The supreme leader of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia warned on January 8 that his regime will enforce the death penalty on any Muslim who converts to another faith.

Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar made the declaration over Radio Shariat, explaining that such an action is required by the strict interpretation of Islamic law enforced under Taliban rule. The Taliban controls roughly 90 percent of Afghanistan. Omar also specified that "any non-Muslim found trying to win converts will also be killed," according to an Associated Press report on the broadcast.

"It is seen that enemies of the sacred religion of Islam are making efforts throughout the world to eliminate this pure religion," the Taliban leader said. Omar did not elaborate, except to declare that "numerous plots" had been uncovered to corrupt Islam, and that some Afghans had converted for "material benefits."

Senior Taliban spokesman Abdul Hai Mutmain claimed that "certain foreigners" in the country were working secretly to convert Afghans to Christianity. "There are programs by some agencies inside and outside Afghanistan to do this," Mutmain said. He did not identify any organizations by name.

The edict condemned those professing either Christianity or Judaism, adding that anyone seen "distributing their religious literature, or making publicity in their interest, will be condemned to death."

Mutmain says the Taliban's religious police have been ordered to implement the edict against apostasy. The decree also announced a five-year jail sentence for anyone caught selling or distributing "anti-Islamic" literature.

Since the Taliban seized control of Kabul in 1996, the movement has introduced a harsh version of Islamic and tribal law. "Murderers are executed by their victims' families, thieves' hands are chopped off, adulterers are stoned to death, and homosexuals are killed by having a tank flatten a wall on them," Agence France Press noted in its report on the latest edict.

Social restrictions imposed by the Taliban have barred women from education and most employment, required men to wear beards and perform public prayers, prescribed male and female dress codes, and outlawed music and television.

Christian believers in Afghanistan have dropped from public sight since the Taliban takeover. Two Afghan men suspected of converting to Christianity were reported as hanged by the Taliban in 1998, but details remain unconfirmed.

Radio Kabul announced on July 9, 1998, that violations of the Qur'anic ban on converting from Islam to another religion would be punished under strict Islamic law. Radio listeners were ordered to report to authorities any reported conversions among their acquaintances.

Related Elsewhere:

Read more about Taliban's repression of religious freedom in Afghanistan in the U.S. State Department's Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.

This threat against Christians and other religions comes at time when U.S.-Afghan relations are easing by slight degrees. Afghanistan is suffering from drought and, in order to get UN sanctions removed, possibly willing to let terrorist Osama bin Laden stand trial in a Muslim court. The U.S. has recently given Afghanistan emergency drought aid, in spite of sanctions against the country for harboring bin Laden.

Previous Christianity Today stories about Afghanistan include:

Religious Freedom Report Rebukes China, Others | State Department finds many nations' religious freedoms deteriorating, but some are improved. (Sept. 7, 2000)
Religious Freedom Report Released | Afghanistan, China, Iran, and Iraq listed as some of most repressive countries. (Oct. 25, 1999)
New Unreached Group Targeted (Feb. 8, 1999)

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