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Afghanistan & Religious Liberty

According to the international mission organization Open Doors, Afghanistan has for years been the second most dangerous place to be a Christian, falling just behind North Korea. But this ranking was under the U.S.-backed government of the last 20 years. Now, with the Taliban back in control, the situation for Christians in Afghanistan is nearly impossible.

Arielle Del Turco is assistant director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council, and she joins Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters to discuss why religious liberty is a national security issue, using Afghanistan as a case study.

Del Turco argues that religious freedom leads to positive effects in multiple aspects of a society. “We see growth and prosperity in countries that embrace religious freedom,” she says, “and that’s partly because religious freedom promotes stability and it promotes peace, and these things allow an economy to prosper.”

Unfortunately, according to Del Turco, “in American foreign policy, there’s often a lack of understanding about religion and how the rest of the world views religion, especially in the Middle East and in Muslim countries. They just tend to undermine and not fully grasp the religious tensions that are at play.”

“America clearly invested so, so much in Afghanistan,” she continues, “both militarily and economically in many ways. But one of the things I think that we failed to get is that it has to come from the culture. The United States can’t just force a democracy on a country; it has to come from the culture. The United States can’t just force a culture of religious freedom or even women’s rights. These things have to come from within.”

Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Arielle Del Turco talk about the importance of international religious freedom, and share the state of Christians in Afghanistan today.

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Afghanistan & Religious Liberty

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. As the United States pulled out of Afghanistan recently, ending a 20 year military effort, the world watched images, videos, and read stories that were heartbreaking. But this was more than a military effort; it was a cultural effort that resulted in more religious freedom for the people of Afghanistan. America’s withdrawal is having a dramatic effect on that, and this has implications for us as Americans and as Christians in America.

Arielle Del Turco joins us today to talk about this. She is assistant director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council in Washington, DC.

Arielle Del Turco, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Thank you for having me.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So some have said that religious freedom is a national security issue. Why is that?

ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Yeah, I think this is an aspect of international religious freedom that a lot of people ignore, but they ignore it to our detriment. Religious freedom, religious tensions, hatred, violence motivated because a certain group will hate a religious minority or hate Christians…all of this violence really does great harm to regional security. It can also have worldwide effects. One of the lessons that America learned on 9/11 was that terrorists living in caves far, far away can affect us greatly. So it’s really in American interest to use our diplomacy to foster religious freedom around the world and work against some of these tensions that endanger us. Even in recent history, it’s clear to see that we haven’t been at war with a country that respects religious freedom and has robust religious freedom protections. So this is clearly a factor in national security, and our national security professionals should not be ignoring it.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Do you feel like they are ignoring it?

ARIELLE DEL TURCO: I feel like they are. American foreign policy…generally the culture at the state department and these other agencies are so secular. There’s often even a lack of understanding about religion and how the rest of the world views religion, especially in the Middle East and in Muslim countries. They just tend to undermine and not fully grasp the religious tensions that are at play.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Talk about that. What are the benefits of religious freedom, not just for religious minorities, but for the broader community?

ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Well, religious freedom has been tied to even economic benefits. We see growth and prosperity in countries that embrace religious freedom, and that’s partly because religious freedom promotes stability and it promotes peace, and these things allow an economy to prosper. When there’s not religious discrimination, it allows more people to participate in the economy. For example, in Pakistan, Christians are heavily discriminated against; even in the workplace, people don’t want to hire them. So essentially most Christians are very, very poor there, but if Pakistan allowed Christians to participate in, and other religious minorities to participate more fully in the economy, I think they’d see economic benefits. I think they’d see other benefits as well.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: That’s an interesting concept. So is the idea of religious freedom, just an American or Western idea? Where did that come from?

ARIELLE DEL TURCO: So it certainly is an American idea, not uniquely, but we have it ingrained in our heritage, right? The pilgrims traveled, fleeing Europe with religious persecution, wanting to come to America to practice their religion freely, live in their religious communities, as they thought God was calling them to. Even in the First Amendment, we see it’s the very first right that the Bill of Rights protects is religious freedom. But more than that, it’s a human right, and that’s enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the UN signed and almost every country has signed on to. And it’s because it’s so basic. Even bad countries, they don’t openly say there’s no right to religious freedom because it’s so intrinsic. I think our founders might call it an inalienable right. You can’t deny that it’s a right. And that’s why we have leverage to advocate for religious freedom worldwide because it’s not just American and it is universal, something owed to all people.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So let’s talk about Afghanistan more as a case study because that’s a good country to look at, isn’t it, because they’ve had periods where they’ve had very little religious liberty, and then over the last 20 years while the U.S. was in there, they had quite a bit more. What are the lessons we’ve learned there?

ARIELLE DEL TURCO: America clearly invested so, so much in Afghanistan, both militarily and economically in many ways. But one of the things I think that we failed to get is that it has to come from the culture, right? The United States can’t just force a democracy on a country; it has to come from the culture. The United States can’t just force a culture of religious freedom or even women’s rights. These things have to come from within. We can however encourage it and foster it, and I think we probably needed to do a better job of fostering these values, these values that are universal, but we weren’t quite able to enshrine in Afghanistan.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Is that a takeaway then for you that really we failed in kind of instilling some of those values?

