Reaching the Nations

Afghanistan

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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Geography

Area: 652,230 square km.  Landlocked in Southern Asia, Afghanistan borders Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China.  The rugged Hindu Kush Mountains extend throughout much of the country and reach into Pakistan and Tajikistan to the east.  Mountains and desert plains dominate most the terrain.  Climate ranges from arid and semi-arid with cold winters and hot summers.  Earthquakes, flooding, and droughts are natural hazards.  Environmental issues include limited fresh water, soil degradation, overgrazing, deforestation, desertification, and pollution.  Afghanistan is divided into 34 administrative provinces.

Population: 28,395,716 (July 2010)       

Annual Growth Rate: 2.576% (2010)    

Fertility Rate: 5.5 children born per woman (2010)   

Life Expectancy: 44.19 male, 44.61 female (2010)

Peoples

Pashtun: 42%

Tajik: 27%

Hazara: 9%

Uzbek: 9%

Aimak: 4%

Turkmen: 3%

Baloch: 2%

other: 4%

Languages: Afghan Persian/Dari (50%), Pashto (35%), Turkic languages [mainly Uzbek and Turkmen] (11%), other (4%).  Dari and Pashto are the official languages.  Some common regional languages are understood by some, including Arabic and Urdu.  Languages with over one million speakers include Dari (14.2 million), Pashto (9.94 million), and Uzbek (1.4 million).  

Literacy: 28.1% (2000)

History

The area of modern-day Afghanistan has experienced one of the longest known conflict-ridden histories due to its location at the crossroads of the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and Central Asia.  For millennia, the strongest foreign military forces have experienced only limited successful in subduing the indigenous population with the exception of the Mongols under Genghis Khan.  Alexander the Great invaded the region in 328 BC and founded the Hellenistic state of Bactria.  Prior to the Arab invasion in 642 AD, the Scythians, White Huns, and Turks successively controlled the region for centuries.  Arabs introduced Islam and maintained control until Persian rule, which was followed by the Turkic Ghaznavids by the eleventh century.  The Mongols left a strong legacy after a powerful invasion of the region.  In the mid-eighteenth century, Ahmad Shah Durrani founded the modern Afghan nation state by unifying Pashtun tribes.  In the nineteenth century, the Russian and British Empires vied for control of Afghanistan from bordering territories.  Afghans defeated the British army in 1839 and maintained autonomy in many areas of the country and government despite British control of foreign affairs from 1880 to 1919.  Britain and Russia established Afghanistan's modern boundaries during this period.  Afghans regained total control over the country and government in 1919 as Britain withdrew and signed the Treaty of Rawalpindi.  King Amanullah ruled until 1929 and attempted to modernize Afghanistan and end its traditional isolationist stance.  The king relinquished his power as a result of growing opposition to his reforms. 

Muhammed Zahir Shah ruled from 1933 to 1973, during which time Afghanistan was a relatively stable secular state.  A liberal constitution and democratic reforms introduced in 1964 allowed the proliferation of extremist parties. The monarchy was overthrown in 1973 and a republic was proclaimed; the republic was then overthrown in 1978 and a Marxist state was imposed.  Political instability plagued the country for much of the remainder of the twentieth century as extremist groups have fought for control of the government.  The Soviet Union sent troops to support the Marxist government in 1979 but failed to establish a self-sustaining communist regime, ultimately withdrawing in 1989.  The Taliban filled the power vacuum left by departing Soviet forces and engaged in ongoing fighting with the Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shah Massoud until Massoud was assassinated by Al-Queda assassins on September 9, 2001, two days before the September 11 attacks in the U.S.  The Taliban enforced an extreme interpretation of Islam which severely infringed on human rights and supported terrorists including Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the September 11th terrorist attacks.  The United States formed an anti- terrorist coalition which invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 and captured Kabul the following month with the assistance of the Northern Alliance.  The United Nations has assisted in the formation of a democratic government in the 2000s, which held elections in 2004.  Afghanistan has experienced marked economic development, but standards of living rank among the lowest worldwide.  Corruption is a major challenge which has limited economic development and political stability.  Lawlessness in many rural areas continue to challenge efforts by the newly instated democratic government and U.S. coalition forces to secure Afghanistan's borders, subdue pro-Taliban fighters, and rebuild the country after decades of internal conflict and foreign invasions.[1] 

