The Afghan Christian refugees of Delhi
Forced out of their country for fear of persecution, this small community has found a home in the city. They are, however, considered 'kafir' by their own people
I meet AP in a basement in Delhi. It is our first meeting. Peering through his rectangular-framed glasses, AP, who is in his early 60s, does not shake my hand. Instead he places his hand on his chest and greets me with a gentle nod of the head. “Hello, sister," he says.
The basement is practically invisible in the sprawling landscape of Delhi. Outside, the city, with its copper sky and sticky air, tall buildings and labyrinthine lanes, busies itself in its everyday agenda. The basement, in contrast, is quiet. All one can hear is the low hum of the air conditioner. On one of the walls is a religious cross made of paper. Across it are the words of a Farsi children’s hymn, “I am here to worship", delicately calligraphed.
In 2015, AP, a successful “right hand of a judge" in Kabul, Afghanistan, was forced to flee and seek refuge in India because of his faith. He is one of the few Afghan refugees in Delhi who practises Christianity. “My country is an Islamic nation. We are not allowed to worship any other God," he says. Islam is Afghanistan’s official religion—about 99.7% of the population is Muslim. The remaining is made up by Hindus and Sikhs, among others.
AP renounced Islam 22 years ago, at the age of 38. He lives with his wife and children in Delhi, and holds a refugee card. In the eyes of the family he left behind in Afghanistan, he is a kafir (unbeliever): “My brothers and sisters have cut all contact." In the eyes of the state, he is an apostate.
Afghan Christians are a minority who exist on the periphery of society, often living closeted lives. In conservative Afghanistan, it is an offence by law for a Muslim to practise a faith other than Islam. For years therefore, Afghan Muslims who have adopted Christianity have been victims of persecution—either by the Taliban or the state—in their own land. Due to this, the converts practise their faith in isolation—often in small, discreet underground establishments hidden from public view.
Afghanistan’s Islamic law considers apostasy a criminal offence, and is often served with a death sentence. This includes the 2006 case of Abdul Rahman, which made international headlines when he was arrested and sentenced to death by the Afghan government for converting to Christianity.
Following unprecedented criticism from foreign nations, the government was compelled to release him. Rahman currently resides in Italy as a refugee. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are approximately 2.6 million registered Afghan refugees scattered across the globe. Not all of them however, necessarily practise religions other than Islam.
As AP directs me to a chair, he requests me to not record his voice on the dictaphone. “Write it down," he says in the smattering of Hindi that he knows. “And please do not reveal my identity." AP’s body language is stiff, conveying a sense of insecurity. A lifetime singed with trauma, his inability to trust people is understandable. As we sit, he introduces me to a 23-year-old man, also an Afghan Christian, who sits across from us as his interpreter.
In Kabul, AP often visited a makeshift church (two rooms in a residential neighbourhood) which had been provided to a community of converted Christians, by an NGO. On the afternoon of 29 November 2014, while in the middle of a regular sermon, AP and his fellow practitioners heard a disturbing sound—“It was the sound of bullets," he recalls. The security guard standing outside had been murdered. “The Taliban had located our place of prayer. Almost immediately, we rushed to turn off the lights and hid under tables and in corners."
When the Taliban entered the darkened room, they began shooting blindly and aggressively. “At that moment, all I thought was that we all were going to die," he says taking a deep breath. That night, AP lost five of his friends and received a bullet injury in his leg. The police soon arrived and a 4-hour-long combat between the Taliban and the police ensued. AP was taken to the hospital. He was later imprisoned for a week, where he was interrogated about why he had converted and asked about the whereabouts of other similar churches. On his release, he was forbidden to leave Kabul.
“But I had a six-month Indian visa," he explains in Farsi. Fearing for his life, one night he packed his bags and fled the country, leaving behind his wife and children, whom he would call once he settled in India. Finding a home in Delhi would be a challenge, but not impossible. Within this vast metropolis, pockets of Afghan refugee settlements thrive, scattered across parts of Malviya Nagar, Lajpat Nagar, Wazirabad and Bhogal.
“There are about 14,500 refugees and asylum-seekers from Afghanistan registered with the UNHCR in India as of 1 July. A small minority of them practise Christianity," says Ipshita Sengupta, a policy advocate at UNHCR, in an email. She specifies, however, that there is no data at hand to reflect the exact number of Afghan Christians presently living in the city. A majority of asylum seekers from Afghanistan tend to settle in the Capital, since UNHCR’s only office in India is located there.