ARIELLE DEL TURCO: To an extent it was successful because I think especially of women’s rights under the Taliban in the 1990s; women had essentially no rights. They could barely leave their house. They couldn’t leave without a male guardian. They couldn’t go to school, couldn’t get careers. Over the last 20 years, even though there was still some cultural discrimination, women, especially in urban areas, had all of those opportunities. They could and did go to school and succeed. They went to college; they started careers. But now that the Taliban’s back in, all of that is over almost within a day. So women in Afghanistan are watching their careers crumble and fade into nothing. And especially young girls, it’s especially tragic; girls who had every expectation that they would be going to high school and college, now it looks like they’re not going to be. So if our goal was to create a democracy that was welcoming human rights, we didn’t quite succeed in that, but we didn’t succeed because that government that we backed was not strong enough. So we could have both helped create a sustainable government, but also help foster these things in culture, like a respect for women and respect for religious minorities that I think would have gone a long way towards making Afghanistan succeed.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Are there some policy options available to the United States going forward in efforts to promote religious freedom, both in Afghanistan and other areas around the world?

ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Yeah, and Afghanistan is hard, just because the United States gave up so much of our leverage. But around the world, we have a huge foreign policy apparatus with a lot of tools diplomatically, with our foreign policy, and with our national security strategy. All of these things can be incorporating an understanding of religious and fostering religious freedom. I mean, even in our diplomatic interactions with both our enemies and our friends, we should be highlighting that we believe religious freedom would be helpful for you as a country, even countries that are allies that are bad on religious freedom, a country like India. Especially to our friends, we should be saying, “Hey, we think religious freedom would really benefit you. And you would not see some of this mob violence and problems with rule of law if you had more robust protections for religious freedom.” So essentially, all the foreign policy tools that the United States uses already, we should be using to promote religious freedom as well, simply because it’s in U.S.’s interest.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So that was about government policies. Are there things that we can do as individuals in the face of the persecution that we’re seeing and the religious freedom that is falling away in many parts of our world?

ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Yeah. This is a great question, and I’m always encouraged when I talk about persecution around the world and people’s responses are “I want to help! What can I do?” I always encourage people to use the opportunity that we have every day to make these issues more known. So, we use social media every day. We can share articles about the persecuted church and problems people are having around the world. We can ask our pastors to pray in church about the persecuted with whatever’s going on in the world, for Afghanistan, and we can raise it in our small groups. All these things that we do every day, we can also use to advance religious freedom. And I think that’s really valuable and helpful. What I hear from the persecuted a lot is that they just want to be remembered and they want to know that people are praying about them. So we should both be remembering and praying for them, but also be making it known publicly that we’re doing so.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: When you talk about praying—and I agree that that’s one of the most valuable tools that we have—is there a way, or is there a resource available for people so that they can know how to pray specifically for some of the needs?

ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Yeah, many of the organizations that work with the persecuted church—especially Open Doors, Voice for the Martyrs—these organizations have fantastic prayer resources, sometimes even like devotionals, where you can have a devotion and pray for the persecuted church. Those are very valuable, but also even just from hearing the news and paying attention to world news, you’ll get a good sense of what’s going on, what humanitarian disasters are happening, what religious freedom problems are occurring around the world. And we can just be praying off the news because that’s fresh and people are hurting all the time.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You mentioned earlier about the status of religious liberty in Afghanistan. Now that the U.S. has withdrawn, the Taliban is back in there, and we’re hearing mixed news from there. What is your sense of the status of religious liberty in Afghanistan now?

ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Even in the U.S. backed government for the last 20 years, there were still significant religious freedom problems in Afghanistan. Open Doors, on its World Watch List of most dangerous places to be a Christian, Afghanistan was number two and that was under the U.S. backed government. But now it’s worse, and it’s worse because the Taliban, we know for a fact is looking for Christians and has threatened that they’ll kill them. Certainly the Afghan government that we supported was not hunting down Christians trying to kill them. And even because so many Afghan Christians have fled, there’s going to be a very little Christian representation in that country. For the Christians who remain, they’re going to be deeply underground and in secret or growing out their beards just as the Taliban instructs them, really trying to blend in. But even then, it’s going to be really hard for them to stay hidden. We’ve heard reports where the Taliban is checking to make sure all male villagers are going to mosque every week. Of course, for Christians, this is going to be a problem, and they’ll be found out if they’re not going to mosque. So Christians in Afghanistan are really in an impossible situation.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Any closing lessons for us that we can learn as Americans and American Christians from watching religious persecution?

ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Yeah. I think an important lesson is just to know that America has something to offer the rest of the world. I think it’s very popular in our culture to be increasingly isolationist, to say that, “Oh, the rest of the world doesn’t want what we have, so we should just ignore them and let them live under tyranny and suffering.” But I don’t really think that’s true. I think the fact that religious freedom, just for one example, benefits the economy and national security, it just points to the fact that our values, they have something to offer the rest of the world. So we shouldn’t shy away from promoting religious freedom in our foreign policy because it’ll ultimately ease a lot of suffering around the world.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Alright. Well, we’re just about out of time for this week, but before we go, Arielle Del Turco, where can our listeners go to learn more about this issue and about your work there at FRC?

ARIELLE DEL TURCO: Yeah, so FRC has been closely tracking Afghanistan and religious freedom situations around the world and you can go to our website at

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Arielle Del Turco, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

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