Culture 

Islam and tribalism strongly influence daily life and local customs and practices.  Afghans continue to struggle with the role of Islam in government. Debate continues on which Muslim groups can implement Shari'a law.  Several ancient civilizations have influenced Afghan culture, such as the Persians, Mongols, and Arabs.  Afghans maintain a proud tradition of poetry.  In 2001, the Taliban destroyed two 1,500 year old massive Buddha statues in the Bamiyan Valley as they were viewed as idols.  Traditional clothing continues to be widely worn, and consists of turbans or kufi for men, veils for women, and baggy, loose clothing called salwar kameez, common to the region.[2]  Polygamy is common; mistreatment and violence directed toward women are widespread.  Over half of the female population is estimated to marry before the age of 16.[3]  Alcohol and cigarette consumption rates appear to be among the lowest worldwide. 

Economy

GDP per capita: $1,000 (2009) [2.16% of US]

Human Development Index: 0.352

Corruption Index: 1.3

The economy remains underdeveloped and riddled by decades of warfare and political chaos, yet in the past decade foreign investment, international aid, and growth in agriculture and services has begun to improve conditions.  Economic activity is limited due to dependence on foreign aid, lawlessness, Afghanistan's landlocked location, and the lack of national infrastructure.  A third of the population is unemployed and lives below the poverty line.  In 2009, Afghanistan posted the highest annual percentage growth of GDP worldwide at 22.5%.  Natural gas, oil, coal, salt, and abundant deposits of many minerals and precious metals are natural resources.  Services account for 16% of the workforce and 26% of the GDP.  Agriculture employs 77% of the workforce and generates 31% of the GDP whereas industry employs 6% of the workforce and generates 26% of the GDP.  Primary industries include textiles, soap, furniture, fertilizer, food products, and minerals.  Common crops consist of opium poppy, wheat, fruit, and nuts.  Animal skins and meat are important agricultural products.  The United States, Pakistan, and India are primary trade partners. 

Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium and ranks among the most corrupt countries in the world according to Transparency International.  Only Somalia had a lower rating on the 2009 Corruption Index.  The Pakistani border remains insecure in many areas, increasing illegal activity.  Most heroin consumed in Europe and Eurasia is produced from opium poppies cultivated in Afghanistan.  Corruption and lawlessness impede efforts to address drug cultivation problems.  The Taliban utilized the cultivation of opium poppies for revenue, which is still deeply entrenched in agriculture for many areas.  Afghanistan is also a regional supplier of hashish.   

Faiths

Muslim: 99%

other: 1%

Christians

Denominations  Members  Congregations

Latter-Day Saints   700  5

Catholic  100

Seventh Day Adventists  32  1 (includes Iran)

Religion

The Taliban regime severely persecuted non-Muslims, many of which fled the country.  Muslims today account for 99% of the population, 80% of which are Sunni.  Shi'a Muslims account for 19% of the population.  There are small communities of Sikhs, Hindus, and Baha'is, each less than 5,000.  The number of indigenous Christians range from 500 to 8,000.  Kabul experiences the greatest religious diversity as some non-Muslim Afghans have returned to the capital in recent years.[4]  

