Christians of Kabul

ali-karimiWritten by: Ali Karimi, PhD student of communications, McGill University

Translated by: Sveto Muhammad Ishoq

Republished from:

Rula Ghani, the first lady of Afghanistan, is a Christian. It was beyond people’s imagination. She is the first Christian who became the wife of a leader in Afghanistan. President Ashraf Ghani faced many challenges during his presidential campaign, one of which was his wife. People would say bad things about his Christian wife. However, on September 29, when Ashraf Ghani became the president of Afghanistan, no protests were heard about his wife afterwards.

The first Christian First Lady

The first ever leader in Afghanistan who had a Christian wife was Ameer Mohammad Azam Khan. He served for a short period, beginning October 17, 1867 and ending February 21, 1868. He was a son of Emir Doost Mohammad Khan (1845-1863) and an uncle of Emir AbdulRahman Khan (1880-1901). When his brother, Mohammad Afzal Khan (1866-1867) died from illness in Kabul, the time came for Emir Mohammad Azam Khan to serve his country. But very soon, he gave authority to Emir Sher Ali Khan (1868-1879) to lead the country and he himself spent his remaining life in Iran.

The wife of Mohammad Azam Khan was Timor Khan’s daughter, who was a Christian from Kabul. In the 19th century, a small group of Christian traders lived in Kabul after they migrated from India to Kabul. Around 200 Christian families migrated to Kabul during Nadir Afshar’s reign, and other families came from Lahor to Kabul during Ahmad Shah Abdali’s reign as a part of his army. There was a church near Balahesar in Kabul where Christians used to live. However, the Englishmen destroyed it during the second Anglo-Afghan war.

In 1842, the father of British army commander Allen visited the Christian church in Kabul and wrote in a report that Armenian people in Afghanistan had increased to 35,000 and they earned money by making and selling wine and other alcoholic drinks. The Central Church, which was located in Asfahan, managed Armenian’s church and a person would be sent to Kabul regularly to visit the church. However, from 1830 onwards, no other person would be sent to this church to visit.

The Central Church existed for several centuries; however, only one Afghan had converted to Christianity, a man who went to the church with the intention of stealing. This man, who was originally from Kabul, entered the church through the church’s chimney and stole all the silver glasses filled with the holy water and was looking for a way to get out of the church. Every time he tried to go back up the chimney, he was thrown back down and could not escape. For the fourth time, he was thrown on the floor and then he remained in the church. He was sure that the Christian’s God did not allow him to leave the church. When the person who was in the church saw him, the thief regretted his behavior and asked for forgiveness and asked church leader to convert him into the Christian religion. Those in the church blessed him with the holy water and in that way there was one more Christian in Kabul.

Armenian Prince

We do not know much about Emir Mohammad Azam Khan’s Christian wife, except that after her husband’s reign, she used to live in the Qazi part of western Kabul. But we have more information about his son, Ishaq Khan. Ishaq Khan was his son from his Christian wife and lived for years with Emir Abdulrahman Khan in Samarqand and Bukhara. In 1880, after Emir Abdulrahman became the leader of Afghanistan, Ishaq Khan became the mayor of Turkestan; Turkestan at those times was a part of northern Afghanistan.

Ishaq Khan had a calm personality and this caused him to be loved by the people. This was the reason he was chosen as mayor of Turkestan. This also caused him to become a leader in northern Afghanistan for a short period when AbdulRahman Khan had become ill in 1888. AbdulRahman Khan became very angry when Ishaq Khan replaced him, and as soon as he recovered from the dangerous illness, he sent his army to fight Ishaq Khan’s army. The English writer, Jonathan Lee, writes the story of this battle in details in his book: The Ancient Supremacy: Bukhara, Afghanistan and the Battle for Balkh, 1731-1901.

Before Abdul Rahman’s move to Balkh, he had begun the psychological war against Ishaq Khan. Faiz Mohammad Kateb in Seraj-al-Tawarikh mentions about the letters of Emir to their leaders to fight against the “Armenian people.” By the decision of Emir MalikSher Darbar and Mirza Shir Ahmad Jalalabadi, one person from a Pashtoon tribe was asked to compose a poem against Ishaq Khan to be spread among people. Jalalabadi composed a poem against Ishaq Khan that was printed on huge posters installed in public places across the country, especially in the northern part of the country. The ode refers to the Christian mother of Ishaq Khan, which starts with: “Armenian mother named Ishaq /disgusting insect, and lies and hypocrisy.” Then the poet used satire, threats and sarcasm in poetic language and the poem finished with these verses: “in Khorasan, you do not have a chance buddy / o donkey catch the easy way Iraq.” The Armenian prince did not escape to Iraq, but on a narrative approach, went to Russian Turkestan, and according to another version, went to Iran, where his father was living.

Deporting Armenians

The Afghan people had always been dealing with the followers of Jesus and Moses with tolerance and compassion in Kabul. But when it changed from religion to politics, the government of Afghanistan dealt with religious minorities. Abdul Rahman, in a letter dated December 30, 1895, encouraged the Armenians of Calcutta to migrate to Kabul to join the small group of Afghan Armenians in Kabul in order to help them “not be alone.” He had promised them jobs and housing according to their skills.

