Our campaign ends in . . .
Last April, President Joe Biden made an ominous announcement from the White House.
“After consulting closely with our allies and partners . . . with the Congress and the vice president, as well as with [Afghan President Ashraf Ghani] and many others around the world, I concluded that it’s time to end America’s longest war. It’s time for American troops to come home,” he said. “The United States will begin our final withdrawal—begin it—on May 1 of this year. We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit. We’ll do it responsibly, deliberately, and safely—and we will do it in full coordination with our allies and partners.”
At that point, nobody familiar with the country thought it would be able to stand against to the Taliban. The wobbly Afghan government, paid for and propped up by the United States since 2004, had never seemed to grow any stronger—or any less corrupt.
Meanwhile, the Taliban never seemed to give up. The Islamic fundamentalist group had been overthrown by the U.S. invasion in 2001 and had been waging a persistent insurgency ever since. When the cold of winter came each year, they would retreat south to Pakistan, where they’d rest and reorganize. When the weather warmed, they would emerge and take control, mostly over southern rural areas of the country.
U.S. intelligence initially estimated that the Afghan national government could last about two years on its own. But you know this story. In just 10 days in August, while the Americans were still in the country, the Taliban swept through every single provincial capital, including Kabul. They advanced so quickly they surprised even themselves.
Caught off guard, thousands of Afghans began to run—especially those who feared for their lives: former employees of the collapsed government, those who had worked with Americans. And Christians.
The Christians were especially interesting, because while conversion was illegal even under the Afghan government, the number of believers had been steadily growing, from an estimated 2,000 in 2013 to about 10,000 in 2021.
How were so many hearing about Jesus? With everybody keeping their faith a secret, how were they connecting with each other? And how on earth were they going to get out?
Born in Afghanistan
To hear this story, I had to fly halfway around the world—but not to Afghanistan. I landed in Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates. In many ways, the UAE is a bridge between the Middle East and the West. While technically a Muslim country, the leaders don’t suppress the religion of foreigners. And since this oil-rich country is full of foreigners here for a job—literally, 9 out of 10 people are from somewhere else—that means the UAE has considerable freedom of religion.
That fact is critical to this story, which actually starts a few hours northeast, in Afghanistan, the country that replaced North Korea this year at the top of the World Watch List of the hardest places on the earth to be a Christian.
“I was born in Afghanistan,” Luke Anwari told me. (I’ve been careful with identification; however, the names and places I’ve been able to include are accurate.) I was sitting with Luke in his apartment in Dubai, where he lives with his wife and four daughters. “We were under the communism government, and then when I was in grade four the mujahideen come, and then when I was grade seven, the Taliban come. And then when I was grade 10, the new democratic government after 9/11 come, so I had four regimes during my school.”
Luke was born in 1987 into a pretty unstable country. Every few years, the government would change hands, which meant Luke would have to change his school uniform, his textbooks, even the definitions of his words. For example, under the Soviets, communism meant “justice”; after they left, it meant “infidel.” When the Taliban took over, Luke had to start wearing a turban to school, and taking a lot more classes on the Qur’an.
In between, while one power was trying to overthrow another, there was fighting and violence.
“Fighters would come, and they would bomb the city,” Luke said. “Our school was opposite from the airport. So they would bomb the airport [a lot]. So there was no windows, no nothing, because all were broken because of the bombing and the pressure [of] that.”
Already in grade school, Luke knew how to hide from incoming air raids—you can duck down near a load-bearing wall or pillar, hoping it will shield you from a collapsing roof or wall. Or even better, you can race outside for the ditches, where there is no building to fall on you.
When Luke was in junior high, the Taliban took over Afghanistan. People were terrified—Taliban soldiers shoot first and ask questions much later, if at all. But they were big on religion, and Luke was too.
“I was very passionate about religion—I was really passionate about God and meeting God, how to pray, how to fast,” he said. “I was in grades 9 and 10 and 8 and those years were Taliban-controlled. We would go to the madrasa, which is a regular school but of course, half of that was still Islamic teachings. Apart from that, we would go to [the] mosque and get the religious teachings as well, where I was memorizing [the] Qur’an. You would read their interpretation of the Qur’an.”
When Luke was in ninth grade, a motivational speaker from Osama bin Laden’s camp came to his school. He talked for three hours—about how America would probably attack, about how to prepare for jihad against the infidels, and about how Osama bin Laden is a brother who needed protection.
At the end, he gave an altar call: Whoever wants to dedicate themselves to the holy war, step forward now.
Moved, Luke came forward. He did want to give his life to Allah. He was given a black turban to wrap around his head, and everyone applauded. But later, when he told his father what he’d done, his dad exploded, even chasing him around the house. He told Luke to go right back and take his name off that list. He did not want a life of violence for his son.
Had Luke’s name actually been on the list, that would’ve been nearly impossible to do. But Luke was related to the school principal, who had not included Luke in his list of volunteers. “Hey,” he told Luke, “Don’t make that kind of stupid decision again.”
A few months later, al-Qaeda terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania. Al-Qaeda was based in Afghanistan, and a furious President George W. Bush demanded that the Taliban extradite Osama bin Laden. The Taliban refused, and in early October, a U.S.-led coalition easily toppled the regime.
That fall, Luke headed to medical college in Kabul, where NATO and American forces were trying to set up a fledgling democracy. In his province of a million people, he’d been one of only 12 boys who had been able to finish enough school to graduate.