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

The constitution mandates that no laws can oppose Islamic teachings, provides equal recognition for Shi'a and Sunni Muslims, and guarantees the right for other religious groups to practice their faiths within the bounds of the law.  Since the fall of the Taliban, the federal government has attempted to increase religious freedom, but societal abuse of religious freedom and intolerance are major challenges.  Conflict continues between different Muslim sects, which in recent years has manifested itself in the proposed establishment of religious laws for some Muslim groups.  Many non-Muslims keep their religious affiliation private to avoid harassment and persecution, worshipping in their homes.  Some Muslim groups which follow Shari'a law consider apostasy from Islam a crime punishable by death, although there have been no recent instances of formerly-Muslim Christian converts receiving the death penalty.  There are no laws banning proselytizing, but missionary activity is culturally discouraged and rarely occurs.  Some Christian missionaries do operate in the country in a discreet manner to avoid harassment.  Religious groups are not required to register with the government and non-Muslims are not required to study Islam in public schools.  There are no legal restrictions regarding the importation or dissemination of religious literature.[5]  In the late 2000s, some Christian aid organizations and missionary groups had experienced persecution or kidnapping at the hand of terrorist organizations like the Taliban.  In 2007, 23 South Korean aid workers sponsored by a Christian denomination were kidnapped by the Taliban, and two were executed.[6]

Largest Cities

Urban: 24%

Kabul, Herat, Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif, Jalalabad, Konduz, Pol-e Khomri, Meymaneh, Sheberghan, Taloqan.

Cities listed in bold have no LDS branches.

Two of the 10 largest cities have an LDS military branch.  16% of the national population resides in the 10 largest cities.

LDS History

Latter-day Saints did not have a presence in Afghanistan until after the 2001 U.S. led coalition invasion.  United States servicemen constituted the entire church membership until a few native Afghans joined the Church shortly thereafter as a result of associations made with LDS members in the military.  In 2008, Afghanistan became part of the Middle East/Africa North Area.

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: 700 (2009)

In mid 2009, there were over 500 members in the country.[7]  There were 700 Latter-day Saints in Afghanistan in late 2009,[8] all of which were foreign military personnel with the exception of a handful of Afghan converts.  Some Afghans have also joined the church in New Delhi, India, and in London, England.

Congregational Growth

Wards: 0 Branches: 5 Groups: 28

The Church created the Kabul Afghanistan Military District on July 1st, 2008.[9]  In late 2010, there were five branches and 28 groups operating.[10]  Military branches included the Kabul, Kandahar, Bagram, Salerno, and Leatherneck Branches. 

Activity and Retention

Afghanistan experiences high rates of member activity due to LDS servicemen accounting for nearly all of Church membership.  Active membership is estimated at 400, or 57% of total membership. 

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: Farsi, Arabic, Kazakh, Urdu, English

The Church has translated all LDS scriptures and many church materials in Arabic.  Book of Mormon selections are available in Farsi.  Gospel Principles and The Prophet Joseph Smith's Testimonyare available in Farsi and Pashto.  Kazakh LDS materials are limited to the Sacrament Prayers, a basic unit guidebook, the Articles of Faith, and hymns and children's songs.  A translation of selections from the Book of Mormon became available in Urdu in 1988.  An entire Book of Mormon translation was completed in late 2007.  Three issues of the Liahona magazine were published a year in Urdu as of late 2009 and audiovisual materials are available for Joy to the World and The Restoration.  Some Primary materials are also available in Urdu. 

Meetinghouses

Church meetings occur on U.S. military bases, often in chapels which serve as places of worship for various religious groups found among the armed forces. 

Health and Safety

Conditions remain dangerous for foreigners living and working in the country due to a lack of government control in many regions and Taliban insurgency along the Pakistani border.  Living conditions are among the poorest in the world.  Armed kidnappings and the murder of foreign aid workers have occurred on an ongoing basis.. 

Humanitarian and Development Work

As of 2010, Latter-day Saints had not taken part in any humanitarian or development work in Afghanistan.

 

Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

Religious Freedom

Despite lawlessness and the social intolerance of non-Muslim groups, the Afghan government is among the most proactive of Muslim nations in the region regarding the establishment of greater religious freedom.  Conditions for religious minority groups appear to be improving, which over time may allow for some limited LDS missionary activity to occur by member referral.  Latter-day Saints among the American military worship freely in their respective congregations on military bases.

