Christian Activists See Opportunity in Afghanistan

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Muslim for a millennium, this prostrate land now looks from far-off pulpits like a God-given opportunity for missionary work - to save Afghans from "an eternity without Christ," as one American charity chief put it.

But Islam's roots run deep in Afghanistan's deserts and snowy highlands. Resistance would be formidable. Here in pious Kandahar, the clergyman Naeem Akhund, for one, is ready. "How can you let a snake into your home?" the mullah asks.

A year ago, the notion of opening Afghanistan to Christian missionaries would have been dismissed outright. But the upheaval of the American war that ousted the Taliban's Islamic zealots from power has inspired some to envision a different Afghanistan.

A U.S. government commission has called on Washington, with its newfound clout here, to lay the groundwork for a society open to all religions. Some American and other Christian activists are saying the same. "It's time to start thinking about mission work in Afghanistan," declared the U.S. publication Christian Chronicle.

The talk - some guarded, some not - evokes themes as old as the age-old clash itself of Christianity and Islam, themes that predate terrorism, Israel, feminism and other disputes behind today's headlines.

To many traditional Afghans, proselytizing threatens the fiber of daily life where religion is an intrinsic part.

Headlines last August focused on two young American women, aid workers in Afghanistan, who were arrested by the ruling Taliban for allegedly proselytizing in a quiet effort to win Afghan converts to Christianity. Traditional Islamic law prescribes death for Muslims who convert to other religions; the penalty for foreigners who violated the ban on missionary work was indeterminate.

The women, Dayna Curry, 30, and Heather Mercer, 24, were eventually freed from prison in the war against the Taliban last fall, and were given a heroes' welcome home at the White House by President Bush. Once free, the pair acknowledged they had tried to win Afghan Muslims to Christianity, and earlier this month they told a U.S. church audience they hoped to return to Afghanistan. "I would say unapologetically I would do it all over," Mercer said.

At the height of that U.S. military campaign, Michael K. Young, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell urging that the Bush administration use its influence to "promote ... the idea of a future Afghan political system that practices religious tolerance." The commission, named by Congress and the president, was set up under a 1998 law to monitor religious freedoms in other countries.

Mission activists welcomed such proposals. "We believe that the Bible mandates that we look for any opportunity we have to share our faith," said Wendy Norvelle, spokeswoman for the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention in Richmond, Va.

In an open Internet letter Feb. 14, Ben Homan, president of the Christian-based Food for the Hungry aid organization, lamented after an Afghan visit that he had seen "not one church."

"People there still stand on the precipice of death - and an eternity without Christ," he wrote. "... We will need over time to introduce to Muslims around the world the reality of God's Son."

In Germany, the deputy director of Shelter Now International, the aid organization that employed Curry and Mercer, said every country should grant religious freedom to its citizens.

"I hope really they would go forward with this," Joachim Jaeger said. "But it's not our goal to do this" - proselytize - "in Afghanistan." He said his group was waiting for approval from the new Afghan interim government, installed under American and U.N. protection, to return and resume their secular relief work in Afghanistan.

That interim regime, under Hamid Karzai, has given no sign yet that it will liberalize longstanding Afghan prohibitions against non-Islamic missionary work. The Afghan leadership's delicate position was underlined in an AP interview with a prominent cleric, Mullah Sardar Agha Akhwanzada, a prayer leader at government events in Kandahar.

"Personally, I don't think it matters whether people come and preach whatever they want," he said. Moreover, he said, "someone who converts shouldn't get the death penalty."

But the mullah went on to point out that the ban on missions is "government policy," and to suggest that anyone who professes another religion "should be detained and convinced in a very gentle way of his error."

Kandahar's Mullah Naeem stuck to a more rigid line, likening missionaries to snakes and endorsing capital punishment for converts. Asked about the American military presence in his country, the gray-bearded cleric said he accepted it for now, but "the day they become a threat to Islam we'll stand together against their hegemony over us."

Meanwhile, Afghanistan's point man in New York, Consul-General Abdul Habib Seraj, says he would advise any would-be American missionaries to stay home for now. But he noted that the new government will convene a "loya jirga," a national assembly, by June to write a new constitution.

"We'll see how things stand after that."