Around this time, Luke was having his own crisis. He read about God meeting Moses in the burning bush and on Mount Sinai. Why can’t I meet with God? he asked his teachers. We’ll pretend we didn’t hear that, they told him. You aren’t supposed to ask questions like that.
Luke was confused by that, and also discouraged by his prayers, which never seemed to do anything. Islam was starting to seem like a collection of made-up stories. Tired of it, Luke quit religion.
But it was harder for him to quit God.
“I remember that I was studying anatomy of the human body the first semester,” Luke said. “The second semester we were studying physiology, which gets into the system of [the] body, how it works. And I remember that our professor was explaining, and he was saying that if you built machines to do the function of our organs, there would be so many, it would need a lot of space, a lot of energy, and a lot of manpower to run that. And that was making me very curious—that there should be a God that makes us.”
At school, Luke became friends with some South Koreans. They prayed like he’d never seen anybody pray before. He figured that since they were from the East, they were Buddhist. Nope, they told him. We’re Christians.
More specifically, they were Presbyterians. Scottish and American Presbyterian missionaries brought Christianity into Korea in the late 1800s, where it was immediately popular. After the Korean War, Christianity continued to boom in South Korea, more than tripling in followers from 1950 to 1970. By the early 2000s, when Luke was at medical school, the Korean church was sending out more missionaries than every other country except the United States.
They didn’t stick to easy places, either. South Korean missionaries have been kicked out of Pakistan, kidnapped and killed in Yemen, and beheaded in Iraq. When Luke first asked his Korean friends for a Bible, they were too scared to give him one. “Come to our house, and you can read it here,” they told him. So, every Friday, he went. They started with the Gospel of John. Luke couldn’t understand it, but his heart got caught on John 10:10: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
In Farsi, that phrase is translated as “I have come to give you eternal life.”
“And the very first time I met with my Korean friends, I went to that verse . . . and said, ‘I have a question. Explain to me what this really means,’” Luke said. “I’m really upset. . . . I said, ‘What does it mean to have eternal life?’ They said, ‘If you believe in Jesus, you will have eternal life.’ I said, ‘You will not die?’ They said, ‘No.’
“I said, ‘How [will you] not die? Where [are] your parents? . . . Look at the graveyards—there’s crosses on top of them. Are these people not dead?’ They said that ‘they’re dead bodily, but not their spirit.’ They said, ‘No, if you believe in Jesus, you will have eternal life, which means that your Spirit will live forever. You will not experience hell or separation from God.’”
Intrigued, Luke decided to read the whole Bible. It took him two years. By the end, he was a believer. But he couldn’t tell anybody. The few times he tried to mention something to his friends, they told him to be quiet—Don’t talk to us about that. It’s crazy. It’s dangerous.
But he did tell one person.
Luke and Sarah
Before Luke was born, he was engaged to Sarah, a girl who also wasn’t yet born. Their grandparents were from the same village, and their fathers were friends. When their mothers became pregnant, their fathers decided that if the genders worked out—one boy and one girl—they’d cement their families’ long friendship with a marriage.
Sarah also knew how to hide from air raids and what it was like to grieve loved ones killed by rockets. But unlike Luke, she had a huge gap in her education—the years the Taliban had been in charge, she’d had to stay home from school.
Sarah was 17 and in eighth grade when she was formally engaged to Luke. They didn’t know each other well, but at their engagement party he did confess to her that he was a Christian. She had no idea what that was, so she told him it was okay.
After they got married, she noticed he wasn’t praying at the mosque with the other men. So she asked him about it, and he gave her a children’s Bible.
“I really liked the story,” she said. “And I said, ‘I love the story. I really want to read this.’ And he said, ‘Okay.’ But he told me, ‘Okay, we have to read very secretly.’”
They did read secretly, in their bedroom in his parents’ house. After the children’s Bible, they began reading the full Bible together. It was both confusing and lovely to her. She was living in a family and culture that was Muslim, and she could see a difference in Luke. She could also see a difference in his friends.
As you can imagine, it was tricky for Luke to get Christian friends. In his province of almost a million people, he was the only believer he knew. Even under the U.S.-funded government, conversion wasn’t allowed. So he looked for foreigners. When a friend told him about three foreigners who prayed before they ate food, he knew he needed to meet them. The guys were on a humanitarian mission and had begun working at the hospital where Luke, now a radiologist, was taking X-rays.
He was scared to tell them he was a believer, and when he did, they were scared to hear it. They checked with his South Korean friend to make sure he was telling the truth. Their fear was well-founded—within the year, the secret police told the humanitarian workers to stop talking to people about Jesus, and they asked so many questions about Luke that his boss told him he would have to resign.
But by then Luke and the foreigners had built a friendship, reading the Bible and praying together, and showing Sarah what Christian love looked like.
That helped to convince her of the truth of Christianity. When the family began asking Sarah why she wasn’t praying in the mosque, she told them she was praying in the privacy of her own room. She didn’t tell them she was praying to Jesus.
“I really feel the lightness,” she said. “I come from [the] dark place to the light place. Before, I’m very [much] in the dark place.”
Luke’s friends connected him to a Christian from Bangladesh, who connected him to a mission organization. He and Sarah did discipleship training for a few months in India. They came back bolder.