He sent the letter through an Armenian, Saruradin Khan (Lucas Joseph), who was responsible for the Jalalabad bullet making factory, and was going to Calcutta. The next year, he changed his method. That year, he received a letter from Abdul Hamid Sani, the Ottoman Sultan and Caliph of the Muslims, asking him to expel Armenians from their land. The Emir obeyed him and expelled all Armenians from the country. In March 1897, Armenian families left Kabul and Hindi Armenians welcomed them in Peshawar.

Even though the Armenians were not in Kabul anymore, they had a big influence on people to the extent that the people used to call “Armenian” and “Christian’’ as one name. For example, in 1839, when the British army put Shah Shejah Malik Durani on the elephant and moved him from India to Kabul and that way made him a leader of Afghanistan. The coins of that time had a poem in it, which said: “Coinage of gold and silver, brighter than the sun and the moon.”

According to the Sultan history, people of Kabul, for sarcastic and political purposes, explained the poem in a different way: “Gold coins and gold wires, Armenian Shah Shejah / the brightness of the ‘Lord and Brun’s’ eyes, and the ‘company’s slave.” In here, Lord refers to Lord Auckland, who was the British Indian ruler of that time and Bruns refers to Alexander Bruns who was the initiator of Anglo-Afghan War and “Company” refers to the East India Company existing at those times.

‘Armenian’ used in this poem means Christian, words that were used interchangeably in those times. From the other side, people did not behave badly with Armenians but they didn’t have positive views about their religion. People called Shah Shejah Armenian and Christian in this poem because people wanted to say that he was not a Muslim and that was the reason they wanted him to leave leading this Islamic country.

Witty Armenian

Afghanistan had religious tolerance and a good relationships with non-Muslims in the country, including in the lyrics of a love poem that is well-known among the people. There is a famous poem in Pashtu about the Hindus which was sang by a famous Afghan singer, Ahmad Zaher, which says “I am a Muslim and my love is a Hindu.”

About Christians in Kabul, there is a love song called “Witty Armenian,” which is sang by several singers such as Professor Amir Mohammad, Sediq Shabab and Sofi Majid Panjshir with different titles, such as “Witty Armenian,” and “Moon of Russia.” “Witty Armenian” has become famous beyond the borders of Afghanistan as well, so that there is a song by an Iranian singer, Darya Dadvar, entitled “Christian love” and a singer from Tajikistan, Omar Timor, with the title “Moon of Russia.”

The song “Witty Armenian” was written by a Kabuli poet, Sufi Ashqary (1892-1979). But before there was a poem with diverse lines by a poet from Badakhshan, Hussein Maghmum Darwazi (1880-1946), entitled “Moon Country Russian’’ and it has become famous. When Maghmum Darwazi was travelling to Bukhara in 1919 to join a celebration hosted by Emir Alemkhan, the ruler of Bukhara, he was introduced to a beautiful Russian nurse.

At the ceremony two singers sang a song of a poet Mir Said Abdul Ahad Khan of this theme: “Suddenly come witty Armenian/ either come and become a Muslim or convert me to Christianity now.” People wanted him to compose a poem and dedicate it to the Russian nurse. He composed a poem as requested, which starts with “Russian Moon desire of our religion now / come to mosque, leave the church.” According to Maghmum Darwazi, the Russian nurse also spoke Farsi, and gifted him a watch for this poem. Most likely, perhaps all these poems were inspired by a poet in Herat, Saidai Krokhi, who died in 1808.

The only church in Kabul

In 1919, when the country declared its independence, Italy was the first country to recognize it. Amanullah Khan asked the government of Italy what they needed as a gift. The Italian Government asked permission to establish a Catholic church in Kabul. Amanullah Khan accepted this and the Italian government built a church in the courtyard of the embassy in Kabul, which finally was completed in 1933. Today in Kabul, apart from this church, which is still active, no other Church officially exists.

In 1959, President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, visited Kabul; he asked Zahir Shah to let him build a Protestant church in Kabul in exchange for the Islamic Center built in Washington. He agreed and the church became operational on 17 May 1970. But the situation changed very quickly and the church was demolished on June 17, 1973, the same day that Daoud Khan came to power in a coup.

Even though Afghanistan tolerated non-Muslims, it always differentiated between the religions. Not only that, the Afghan government also differentiated between Muslim sects, which was all for political purposes and we have many examples from the history. Afghanistan has always used religion as a weapon for political reasons.

Afghan president's first lady Rula Ghani speaks during an event for the Afghan Women's Empowerment Grants Program in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014. The program initiated by the U.S. government and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) will help 75,000 young Afghan women become leaders in their fields over the course of the five-year program, according to USAID. It provides $216 million to promote, with other donors it hopes contributing an additional $200 million. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

Today the Middle East burns in the fire of religious conflicts. New conflicts between “Islamic State,” Iraq and Syria have been created, and aim to massacre non-Muslims. The followers of the Abrahamic religions who have lived together for centuries in most Muslim countries now are against each other. It is hoped that the first lady of Afghanistan, Rula Ghani, will try to increase tolerance and prevent the penetration of different ideas in the country.