Bob Blincoe of the Frontiers missionary organization remembers what happened when the government of Afghanistan decided to destroy a church belonging to the international Christian community in Kabul—the only one ever permitted in the capital—in the early 1970s. It was pastored by J. Christy Wilson (who, with his wife, Betty, also founded the School for the Blind in Kabul).
“Numerous Afghanis had come to faith in the early 1970s, including ‘blind Paul,’ a Muslim who went on to translate the Bible into the Dari language,” Blincoe recounts. (Dari is spoken by 70 percent of the population.) “But Satan became furious because of the glory abounding to Jesus Christ, and moved against Christy Wilson and the church through the hand of the Afghan government.”
When troops arrived and started knocking down a wall, Hans Mohr, an expatriate Christian, stormed over to the mayor’s office. “If your government touches that House of God,” Mohr exclaimed, “God will overthrow your government!”
As the bulldozers moved in, members of the congregation, instead of protesting, offered the workers tea and cookies. An international outcry, including a letter from Billy Graham, failed to halt the work. Three years after it had been built, the building was destroyed on July 17, 1973, by Afghanistan’s monarchy. Workers even dug up the foundations, in a fruitless and confused search for a rumored “underground church.”
Seemingly in fulfillment of Mohr’s warning, the Afghan monarchy fell that very night. The successor regime collapsed in 1978, and the Russians invaded in 1979. Soon, however, the seemingly impregnable Soviet empire was chased out of Afghanistan by the precursors of the Taliban, who in turn were overthrown by the U.S.-led coalition following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
For a time, the attempted reconstruction of Afghanistan under Operation Enduring Freedom brought good news. Schools were built for women, roads were paved, and the country’s tiny Christian presence was quietly encouraged. The number of secret Christian believers has increased, according to the Operation World prayer guide, from a few dozen 20 years ago to several hundred today.
But the comparative good times have not lasted in Afghanistan, which is 99.85 percent Muslim and has rampant rates of poverty and infant mortality. Last year the U.S. State Department reported that the last Christian church in the country had been razed in March 2010, and that “there [are] no Christian schools in the country.”
Pressure for the Americans to leave continues to build. American troops have suffered 1,900 deaths since 2001, not including many more thousands of soldiers who have been wounded, some of them grievously. In the wake of the recent inadvertent Qur’an burning by the U.S. military, riots have burst into flame, dozens of innocent people have been murdered (including soldiers), and anti-Muslim opinions have hardened over here.
Earlier this month an Afghan soldier murdered two American soldiers in cold blood. The Taliban called this act of treachery justified “revenge.”
Some observers, seeing the Obama administration’s desire to close the book on Afghanistan anyway, are saying that it is time to get out, come what may. Columnist Andrew C. McCarthy, responding to President Obama’s apology for the Qur’an burning, is one. “Our troops do not belong in Afghanistan,” McCarthy says. “They have given more than enough, way more. So has our country.”
Lost in the argument is the fate of the Afghan people themselves, most of whom have known only the danger and deprivation of living in a seventh-century Islamic theocracy. There are a million disabled in this land of 30 million people. Only 15 percent of Afghan homes have access to electricity. There are 4 million orphans.
But because of better health care, made possible by the stability and benign influence guaranteed by coalition troops, in the last few years the average lifespan in Afghanistan has shot up from the usual 47-50 years, to 62-64 years. Increased access to healthcare, hospitals, clinics, and physicians is the official reason. All these gains could be lost if the international coalition force leaves the country.
Many forms of Christian media have been developed for evangelism and discipleship, according to Operation World, and Christian groups that provide development assistance offer Afghans a picture of Christ when evangelism is impossible. The Dari Bible is finally available.
“The long-term presence of Christians working in aid, development and business, the return of former refugees who encountered the gospel abroad, the presence of Christian radio as well as dreams and visions of Jesus have all moved mountains,” Operation World notes. “The greatest difficulty is that of identity—many cannot see how to be both Afghan and openly Christian, especially when no such recognition is offered within the wider Afghan society.”
Much work remains in a land that is both materially and spiritually benighted. Yet God has shown repeatedly that he, not human government, is ultimately in charge. Whatever happens in the political realm, Christians must not abandon our concern for the country. Let us pray that the work of the Spirit continues in Afghanistan.
Stan Guthrie is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. He blogs at http://stanguthrie.com.