Cultural Issues

Negative social attitudes regarding conversion from Islam and Christian proselytism create cultural barriers for LDS missionary activity.  Afghan women have traditionally received very little education due to government restrictions and cultural norms.  Consequently only 13% of women were literate in 2000.  The poor treatment of women in many areas may create cultural challenges for Latter-day Saints to address with Afghans who are victims or perpetrators of abuse.  Those engaged in a polygamous relationship must end these relations in divorce and be interviewed by a member of a mission or area presidency to be baptized.  Corruption and drug cultivation and trafficking create unsafe conditions in many areas for full-time missionaries and non-Muslims. 

National Outreach

Current LDS missionary outreach is limited to the associations of U.S. military members and the handful of local Afghani converts.  There is no organized mission outreach efforts made by the Church in Afghanistan and no official church presence.  If missionary work were to occur in areas where military branches function, 10% of the population would be reached by LDS mission outreach efforts.  Latter-day Saints do not undertake formal missionary activity due to cultural restrictions, past violence and conflict resulting from decades of war, lawlessness, and the lack of indigenous members in sufficient numbers to organize the church among the non-military population.  Distance from established mission outreach centers in Pakistan and India have contributed to the lack of a formal church presence over the years.  

Prospects for national outreach in the near future appear doubtful due to the cultural restrictions of proselytizing Muslims, ongoing violence, and the difficulty in searching out the small, hidden Afghani Christian community.  Due to its large population, central geographic location, greater government control, and recent influx of non-Muslims, Kabul offers the most realistic prospects for member referral-based mission outreach in the coming years.  In the event that the government establishes law and security throughout the country, prospective mission outreach by Latter-day Saints in Kabul could potential reach most of Afghanistan's major ethnic groups, providing an impetus for converts from these groups to bring the church to their respective regions of the country.  Three-fourths of the population resides in rural areas and will likely not receive any mission outreach for decades following a formal church establishment in Kabul and other major cities. 

Some Afghan expatriates have joined the LDS Church in the past decade, but these new converts express little or no desire to return to their homeland.  Afghani Latter-day Saints in other nations may one day assist in establishing the Church in Afghanistan as full-time missionaries.  Humanitarian and development projects have yet to be explored by Latter-day Saints, which over time have potential for providing a segue for missionary work one day.  Farsi-speaking LDS members have created Internet-outreach websites containing Farsi LDS language materials, such as http://www.farsimormon.com/.  In 2010, these sites appear to be the only written Farsi-language LDS materials available on the Internet.

Member Activity and Convert Retention

Member activity and convert retention rates are moderate to high as most the Latter-day Saints are U.S. servicemen.  Convert retention rates from the small Afghani Latter-day Saint membership are unknown due to their low profile and private nature of their worship and faith.  Convert retention rates may be higher than average due to the high level of commitment for locals to join the Church in the face of potential persecution, ostracism, and isolation from family and social groups.

Ethnic Issues and Integration

Tribalism and past conflict between the multiplicity of ethnic groups creates challenges for greater national stability and the integration of varying ethnic groups into the same LDS congregations.  Language-specific congregations, if organized once the number of local members speaking different languages necessitates it, may help reduce potential conflict at church. 

Language Issues

A limited number of proselytizing materials are translated into the native languages spoken by only 35% of the population.  Dari - the Afghan dialect of Persian or Farsi - is spoken by half the population and possesses similarities with its Iranian counterpart, allowing for some usage of Farsi-language materials among Dari speakers in Afghanistan.  Church materials are translated in languages spoken as a second language of as many as 89% of the population.  Low literacy rates in many areas challenges efforts to distribute religious literature and utilize the Internet for missionary activity to Afghans, but provide future opportunities for Latter-day Saints to engage in literacy programs. 