“I want to share my faith with others, but I don’t know how,” he said. “So I learned about mission, I learned about how to share your faith. Really, it’s like a whole different job, and I said, ‘This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. This is what I want to do.’”
Evangelism in a Closed Country
The timing couldn’t have been better. In 2010, Christianity was bubbling just a bit in Afghanistan. For example, a city that had one or two believers in 2005 had 15 believers in 2010. You could find Afghan Christians now, if you were careful, and a small network was beginning to connect.
One new believer was named Ramazan. He’d grown up in a Muslim family, and he was precocious—by the time he was 15, he had memorized 10 chapters of the Qur’an and was preaching in the mosque. He was also reading philosophers—Kant and Descartes and Sartre.
Those thinkers stumped Ramazan on this question: If God created everything, who created God? Without a good answer, he gave up on Islam. But he couldn’t stop the longing in his heart for God. He’d heard about Jesus, and once, in a desperate situation, out of gas and far from home, he prayed to Jesus for help. He switched on the motor and miraculously made it another 25 kilometers. He told Jesus: “I am your soldier.”
For the next two years, Ramazan looked for a Bible, finally finding one through some Americans. Immediately, he took it home and shared the gospel with his friends and family; within a few years, he’d watched 12 people accept Christ.
Around the same time, a young Muslim named Rahmat went to visit his brother in India. Both their grandfather and father were mullahs—leaders in the mosque—but Rahmat’s brother told him he’d converted to Christianity while watching God TV on a trip to Saudi Arabia. Rahmat was livid, attacking his brother with both his fists and his words. After he calmed down, his brother told him to try reading the New Testament, and because Rahmat was the younger brother, he did. By his second time through, he was hooked.
Rahmat didn’t know any believers in Afghanistan, so he spent a few years outside the country. He felt called back in 2010, just as Christianity was starting to attract some attention.
The problem was, the attention wasn’t good. In the summer of 2010, a television station aired the baptism of some Christian converts. The reaction was intense. In two cities, hundreds rallied against Christianity, and several lawmakers said publicly those who converted should be executed. The government intensified its search for believers.
In August, they found Luke and Sarah.
God Works Through Corruption
Luke knows how it happened. A Christian friend introduced him to a guy who was asking weird questions, like if he could get 100 Bibles. Twelve hours later, the police showed up. A lot of police—50 to 60 officers from the Afghan intelligence service, from the prosecution department, from the anti-terrorism units.
“And they just raided our home,” Luke said. “They said, ‘We know everything about you.’ They right away came to my bedroom and handcuffed me on the bed. Our kids are sleeping. They have Sarah at gunpoint—she is sitting in one corner.”
They asked if Luke was a Christian; he said yes. They asked where his Bibles were; he showed them. When they dragged him out to the car, he could see his neighbors gathered, could hear them cursing him and wishing they’d known he was an apostate, so they could’ve burned him alive.
“But those things we expected,” Luke said. “We knew that when we are arrested, when they find out we are believers, we knew that people are not going to be kind to us. There’s going to be worse punishment. So we were not surprised by anything they would say, or the police would say.”
Staring down the barrel of a gun, Sarah didn’t know what to do. When her daughter started crying, the woman accompanying the police—to make sure they weren’t alone with a woman—told them they’d have to leave the room so Sarah could feed the child. After they were gone, she advised Sarah to play dumb. Tell them you don’t know anything.
Sarah did, and the police let her go. But Luke and one of his Christian friends were taken to the police station, then to the Afghan Intelligence Service, because their crime—provoking differences between religions—was against national security. There was a lot of evidence against them—Bibles and books—but the most evidence was on Luke’s laptop, where he had documents and emails that would lead to other Christians.
But God works even through corruption. Before Luke’s laptop could be processed, someone in the Afghan law enforcement stole it. No other Christians were arrested.
Instead, for the next month, Luke and his friend were kept with dangerous prisoners—many of them Taliban extremists. At that time, an American pastor named Terry Jones announced he was going to burn the Qur’an on the anniversary of 9/11. The anti-Christian fervor in Afghanistan whipped up, with thousands taking to the streets.
Inside the prison, Luke’s fellow inmates reasoned that if they killed him and his friend, they would be rewarded by going to heaven. Only tribal warfare among the prisoners kept Luke and his friend breathing.
The guards also tortured and questioned Luke and his friend—”Who else is a Christian? Where are you getting your money? Who is persuading you to convert?” The hardest part was seven days in solitary confinement, in a room too small to even lie down in.
“There was a small little window,” Luke remembered. “You have to jump and then you will see the sky. It’s a small cell—there’s nothing, no pillows, nothing. It was very hard carpet. There is absolutely nothing. They just slap you. We had two times a day [for] bathroom breaks, for one minute in the morning and one minute in the evening. During the day there’s nothing—you just manage yourself.”
The physical pain, from attacks by both the guards and other prisoners, lasted for weeks. Later, when Luke and his friend got out, they would need immediate medical care.
The thing is, it wouldn’t have been hard for Luke to leave. All he needed to do was come back to Islam.
Honestly, it was tempting.
Confession and Confirmation
“One day I said, I’m gonna just get out of here,” Luke said. “I was worried about my family, about my girls—a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old. I did not want them to be raised in a Muslim family. That was difficult. So I was going to go and tell [the guards] but then I was kind of reviewing back to what happened to my life: How did I become a Christian? Because maybe they’re right. Maybe it’s a coincidence. Maybe it’s not the truth.”
