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Last Updated: Friday, 31 March 2006, 17:25 GMT 18:25 UK
Hopes and fears of Afghan Christians
By Tom Coghlan

Abdul Rahman is interviewed during a hearing in Kabul
Afghan Abdul Rahman converted to Christianity 16 years ago
For Afghanistan's tiny Christian community, a community certainly in the hundreds and probably the thousands, the Abdul Rahman case has brought both fear and hope.

Mr Rahman is starting a new life in Italy after his trial in Afghanistan for converting from Islam collapsed. He faced the death penalty if he had been found guilty.

In a house in Kabul, one of the city's Christian community described the ambivalent position they now find themselves in.

The world now knows more of their existence.

International pressure for increased religious tolerance, might, they hope, reduce their current vulnerability.

'Civil rights'

But the Rahman case has also pushed the question of Islamic apostasy to the fore in Afghanistan and focused the attention of the country's conservative religious parties.

"This case has shown that there are Christians in Afghanistan and that they have civil rights that should be respected," said the man.

"In Afghanistan we Christians have nothing to do with politics. We love and respect everyone. We love and respect even our enemies, however they punish us."

There is much disillusionment - people used to look to communism, now they look increasingly to Christianity
British-based Christian

He was accompanied by other Afghan Christians and spoke on their behalf. The man will not be photographed and asked that details that might help identify him be kept to a minimum.

The Christian community live with the threat of official harassment and attack by extremists. There have been gun and grenade attacks against churches in neighbouring Pakistan.

"There is a very large threat against me," he said. "We hope that God will care for us."

Reasons for conversion

But despite the reported hardline rhetoric of Afghan clerics during the Rahman case the Christian claims that many Muslim friends regard his conversion as a private matter.

Muslim students read Koran at a religious school in Kabul
There is no clear-cut text in the Koran calling apostates to be killed

"Most of my friends know that I am a Christian," he said. "I have many friends who are mullahs and maulvis.

"Some of them say they like me more these days. Before I was a liar, I was cheating people and many other things. I don't do that now."

The reasons for conversion in such a potentially hostile environment are of course varied and personal.

I also met one British Christian with longstanding links to the Afghan Christian underground, although not linked to the Afghan Christian interviewed for this article.

The British man argues that the actions of political groups during Afghanistan's civil war years and the harsh doctrine of the Taleban were factors in the conversion of some Afghans.

"There is much disillusionment," he says. "People used to look to communism, now they look increasingly to Christianity."

The British man added that the compassionate actions of Christian-based aid agencies during the civil war and Taleban era in Afghanistan had impressed many Afghans. He denied that any aid agencies were involved in proselytization.

The Afghan Christian interviewed by the BBC was quick to point out that his own conversion took place before Afghanistan's civil war began. And he was also keen to stress his respect for Islam and Islamic beliefs.

I am very happy with my life and I see other Christians here very happy too
Christian convert

But he said: "Some political groups use Islam as a vehicle for their advantage; to get power and to keep power. They are still using it.

"These groups are discredited in Afghan society. They have used Abdul Rahman to promote their power. Afghans feel at ease with Christians. It is only a few political groups who don't."

He declines to detail the reasons for his own conversion but stresses the shared heritage of Islam and Christianity.

"When I read the second section of the Koran, the one which deals with the birth of Jesus Christ to Mary, it affected me in a very profound way," he said.

"My purpose is only to worship God. I find from this religion that I can."

Long-established Christianity

Like the Christian community in neighbouring Pakistan, where the minority numbers some millions, Afghanistan's Christians say that a Christian community has always survived in their country.

Afghans attending Friday prayers in Kabul
Many Afghans were unhappy with the dismissal of the Rahman case
"One of Christ's disciples came to Afghanistan," said the man. "When Islam came the churches were destroyed but some Christians still practised.

There are Christians whose families have been Christian for many generations, but most converted recently," he said.

In Pakistan, Christians have pointed to the 1935 discovery of the so-called Taxila Cross, an apparent Christian symbol from the 2nd Century, as evidence to support accounts that St Thomas established a Christian community in South Asia.

This would counter the idea that Christianity in the region is only a recent product of British colonial influence.

Proof of a long-established Christian community in Afghanistan might confer a measure of legitimacy to Afghan Christians similar to that enjoyed by the country's small Sikh and Hindu communities.

"I am very happy with my life and I see other Christians here very happy too," claimed the Christian convert.

"In the future, what God wants will happen. But Christians are always with God and if we are killed we go to God."

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