As the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan this August, the focus of international news highlighted vulnerable groups such as women and ethnic minorities, and fears that progress made over the last 20 years in human rights, education and democracy might be reversed. A less well-known area has been the growth of a small indigenous Church of mostly secret believers. We explore who they are, how SAT-7 supports them, and how we can stand with them at this difficult time.
Foreign Christians have worked in Afghanistan since the mid-20th century in vital areas such as medicine and education. But Christian media has also dramatically increased access to the Gospel in the country.
SAT-7 PARS has aired programmes to the Persian world, including Afghanistan, since December 2006. SAT-7 programmes in Dari, the Afghan version of Persian, began in 2010. And the number of Afghans who were watching doubled in 2017 following a move to the Persian world’s most popular satellite platform.
SAT-7’s Dari language programme Secret of Life combines teaching about the Christian faith and discipleship with Christian perspectives on current news. Dari show Window of Light concentrates on strengthening family life and marriages.
Journeys of faith
Through these and other SAT-7 Persian language programmes many Afghans are coming to Christ and growing in faith. One of these is 45-year-old Mershad.
“I am a television salesman,” Mershad told us. “So I always have a television on, both at the store and at home. I came across your channel and through you, I learnt about Jesus. I am very keen to put my faith in Him and I already feel that I have Christ in my heart, and He is the one guiding me in this direction. I have reached the conclusion that He is God and now I want to follow Him.”
Another viewer, Sargez, shared how he had become disillusioned with his previous beliefs and started watching SAT-7 six years ago. He said he was “captivated” by the “kindness and patience” of presenters when they responded calmly to disrespectful and hostile viewers calling the programmes. When he contacted SAT-7’s Viewer Support team they told him how Christ had come and carried the burden of our sin and shame on the cross and he asked them to pray with him as he accepted Christ.
For many, like Mahyar, who came to Christ after years of searching, SAT-7 is a spiritual lifeline. He said, ”Endless thanks to all my brothers who work at the channel and help us by providing teaching so that we can know the Lord better and worship Him in the right way.”
The total number of Afghan believers is known only to God, but estimates are that there could be as many as 8,000. Although Afghanistan has no legal churches for local believers, small secret fellowships do meet. Some share their faith with close relatives and trusted contacts, but risk being reported to the authorities. Afghanistan maintains the death penalty for apostasy, which could include conversion to Christianity. No cases have been enforced since 2001 although this could change under the country’s new rulers.
According to Shoaib Ebadi, the Afghan pastor who presents SAT-7’s Secret of Life programme, the largest number of Afghan believers belong to the Hazara ethnic group. They represent around 9 per cent of the population, have always been at the bottom of the social pile and have faced at least a century of discrimination. As Shi’a Muslims they have also been targeted both by Islamic State in Afghanistan and by the Taliban in some of the worst atrocities. One of the most shocking was the murderous IS attack on a maternity clinic in May 2020.
Questioning leads to faith
Ebadi says this persecution “has caused young Hazaras to question and look beyond the traditional beliefs of Afghanistan. Their experience of rejection in their own country, where they were engaged in farming or other heavy work in far-flung corners of the country, has caused them to learn patience and selflessness.
“When they hear about Christ, who gave His life for them in an ultimate expression of selflessness, it acts as a spark in their thinking and in their lives. They are drawn to study more and as they read the Bible the spark becomes a fire. They see themselves in the message of Christ and recognise the Saviour who gave His life on the cross. And the Lord works and opens their hearts.
“Although many have not had the same level of education as others, with the level of education they have they read the Bible and they see themselves in the pages of scripture and are drawn to put their faith in Jesus Christ.”
New fears and uncertainty
This summer’s withdrawal of the remaining US and NATO troops and the shock return to power of the Taliban has opened a new, fearful chapter in Afghanistan’s story, however. Although Taliban spokesmen have declared a commitment to unity and inclusion for all Afghans, there are also reports of summary executions and of fighters going from house to house to search for members of specific groups, including Christians. These, along with memories of past Taliban rule, have struck fear in many believers’ hearts.
“Fear is dominant and believers think they will be the next target,” Ebadi told Christianity Today: “Many are trying to leave… Some are going underground, and we hear reports that some are heading toward the mountains with the winter coming.”
One brother who has been active in sharing the Gospel with relatives and close friends messaged SAT-7 to say that doing so is no longer safe for him. “As Christians we are in real danger,” he said. “My family and I have received death threats. In this emergency situation, I have no other way but to escape from the country.”
Nisha, a teenage girl told us, “People are terrified, everyone is afraid and scared of the Taliban. I am only 16 years old and cannot take what is happening around me. I’m crying out to God right now; someone please help us.”
Ebadi told Christianity Today that it was important for Christians abroad to do whatever they can to help Afghans, “whether financial, spiritual, emotional, or simply in terms of evacuation”. But he hoped that Christians can continue to be salt and light to fellow Afghans in their country.
Ebadi used the Lord’s prayer to share with SAT-7 how Christians abroad can pray for them, including Jesus’ call to forgive and pray for their enemies. In a recent episode of Secret of Life he assured viewers who might feel abandoned by the West, that Jesus will never abandon them: “God says that he will never leave us alone in hardships and shares our pains and sorrows. He is a good shepherd who sacrifices his life for his sheep,” he explained.
Who is really in charge?
Another hopeful, long-term perspective was shared by fellow SAT-7 broadcaster Revd Tat Stewart who led a community church in Tehran shortly after Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979. At that time, he remembered sitting with church leaders who had “a permeating fear that with the advent of the Islamic Republic would come the end of Christianity in Iran”. But that is not what happened. Instead, “Christianity is growing faster in Iran than in any other country on earth”.
Stewart stressed the truth that, in reality God, not the Taliban, is in ultimate control. “We must embrace the biblical truth that God will be advancing His Kingdom in Afghanistan in ways we can’t even imagine right now,” he said.
“As we pray for protection, peace, and freedom in Afghanistan, we must also keep our eyes open for the ways God’s glory will shine through for all the world to see. For you see, God reveals His glory in the midst of suffering.”
While not minimising their suffering in any way, Stewart spoke of Iranian friends who have testified to God’s “sweet presence” even during imprisonment.
“Please pray for our brothers and sisters in Afghanistan that they, too, will experience the sweet presence of Jesus and His protection,” he said. “Pray earnestly, give financially to ministries that will glorify God, and open your heart to Afghan refugees when they come to your town. I want to be a part of God’s work. I hope you do, too.”
You can support SAT-7’s ministry to Afghans with a gift to SAT-7 PARS.Click here to donate