Luke went back and reviewed everything in his mind. He had gone looking for God, he had asked to read the Bible, he had decided to follow Jesus—he had been called and directed by the Holy Spirit, certainly, but he hadn’t been persuaded by anybody else.
“That’s between me and God, whether it’s totally truth or totally a lie,” he said. “Nobody persuaded me. And I’m not persuaded because of anything—this is not giving me asylum. This is not giving me any monetary benefits, nothing. So I know myself that I did not make this decision based on those things.”
Luke signed a confession written by his captors. It said he had left Islam and converted to Christianity, he was proud of that decision, and he didn’t regret it. His jailers were thrilled, confident he’d just written his own death sentence. But it also helped Luke settle into the peace of God’s presence. He shared the gospel with the guys around him—he was about to die, so why not? He answered questions, explaining that no, Christians and Jews aren’t responsible for all the evil in the world. And yes, Christian parents do love their children. With every moment that God was with him, he grew more and more confident in his faith.
On the Run
One day, Luke and his friend were moved to the capital city. As soon as they got off the plane, their guards took off their handcuffs and told them they were free. Luke didn’t believe that for a minute. Maybe the guards were going to shoot them as soon as they walked away. Maybe they were going to follow them to some other believers and then arrest everybody.
Luke and his friend did not know what to do. Like characters in an action movie, they left the airport, jumped into a taxi and rode for a while, then got out and jumped onto a bus going a different direction. They wandered the streets this way and that, until they were lost. They cut their long beards, bought new clothes, and put on scarves and sunglasses. Finally, Luke called some of his foreign friends to ask for help.
“Tell us some of the things that we did together,” they said, to verify it was him—and then they connected him to Christian aid workers who could help.
Days later, when his body was rested and beginning to heal, Luke went to get Sarah and the girls, who had been bouncing between his parents and hers. Seeing Luke’s arrest on TV was the first time anyone in their families had even heard of his Christianity, and nobody was happy about it. Luke’s family suspected Sarah had turned him in and would barely speak to her. Her family suggested a divorce, so she could marry again. The neighbors warned that somebody needed to take the kids away from both of them.
After Luke was freed, everyone tried to keep him away from Sarah. She was locked in her room, told if she saw him again she would be erased from the family. Finally, after a lot of arguing, her father brought her to Luke’s house.
“Anywhere you are going to go, I’m going to go with you,” she remembers telling Luke. “‘I [will] not stay here anymore. Even . . . if you go to America, I’m not going to stay here anymore.’ He said, ‘Okay. You can pack your stuff.’ We don’t know where we’re gonna go.”
Early in the morning, they ran away, to Kabul. They stayed three months, too scared of another arrest to even sleep at night. Then they fled to Pakistan for a few months, where they connected with a mission organization for more discipleship training. When the police picked up two of their colleagues, they had to make a midnight escape. They stayed with a friend for a few weeks, then moved back to Afghanistan.
Coming back was like a fresh start, but to an odd, unstable life. Luke and Sarah would settle into a city—where Luke would work a day job in finance or construction or whatever he could get—and they’d find believers to pray with. At this point, they knew about 65 other Christians.
“Every night, after 10 o’clock, every one of them—one by one—[would] come to our apartment,” Luke said. “And then we would sit down and pray for two, three hours until midnight. Nobody’s getting out. We’re not showing our faces. All of us have been in prison. At this point, we don’t know what we will do. But we’re just sitting and praying and reading the Bible and praying.”
When they had time, four or five guys would buy some Coca-Cola, then drive around the city or head to public parks to read the Bible and pray. “We drank a lot of Coke,” Luke said. The group grew to 100, then 120.
Every few months, Luke would run into trouble—for example, a call from the Taliban, threatening to bomb his home. Luke and Sarah started keeping a suitcase packed with some extra clothes and some food in case they needed to run immediately. If they had a little more time, they could pack the whole house—Sarah got so good at it she could box everything up in two days.
In four years, they moved 11 times.
And their network of Christian friends grew to 450.
In November 2014, Luke was out of town and missed a meeting with some fellow believers. It saved his life. Armed Taliban insurgents, including a suicide bomber, showed up. They shot dead a South African Christian, his two children, and an Afghan believer. And then they set the place on fire.
It was the third attack on a foreign guest house in 10 days, and it put a lot of pressure on the government. The police chief resigned. The Taliban spokesman said, Hey, we were just trying to kill the Christians. The government knew who was supposed to be in the meeting, and called Luke to come in for questioning. Luke and Sarah’s friends told them to get out of here.
It’s not hard to get a tourist visa to the UAE, so that’s what Luke and Sarah did.
Landing in the UAE
You can fly from Kabul to Dubai in three hours, but the two Muslim countries feel like they’re from completely different planets. Afghanistan is seriously Muslim and seriously poor—its history is full of conflict and disarray. The UAE, on the other hand, is modern, progressive, and fabulously wealthy. In downtown Dubai, you won’t see a piece of litter, a weed in the imported flower beds, or a pothole on the streets. The malls and beaches are huge, clean, and packed with people.
