.”

Hassan remained Muslim and kept his wife’s faith a secret, but when the missionary friends of Aziza’s family offered him a job as a security guard for their home, he gratefully accepted. There, another guard would leave a Bible behind when he completed his shift. Hassan began reading it at work.

“I think that working there, he saw the kindness of Christian people,” Aziza said. “He was a bad husband at first, beating me. But when he started reading, day by day, he became kind.”

In 2014, the US-led NATO war in Afghanistan seemed to be ending, and the Taliban had begun targeting foreign homes and hotels, embassy-plated cars, American soldiers and a female member of parliament. On a Saturday evening, Taliban gunmen shot dead the NGO’s South African director outside the building. His two teenage children and Hassan, who was on duty that night, were also killed. A Taliban spokesman claiming the attack said on Twitter that the building housed a secret Christian missionary operation.

Aziza with her late husband Hassan and daughter.

Aziza with her late husband Hassan and daughter.

That’s when Hassan’s mother and family learned that Aziza was Christian. Out of resentment and mourning, they beat Aziza and blamed her for Hassan’s death. Fearing association with Christians, they fled to Pakistan and took a protesting Aziza with them. She was the only woman in the family forced to work outside the home, as a maid.

Aziza’s father started saving money and planning an escape to Delhi.

When a member of their church (they hosted prayer groups in their own home) was arrested, the family became more desperate to collect Aziza from Pakistan and leave. Abusive slurs and threats began appearing written on their door, marking the family as un-Islamic. To separate her from her mother-in-law, they invited Aziza to a relative’s wedding in Kabul as a pretext and fled to the airport in April 2018.

Getting by in India

Today in Delhi, Aziza and 10 relatives, including her three children, live in a three-bedroom apartment. Although the neighborhood has many other Afghans, the family rarely interacts with them because they fear hostility from Muslims. Instead, their safe haven is their church community, about 60 people.

Landlords have stolen electricity and try to charge them higher rents than Indians. The other Afghans harass them for converting from Islam. They don’t have the right to work in India, so will have to find jobs in the informal sector to survive. That often means lower wages and no protections or fallbacks for grievances.

Amin, Aziza’s 20-year-old brother, completed a year of college for pharmacy in Kabul but has given up hopes for continuing studies in Delhi due to the tuition fees.

“I cannot even think of it because once my mind goes there, I know it’s impossible, and I can’t go,” he said.

Abdul has saved enough for them to live on for a year while he tries to find a job.

“We don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” he said. “We came here for now to save our lives. I just pray that God will show me a way.”