Missionary Service

No known Afghan Latter-day Saints have served a full-time mission.  LDS missionaries have never been assigned to serve in Afghanistan.

Leadership

Military servicemen or non-natives staff leadership for all LDS congregations nationwide.  There appear to be no native church leaders.  

Temple

Afghanistan pertains to the Frankfurt Germany Temple district, like most nations in the Middle East/Africa North Area.  Temple trips are feasible only for military personnel as there are no LDS temples nearby.  A temple may be built closer to Afghanistan one day in India.

Comparative Growth

Afghanistan is one of the only nations in southwestern Asia to have LDS congregations, which exist almost exclusively to service U.S.military personnel.  Neighboring Pakistan exhibits strong self-sufficiency in church administration as all 20 some full-time missionaries assigned to the country are native members and steady membership and congregation growth has occurred over the past quarter century.  There are nearly twice as many Latter-day Saints in Iraq[11] where, like in Afghanistan, American military personnel constitute almost the entire church membership.  The only nation in the region which has had an LDS mission organized was Iran in the late 1970s.  During the operation of the Iran Tehran Mission, fewer than 50 converts were baptized as a result of cultural issues. 

Missionary-minded Christian groups usually do not publish statistics regarding church membership in Afghanistan due to security concerns for their members and to maintain a low profile for missionary activity.  Many Christian groups have gained a few Afghan converts, but church growth remains slow due to cultural restrictions. 

Future Prospects

Present lawlessness outside Kabul, negative attitudes of Christian missionary activity,  and the few non-military Latter-day Saints create persistent challenges for an official church establishment and missionary activity over the long-term.  Existing congregations service U.S. servicemen almost exclusively.  Such congregations are unlikely to persist after the drawdown of U.S. troops due to the very small number of native members and security issues.  The government has taken steps to improve the status of religious freedom and promote tolerance of minority religious groups, but society has yet to come to speed with new government policies which oppose popular thinking and past government directives regarding religious affairs.  Afghanis living abroad have demonstrated receptivity to the LDS Church in small numbers in the 2000s, indicating some potential for church growth if missionary outreach is pursued with the proper vision and resources, such as performing humanitarian and development work which is badly needed in many areas, strengthening the few local Latter-day Saints, and the careful search for Afghani Christians and presenting the gospel in an appropriate manner.  Most ethnic groups have had no exposure to LDS mission outreach.  It is unclear how some of these groups may respond in the future to potential LDS missionary activity.


[1]  "Background Note: Afghanistan," Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, 26 March 2010.  http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5380.htm

[2]  "Shalwar Kameez," Wikpedia.org, retrieved 19 October 2010.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salwar_kameez

[3]  "Afghanistan," Social Institutions and Gender Index, retrieved 19 October 2010.  http://genderindex.org/country/afghanistan

[4]  "Afghanistan," International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127362.htm

[5]  "Afghanistan," International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127362.htm

[6]  Afghanistan," International Religious Freedom Report 2008, retrieved 19 October 2010.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2008/108497.htm

[7]  "An island of peace in the middle of war," LDS Church News, 17 August 2009.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/57771/An-island-of-peace-in-the-middle-of-war.html

[8]  Askar, Jamshid.  "Military district in Iraq will be 'big difference'," LDS Church News, 21 November 2009.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/58227/Military-district-in-Iraq-will-be-big-difference.html

[9]  Askar, Jamshid.  "Military district in Iraq will be 'big difference'," LDS Church News, 21 November 2009.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/58227/Military-district-in-Iraq-will-be-big-difference.html

[10]  "Church Organization in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Isolated Areas," Military Relations, retrieved 15 October 2010.  http://lds.org/pa/display/0,17884,9138-1,00.html

[11]  Askar, Jamshid.  "Military district in Iraq will be 'big difference'," LDS Church News, 21 November 2009.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/58227/Military-district-in-Iraq-will-be-big-difference.html