The vast majority of Emirati wealth comes from oil, but the economy is also expanding into tourism and international finance—both of which work better if you aren’t Islamic fundamentalists. For example, in December, the government suddenly announced that the Friday-Saturday weekend, built around the Muslim holy day of Friday, would be switching to a Saturday-Sunday weekend to match the West (with a half-day off on Friday for anyone who wants to go to afternoon prayers).
The UAE has always been relaxed about religious freedom for foreigners. That’s why, back in 1972, missionaries and Christian oil men were able to start the United Christian Church of Dubai. The evangelical church has grown to about 600 Christians who hail from all over the globe. About 15 years ago, they called a pastor named John Folmar, who had come to faith at Capitol Hill Baptist Church and been discipled by pastor Mark Dever.
Through the missionary connection from years before, John met Luke.
“Over time, we came to recognize this guy needs to be in our pastoral internship,” John told me. I was sitting in his office, listening to him and associate pastor John Welkner, who oversees the pastoral internship program. Shortly after Luke landed in the UAE, he did start the program. It took a while, though, before the leaders realized what else Luke was doing.
“Only slowly did we come to realize that Luke was orchestrating a parallel ministry, back in Afghanistan,” Folmar said. “He would tell us about phone calls he was having or decisions he had to make. And yeah, we slowly came to realize that he was orchestrating dozens of relationships and house church leaders. These were guys he had been in partnership with in Afghanistan, before he’d had to leave.”
Most interns don’t come with an already established network of house churches. But Luke’s a natural leader. In fact, John compared Luke’s unofficial influence in the Afghan church to that of a bishop. And now, Luke was being exposed to Reformed theology for the first time.
“I was exposed to the expository preaching, the healthy churches, the materials, the resources,” Luke said. “And I was like, This is what we need. This is what we really need for Afghanistan. Because at this point, I have a different experience of church. . . . My perspective comes [from] more of a missionary perspective . . . but not really like how the [established] church [should] look like.”
Luke loved everything he was learning. In February 2015—only weeks after he started at UCCD—the interns attended a Simeon Trust workshop, which aims to teach participants to rightly handle God’s word. Luke could hardly wrap his mind around what he was learning about expositional preaching—that the text, not topics, drive the sermons. And that the Old Testament stories point to Christ.
He emailed several Christian friends in Afghanistan—Rahmat and Ramazan and three others—and said, ‘Guys, can you get to India for a few days?’ Then he translated the Simeon Trust questions into his language, Dari. He flew to India and held his own workshop. The guys went through Ephesians and practiced expository preaching to each other.
The rest of his internship, Luke kept feeding what he was learning back to his Afghan network. Afterward, he began working with a UCCD church plant about an hour north of Dubai, in the emirate of Ras al Khaimah. There, he and pastor Josh Manley started hosting Afghan pastors—some, like Rahmat, for a week of intense Bible training and some, like Ramazan, for a nine-month internship.
“Those were really sweet times,” Josh said. “And you knew that you were kind of with people that would be in a first-generation house church in a very tough country.”
Josh and Jenny
I want to take a minute to tell you about Josh and his wife Jenny, because they play a critical role in this unfolding story. Both were born in Mississippi, and both grew up loving politics. They met their first day working in the U.S. Senate in 2001, and they spent the next 10 years working their way up—Jenny to chief of staff for Mississippi senator Thad Cochran, and Josh to a staff position on the Appropriations Committee.
“We loved our years in the Senate—wouldn’t trade them for anything,” Josh said. “But the church was far and away the most formative thing the Lord was doing in our lives spiritually.”
The church was Capitol Hill Baptist, pastored by Mark Dever—the same pastor who discipled John Folmar—then a Washington attorney—and showed him the beauty of ministry. Seven years later, Josh and Jenny followed John’s trajectory: Washington, D.C., to seminary to the UAE.
Josh’s church plant was two years old when Luke showed up and started flying in interns.
Afghan House Church Network
“I was certainly struck by their hunger to learn—yeah, just a hunger to know the Word, to understand different parts of it,” Josh said. “And a commitment to do it—these were, honestly, they would be six-hour days, seven-hour days.”
Josh and John taught the men biblical and systematic theology. Section by section, they went through the Bible—the Torah, historical books, wisdom literature, prophets, Gospels, letters.
The group wasn’t huge—around 15 or 20 guys on each trip. They called themselves the Afghan House Church Network, and they got right to work. They translated the 900 pages of Wayne Grudem’s Bible Doctrine, Paul Washer’s three-book series on recovering the gospel, and every book Greg Gilbert has ever written. They started a website and have posted about 200 translated articles. They created Bible reading plans for YouVersion. They started a podcast, answering questions like What is the Bible? What is the church? What is baptism?
These were bold moves, given that everybody but Luke still lived in a country where converting to Christianity meant punishment by confiscation of property, imprisonment, or death.
And then the guys started talking about taking an even more obvious stand for Christ.
On every Afghan identity card is a line for religion: Islam or other. The card is electronic, so when it gets scanned, more information about you pops up. That’s where it shows what Other means for you—if you’re Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, or Christian.
A few years ago, the Afghan House Church Network started talking about changing their IDs.
“So a number of people gathered, and they prayed about it,” Luke said. “And they thought, We want to honor God, and we want this for our kids, because in the future for their marriage, for their education, everything.”
By summer 2021, after years of thinking and praying, Rahmat and Ramazan and some others were ready to make the change. But on top of the normal consequences for conversion—they knew what had happened to Luke—there was now an added complication. In April, President Biden announced he’d be pulling out the last of the American troops.