While the organization supports these individuals based on their “vulnerabilities and specific needs", there is no exceptional assistance provided to religious exiles/refugees. “The UNHCR accords the same status to all registered refugees, irrespective of their nationality or religion," Sengupta clarifies. Once a refugee is registered with the organization, UNHCR assists them to acquire long-term visas, which enables them to access public services, open bank accounts and find employment in the public sector.
While AP has managed to get refugee status, it has been difficult for him to find acceptance from Afghan Muslims living in Delhi. “When I came to India, I received a lot of love and respect from Indians, but it is my people who are hostile. They wonder why I have converted. They often abuse fellow (Afghan Christian) practitioners; sometimes people even throw stones at our homes."
Much of our conversation is rooted in the sense of loss and displacement. “I’ve read the Quran, and believe what it says is good. But in Afghanistan, the ground reality is starkly different. In the name of God, the Taliban—who say they are true Muslims—have been murdering people," he says. AP still longs to return home, but may never be able to do so. “Even if I try to visit Afghanistan, they will hunt me down. Either the Taliban will kill me, or the police will arrest me. Also, a refugee living in India cannot leave the country. Once we leave India, the rules don’t permit us to return in the want of shelter."
Acquiring a refugee status in India, however, is seldom a hassle-free, straightforward affair. India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and, therefore, does not have a national asylum law. The UNHCR works in tandem with the Indian government, taking on the responsibility of issuing refugee cards to asylum-seekers, which is an intensive, gruelling procedure. Not everyone seeking a refugee status can get it.
SI, a 30-year-old asylum-seeker from Afghanistan, has appealed for her case to be reopened at the UNHCR office. The organization denied her refugee identity and had closed her case. With no access to basic healthcare or employment until then, she gives private tuitions to Afghan children, and at night, darns clothes for a negligible income, in order to support her family. Three months ago, she converted to Christianity. A victim of domestic violence in Kabul since the time of her marriage—“My husband once hurled a shard of a broken mirror at me"—SI had abandoned her faith long before she realized it. When she landed in India in 2015, all she was seeking was healing. “As a Muslim woman living in Afghanistan, I’d been mistreated; it was something that was allowed in my country. I couldn’t go out alone, I was not allowed to work; I couldn’t dress a particular way. I was tired of the suffering."
SI fled the country of her birth along with her parents and brother. “My husband’s family is well-connected to the Taliban. If my family had stayed behind, he would’ve spared no one." On the afternoon of 16 May 2015, SI—who had gone to her parents’ home with her children on the pretext of a visit—left home with them, secretly, in batches. They carried nothing with them—not even suitcases—except for passports, air tickets and money. “We didn’t want our neighbours to become suspicious. They knew my husband and would’ve immediately alerted him. So we all acted like we were heading off for a regular stroll to the market."
Now settled in Delhi, SI first learned about a church for Farsi speakers when her brother started visiting it six months ago. “He started attending the service held there every Sunday. When I first learned about his visits, I was quite taken aback. I wondered how he could possibly pray to another God. In response, he asked me to attend one sermon with him. ‘There is no harm in gathering information,’ he told me. So I went." When she attended the first prayer service, something in her heart turned. “I felt at peace."
Since then, SI journeys across the city in a 1-hour-long Metro ride with her three children every Sunday. Saturdays have become “study days", when she visits the church to read the Bible and learn more about Christ. “When I began reading the Bible, there was no mention that women should be kept inside their homes. I felt liberated."
SI no longer wears the niqab or hijab. When she steps out, she lines her eyes with kohl and wears jeans and kurti. However, to avoid drawing attention to herself, she covers herself with an over-sized jacket and a dupatta around her head. Once she reaches her destination, she removes both these items. “When other Afghan Muslim refugees see me wearing lipstick or my daughters wearing frocks, they don’t like it and always comment behind my back. They still don’t know that we practise Christianity."
India is perhaps the only place where SI has been able to find her grounding again without the anxiety of persecution or a subsequent forced displacement. To her, the land symbolizes freedom and the ability to live. “All I want is to have a good future for my children. My life has gone by, but I want them to be safe and free," she says.