On a particularly sweltering summer afternoon six years ago in Shiraz, the city of wines and gardens in southwest Iran, Abeeda decided to taste freedom. And freedom to her, at age 20, was breaking out of the icy clutches of a ‘Talib’ home, defying orthodox strictures and the heavy weight of her burqa. Along with her sister Ayesha, who had been married off to a Taliban chief settled in Iran, Abeeda boarded a bus that was taking the dirt-road back to Mazar-e-Sharif, their home for 19 years. But their euphoria was short-lived. Upon reaching the city of the blue mosque nestled amidst the low, rugged hills of Balkh, fears of a punitive Taliban caught up with the two girls, who were then advised by their uncle to migrate to safer shores. “We had little money, no hope and almost felt like runaway prisoners,” says Abeeda, now 27, as she recounts her flight to freedom.
In New Delhi, which has been home for over six years now, in the warren of ill-lit lanes that makes up their neighbourhood, a narrow one takes us past small shops, vegetable and fruit vendors, round a deserted curve to a small two-room apartment outfitted with a kitchenette. In her large verandah, the brightest spot in the house, Abeeda greets us with a warm smile. She’s in faded denims and a red tee, and her deep-blue, kohl-lined eyes accentuate distinctively Afghan features. After we savour cups of flavourful kahwa, she flops down on her worn-out Persian carpet, leafs through a book and pauses to read from the Third Epistle of John. “I saw a light in my room one night and Jesus revealed himself to me thrice.” Lifting her hard-bound copy of the Farsi Bible, Abeeda tells us how, in 2007, she’d met an Iranian family that had converted to Christianity. “They shared the Holy Book with me. After reading it many times, my faith in religion was restored,” she recalls. The baptism ceremony was of course a closed-door affair. It was held at an underground church in Delhi run by Afghans. All people who had walked that path before her—baptism and refugeehood, in whichever order. A tiny community trapped in its own mini exodus.
With a change in her maiden name, Abeeda’s identity itself seems to have altered. But for Diana, the moniker she uses often to introduce herself, freedom has remained an elusive chase. “We are a minority within the Afghan community in India. There’s hardly any work for us, little pay and we have no documents to validate our presence here, except an UNHCR card.” And even if Abeeda manages to earn Rs 8,000-odd a month, translating for Afghan patients visiting India for medical treatment, there are times she’s branded a kafir and shunned by her countrymen when her religion is revealed. “My friends desert me when they find out I’m Christian and our food is regarded as pagan. It’s almost like wearing a burqa without really wearing one.”
Like Abeeda, there are around 300 converts (from Islam) to Christianity who have found shelter in India, having fled a life vitiated by a constant threat of persecution by the Afghan government and the Taliban alike. Though proselytising in itself does not breach any Islamic law in Afghanistan, society at large is expectedly not very hospitable towards the phenomenon. “There are only secret Christians there. Those who’ve moved to India are among people whose lives were endangered,” says Obaidullah Jan, a young priest who spearheads the Bible service at their underground church, located in the basement of a three-storey building in New Delhi. A modest space, it is distinguished by a simple cross embossed on the wall. Reading a short passage based on the Lord’s Supper at Sunday service in their hideaway place of worship, Pastor Obaid, 30, holds a community of fervent believers in thrall. After the wine and bread have been handed out at the end of his sermon, Obaid speaks about the increase in conversions in Afghanistan after the US presence became stronger, since the fall of the Taliban. “Three decades of war have wrung our country dry. Fear of rape, bloodshed and violence haunt us all the time. When you can’t find faith amidst so much infighting, what do you hold on to?” What started Obaid on the road to Christianity were interactions with missionaries while working with a non-governmental organisation in Kabul. “I kept my faith secret from my family for three years. When they found out in 2006, there were attempts to persuade me to reconvert. When that didn’t work, there were threats that I was bringing disrepute to my family, my tribe and my village. I was forced to leave Kabul along with my wife,” he says.
Fearing persecution, Afghan Christians—who may number up to 8,000—started fleeing their homeland around 2005. (In 2009 itself, nearly 100 of this minuscule community came over to India.) While Afghanistan may recognise the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has even ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it adheres to a conservative interpretation of the Sharia. In 2006, Abdul Rahman, a convert for 16 years, was charged with apostasy and threatened with the death penalty for denouncing Islam. Under pressure from western governments, however, he was let off by the Afghan judiciary on grounds of ‘mental instability’. Rahman was later granted asylum by the Italian government. But all hell broke loose when video footage of secret churches, their locations as well as their ‘members’ was aired on Noorin TV, a Kabul-based television network. One of the men shown in the video, among the 25 Christians arrested in the ensuing crackdown, was Sayed Mussa, an Afghan Red Cross worker, who was later sentenced to death. “It put everyone in danger, including our family members, who were still Muslim,” says Pastor Obaid. Their lives were further threatened in 2010 when an influential member of the lower house of the Afghan Parliament, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, called for the converts’ execution. Even now, there are websites that highlight death threats issued to Christian converts by important members of the Afghan Parliament. Afghan government sources refused to comment on the matter.