“We know that this is going to come, we know the Taliban are going to come,” Luke said. “It’s getting tense. We might lose some provinces. But nobody thought that Kabul would fall that fast.”
In their Zoom meetings that summer, Luke talked with the Afghan Christian leaders about getting them out of Afghanistan—they knew that even if the Taliban didn’t take over, the government would be harsher without the NATO presence. They figured they could get some of the more prominent guys into the UAE for internships, and after that they could take stock of their next move.
Then they talked about the decision to change their IDs.
“Are you guys sure that this is really what you want to do?” Luke asked them.
“We have no problem with it,” they told him.
It seemed like they were looking at a closing window. If they moved before the Americans left, there was a better chance they could safely change their IDs. If they waited, they might not ever get another shot to do it.
Rahmat and Ramazan went first, along with their wives and children. They had no problems. You sure you wanna do this? the officials asked. Yes? Okay then.
“It is a strange mystery, a providence of God that that happened,” Josh said. “Was it because the government was distracted and didn’t care? . . . But yes, that officially happened.”
Emboldened, other Christians got in line. Around 120 people safely changed their IDs; 40 more were in the pipeline. It felt like a miracle; everyone was elated at how smoothly things were going.
There weren’t a lot of NATO troops left in Afghanistan in early 2021—less than 10,000. By the end of May, only American troops were left, and only 2,500 of them.
As the U.S. moved out, the Taliban began moving in, grabbing control of more and more rural areas. By the middle of June, U.S. intelligence had revised its estimates. It won’t take two years for the Taliban to take over after we leave. It might only take six months.
On August 6, three weeks before the deadline for American troop withdrawal, the first provincial capital fell to the Taliban.
“We turn on the TV from my hometown, it’s 3:00 or 3:30—all of a sudden the TV stops. There’s no broadcasting,” Luke said. “And I pulled the phone and I called my uncle and I said, ‘Is everything okay?’ He said, ‘No. Right now in our area, where our homes are, is under Taliban. And the fighting is a few streets over there.’ And you could hear shooting that’s going on. And the TV went off because [the] Taliban captured that area. So all the staff from the TV station, they flee.”
As soon as he hung up, Luke’s phone started to ring again. He could track the Taliban’s advance in phone calls: As the fighters moved through each area, believers there called him: What should we do? Where should we go?
He told them all the same thing: Run.
Running to Kabul
Almost everybody ran. Because Taliban soldiers are their own judge and executioner—there is no due process or human rights. If a Talib thinks you’ve sinned and kills you, there are no repercussions. Afghans knew this, and they ran.
“A lot of the people ran from the provinces,” Luke said. “They went to Kabul. We have to find houses for them, we have to send money for them. Western Union is not working. The bank doesn’t have enough money. ATMs are not working. . . . Hundreds of desperate families are fleeing to the next city to the next city to the next city, and trying to figure their way out. There is nothing. There is no way that you can live.”
Luke got busy arranging safe houses, calling to see who could host how many, and for how long. When someone panicked that their daughters were at work and not dressed to the Taliban dress code, Luke sent his uncle over with burkas. He texted all the church leaders: Get rid of your Bibles. Hide your books. Delete your materials.
As the provincial capitals fell—the first on August 6, the second on August 7, the third/fourth/fifth/and sixth on August 8, everybody was heading for Kabul. The U.S. troops were there. The seat of the government was there. It couldn’t fall—at least, not right away.
“Then the leaders understood that this is not something that’s coming [later],” Luke said. “At that point, the only way to get a visa option was to apply for a visa for Pakistan. And that would take about a month to get the visa because they have to wait that long on the embassy to get that. And it’s because there was no flight options. So we booked a flight for them for August 24.”
August 24 would be too late.
Fall of Kabul
Rahmat lives in Kabul. On August 15, he was sitting in his home office, around 10 o’clock in the morning, when a church member showed up. “Let’s go,” the visitor said. “The Taliban have arrived.”
“Are you kidding?” Rahmat asked. “I’m not,” the church member said. “Let’s move.”
Rahmat called Luke. The Taliban are here in Kabul, he said. That can’t be, Luke told him.
I can hear them shooting, Rahmat said. They are here right now.
Luke told him: Run.
Ramazan was also in Kabul. Leaders from his church came to his house. They helped him destroy his documents. They erased his flash drives. They deleted even his wedding photos—he’d married a beautiful Christian convert named Shamsia. He couldn’t bring himself to burn the books, so they put them out on the street, where people were looting. Who knows? Maybe somebody would take them home and read them.
A few hours later a Muslim relative came to Ramazan’s place, searching for him. We don’t know why, but we can’t assume it was to be helpful. Maybe it was to warn him, but it might have been to turn him in, or to loot his things, or to take away his wife and children.
But by that time, nobody was home. With passports, a laptop, and a change of clothes, Ramazan, Shamsia, and their children were gone.
‘Joe Biden’s Saigon’
Joe Biden wanted the American withdrawal to be done “responsibly, deliberately, and safely.” Instead, the world watched panicked Afghans swarming the tarmac of the Kabul airport and hanging off the fuselages of departing jets.
“Miscue After Miscue, US Exit Plan Unravels” The New York Times reported.
“Chaotic Afghanistan Pullout Caps Two Decades of Missteps,” The Wall Street Journal agreed.
The Atlantic called it “Joe Biden’s Saigon.”
There were undeniable parallels. As the Taliban rolled in, American commandos were breaking hard drives and burning papers. The U.S. knew it had to evacuate Afghans, especially those who had endangered themselves by working for the Americans. But the average wait time for an Afghan to get a special immigrant visa to America was four years.
On August 2, the Biden administration announced a priority refugee program, but it didn’t actually have staff, or a process. And anyway, all of the embassies in Kabul were shutting down, their staff heading for the airport. There was no way out.
In the end, the American government would leave close to 100 Americans, and at least 62,000 endangered Afghan interpreters and others, behind.
America’s military disaster wasn’t a secret. As it became clear the government was unprepared to handle evacuations, private rescue operations kicked into gear. Army veterans, nonprofit employees, defense contractors, regular people—anybody who knew anybody in Afghanistan, it seemed, was trying to help. The problem was, very few people actually know how to evacuate refugees from an unstable Islamic fundamentalist state.
In the UAE, Josh and Jenny were praying and watching the attempts to help. But they were seeing gaps—basic paperwork that hadn’t been filled out, boxes that hadn’t been checked. With their backgrounds, it seemed like they should be able to do something. So they made some phone calls.
One of those calls was to their friend Jess, who worked in D.C. As it happened, the next week she was headed their way, spending some vacation time with them in the UAE.
One night while she was there, Jenny and Jess drove over to Luke and Sarah’s place.
“And we’re like, we’re gonna all sit in a room together,” Jenny said. “We’re gonna call the people that we know, you’re gonna call people, and let’s just see what can happen. And we stayed up 24 hours—and called people in D.C., called people that work for the U.S. government who were at the airport—I mean, everybody we could. And Luke was calling. We were trying to connect all these people.”
It worked. Luke, Jess, and Jenny were able to connect 18 believers, some of them in Luke’s family, to U.S. troops. On August 28, the Afghans boarded an American military plane in Kabul. Luke, Jess, and Jenny tracked their flight radar the entire three hours to Doha, where they were taken to an American military base.
Okay, the UAE team thought, we can do this. Next up: Ramazan and Rahmat, who along with 20 other Christians were waiting outside the airport walls.
Kabul only has one airport, built by the Soviets back in 1960. Over the past 20 years, it has served as a military base for NATO, the Americans, and the Afghan National Forces, as well as a place to catch a commercial flight to, say, India or Turkey. When the Taliban entered Kabul on August 15, the Afghan National Forces immediately fled, handing the airport over to NATO.
Maybe you’ve seen the pictures or the videos. The place was a frantic mess. People were swarming all over the jet bridges, the planes, the runways. The perimeter was lined with troops, facing hundreds of people desperate to escape.
Two of those people were Rahmat and Ramazan.
“The group had gone to the airport,” Josh said. “They went twice. And the first time that they went in at the airport, they stayed there four days and nights—just living outside, trying to get in. . . . It was terrible conditions.”
Rahmat and Ramazan were sending their GPS coordinates to Luke every hour. Josh, Jenny, Jess, and Luke were working every angle they could think of. The situation at the airport was hellish—crowded and confusing, with no water, no food, no bathrooms, sporadic gunfire, and a suicide bomber. The kids—there were five younger than 5—got dehydrated.
“Obviously, that kind of stress and tension went on for the entire time that the U.S. was still in the country,” Josh said. “Until the last plane left, there was always a hope that they could get on another flight.”
It was Josh’s job to call Rahmat and Ramazan to tell them the last flight had left.
“I remember the night that we pulled out of Afghanistan completely, when the ambassador left, and calling them, and honestly just in tears, to tell them that we love them,” Josh said. “And honestly just saying how much we respect them and their faith and what amazing fathers and husbands [they are] and [the] ways they’ve led their children and their wives through this debacle. And then saying, ‘We’re not gonna quit, you know. We’re gonna try our best. Now we’ll figure out another way.’”
The Christians couldn’t go home—especially the leaders who had changed their identification—and so they went into hiding. They stayed with friends, in hotels, or in empty apartments. They moved often. The men grew beards and wrapped turbans on their heads. The women covered up. Everyone was grateful for COVID masks that hid their faces.
It was terrifying—in one hotel, the Christians noticed Taliban fighters in the lobby.
“And that was alarming,” Jenny said. “And then later, they said there was Taliban on their floor. And then they said, ‘They’re really all over this floor. This hotel is like a Taliban hotel, basically. They’re everywhere.’ . . . And I remember them saying, ‘We know we might not make it,’ and feeling the weight of that moment, of —is there really a possibility our friends might not live through the night? And this is the last time we’ll speak to them? And is this the last call they’ll have? And feeling the weight of that moment of what do you say to someone who thinks they might be martyred?”
Jenny remembers her prayer for them: Lord, if the Taliban come in and start shooting, please let them kill everyone. Please don’t let them kill the men and take the women for their brides.
Over the following days, Jess in the U.S., Josh, Jenny, and Luke in the UAE, and the guys in Afghanistan traded ideas over text: Is the border to Pakistan open? How about Uzbekistan? Is there any way to get a helicopter in?
They encouraged each other with song lyrics (“He Will Hold Me Fast,” “A Mighty Fortress,” “In Christ Alone”) and Bible verses (“We rejoice in our sufferings” Rom. 5:3, “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world” Eph. 1:4, “Some trust in chariots and horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” Ps. 20:7).