When Adib Ahmad Maxwell’s family discovered his “surreptitious religious leaning”, he was given two options: reconvert to Islam or leave home. “There was no way I was going to retrace my steps. I was working with a Korean corporation as a translator in Mazar-e-Sharif, earning around 20,000 Afghanis a month at that time. Yet, I decided to leave everything and join my friend in Delhi in 2008.” Here in the capital, Adib, 27, a beefy man with a cherubic smile, earns a meagre amount by working for the Afghan Church and teaching the gospel. “No doubt, mine was a tough choice, but I’m lucky to be alive at least.” Many young Afghan converts like Adib have chosen India over Iran, Pakistan or Tajikistan as it offers the hope of greater security.
For married couples, however, besides the usual traumas of breaking into an alien landscape, this practically fugitive status brings special difficulties. Mumtaz lives in a ‘safe house’ in Delhi—a closely guarded residence that breathes of intrusive surveillance. The “hollow blanket of security” often suffocates her. “We don’t have a kitchen at home and it’s unsafe for us to move out. So there’s a home delivery outlet from where we order food every day,” she says. The last two years have been particularly rough. “My husband gets threat calls from other Afghan refugees regularly. Our house has been attacked. When we report to the police or the UNHCR, they tell us to keep a low profile; our landlords don’t want to be disturbed.” Mumtaz, 26, was working as a finance and administrative assistant at the UN office in Kabul. Her husband initiated her into the new faith and allowed her the freedom to take an independent decision. When they moved to India in 2007, they knew the doors to Afghanistan were forever closed for them. “I’m educated, but I have no work here. There are days I just sleep to kill my boredom,” she says, as tears gloss over her hazel eyes. “And then there are times I miss my family so much.”
Afghan refugees struggle to find jobs in India. Their accents and appearances give them away. “We have no official documents to show, and find it hard to communicate in English or Hindi. There are some among us who were working as engineers or professors back in Afghanistan, but are now just doing odd jobs,” says Obaid. The burly and middle-aged David Khan, who helps foreign tourists negotiate private hospitals and places of historical interest around Delhi, at first tried to set up a bakery in a south Delhi neighbourhood, but was shunted out when the local Afghan community discovered he was a convert. “Earlier, we could strike an agreement with an Indian restaurateur where we (Afghans) would provide the funds, while he would possess the licence. But even that’s rare now,” says David.
The children of Afghan converts mostly attend government schools and are sometimes admitted as ‘Indian students’. Communication is a major problem, and it’s often a struggle to clear the exams. Still, there are individual bright points. Mewah, a tall, strapping girl who studies in Class xii at an open school in Noida, speaks excitedly about her love of Maths, despite the challenge of studying in a foreign language. “I want to become a scientist when I grow up,” she says, full of the zeal of her age. Her role model? “Why? Malala Yousafzai! Just like her, I want to spread the light of education in Afghanistan.” Her younger siblings don’t go to school, but Mewah is in a hurry to break into higher education after racing through her internal exams at school. She admits candidly, “I know I’ll have to take charge if my father dies, but I’m only 17. Should I be working at this age?” Unlike Mewah, Afghan children of the new faith—doubly ‘minoritised’ as they are—fear for their safety and often move around in groups to ward off attention.
The hazy legal status of Afghans in India often complicates their lives here. Even though the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has recognised most of them as refugees and given them identity cards, the Indian government is not duty-bound to grant them refugee status, as it’s not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. Wasim Khan Joseph—a scraggy-looking 29-year-old who migrated to Mumbai in 2007 from Paktika province in south Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold, to find work as a sculptor—is yet to get a valid SIM card, let alone decent rented accommodation, long-term visa or bank account. “I went from Mumbai to Assam and then to Delhi to find work, but all to no avail. In India I have no legal status; in Afghanistan I’ve lost all my rights to property for being a kafir.” UNHCR deputy chief of mission in New Delhi, Hans Friedrich Schodder, however, claims that all refugees in India have the same status, with access to financial and socio-psychological support, tertiary education and legal assistance. Very vulnerable families even get a small monthly allowance. “We don’t restrict their civil rights, nor put people in a ghetto. But we can’t give them special accommodation as we’re a humanitarian non-political organisation,” says Schodder.
On the question of resettlement, the UNHCR mandate is purely based on existential needs rather than religion. Bakhtiyar, who contested the Afghan parliamentary elections in 2005 from Paktika province and later associated with the Afghan Red Crescent Society as a health worker, is one of the most recent migrants to India. After embracing Christianity last year, his dearest wish is to resettle in a western country, which holds out the promise of better work and greater dignity even as refugees—not having to live under a perpetual pall of fear. “All I’m doing now is making paper plates for a living, which gives me barely Rs 5,000 a month.” He adds: “Even though my wife and kids are still Muslim, we can’t go back to Afghanistan. Culturally, we’ve moved on. My wife no longer wears a burqa, nor do I wear the Pathan suit; but again, refugee life is tough here.”
Even as the question of resettlement and a life of dignity as individuals plays out over and over in conversations with Afghan Christian converts in India, Pastor Obaid feels his community is much safer here. But that’s just the bottomline. Their lives remain broken. When asked about the prospects of resettlement, Abeeda keeps silent. She gazes out the window; in her eyes, you can catch the faint glimmer of hope for a land she can truly call her own. Perhaps an ardent wish for permanency, and an end to the ‘sojourn’.
(Some names have been changed)