From the Christians in hiding, continually scared and bored and increasingly hopeless, the messages sometimes sounded discouraged: “We are all afraid—my daughter especially is afraid.” “All the doors are closed, all the ways are blocked.” “How long can we survive through escaping and hiding?” “Let’s give up.”
On text, Josh and Jenny and Jess said the same things over and over: “No matter what, you are safely in the hands of our good and sovereign God.” “So many people around the world have prayed for you today.” “We love you.”
Everybody’s nerves started fraying. Nobody was sleeping—the Afghans were terrified of a raid in the night. They were getting messages from those who knew they were Christians—some along the lines of “We are hunting you,” and others more like, “Watch out! The Taliban were here looking for you.”
Josh, Jenny, and Luke spent their daytime hours coordinating with Afghanistan and their nights coordinating with Washington, D.C.. At this point, they were tracking about 60 Christian Afghan families in safe houses. All of them needed food, clothing, and to be moved every few days. The whole thing was costing about $10,000 a day.
“The only hope is Jesus,” Ramazan texted. “Otherwise we’d lose our hope and our minds.”
Finding a Flight
Realistic avenues for leaving gradually emerged. Army veterans, nonprofits, defense contractors, and interested donors were pooling their resources, making deals with airlines and governments to operate chartered flights into Afghanistan.
Those flights were hard to get onto, but they were the best option. If you were on a flight, that meant you had a ticket, a passport, and somewhere to go. You were moving legally.
A quicker, more certain path out was by land: for $600, you could buy a fake visa and a gate pass and make your way over the border to a country like Iran, Pakistan, or Uzbekistan. That meant you’d be out of Afghanistan. However, without official documentation, you’d also be a refugee, with very limited options for your future, many of them dangerous.
The Afghan Christians were constantly weighing their choices—waiting for a legal route was better, but only if you didn’t get killed first.
“We had a solid option here and a solid option here, and we’d [get] 90 percent of the way, but then there was something holding you back,” Jenny said. “At one point we had a big whiteboard up that we were like, ‘All right, here’s our first-tier options and our second-tier options,’ and it was all going to different countries in different ways and some were crazy, and all because dear brothers and sisters in D.C. that jumped in and volunteered countless hours trying to help in every way they could.”
It took three weeks for Luke, Jess, Josh, and Jenny to find Rahmat, Ramazan, and the others a flight out. The whole time, the Christians were moving to new safe houses, changing phone numbers, and smiling at the Taliban in hopes that they looked happy to see them. There was never enough information, nutrition, or good rest. New developments were rarely good: someone was taking their picture or asking their name, there was gunfire outside, there were rumors that the Taliban was after anyone who spoke English. The Afghans worried more for their kids than for themselves—if they didn’t get out, what kind of future would they have? Already the kids were starting to get sick, and sometimes they had to spend a night in the hospital.
After a while, they heard rumors of flights taking off from Mazar-e Sharif. Figuring it was worth a shot, the group traveled by bus for 10 hours over broken roads, passing through 16 Taliban checkpoints. Once they arrived, there was good news and bad news: their 22 names were on the flight manifests, thanks to the folks in D.C. But each takeoff had to be negotiated with the Taliban.
The cycle went like this: We think the flights will go soon. Get ready.
Nope—no flights today. Stand by.
Finally, it was time. The Christians scooted past more Taliban checkpoints, perhaps because they were given handwritten tickets instead of having to scan into the biometric system.
They were boarding the plane when Ramazan sent a voice text:
“They have stopped Zahir and his family,” he said. “They said it’s a copy—his paper is a copy. His name is not on the list. I don’t know—what should we do? Right now they are going to check somehow. Please, can you pray about that? I don’t know what’s going on.”
Messages started flying back and forth: Who didn’t get on the plane? Zahir? He had a boarding pass, right? Did he make it through security? Was his name on the flight manifest?
There was nothing to do but pray.
Zahir was from the Mazar area and known for his faith—perhaps he looked familiar to the Taliban. In any case, during some confusion over the spelling of his name, an airline worker told him to run onto the plane. He did.
“Is Zahir on the plane?” Josh asked.
“Yes,” texted Rahmat.
“Hallelujah!” Josh sent back. He used seven exclamation points.
“Praise God—we love you so much!” Jess added.
“The plane is taking off now,” Rhamat wrote.
And then, a few hours later: “We just got to Doha.”
‘Every Second He Was With Us’
“All those moments? Every second he was with us,” Ramazan told me a few weeks later from an Army base in New Mexico.
“I was thinking about Matthew 14, when Jesus asked his disciples to go to the other side of the sea,” he said. “In the middle of the sea, there was a storm, there was darkness. There was fear. And they thought, We’re going to die. But Jesus was walking right in that time, right in that moment, in the middle of the darkness, in the middle of the difficulties. During these two months, I was thinking the same thing: Where’s God? But immediately I was thinking about that part of the Gospel of Matthew. God is here—focus on Jesus, not on difficulties.”
Josh and Jenny were elated at the happy ending. They invited Luke and Sarah over for a celebration. But the whole time, Luke’s phone was going off.
“He’s taking all these calls from these desperate believers in Afghanistan,” Jenny said. “And he’s taking calls from people from the West who have money that want to help fund it. And everybody’s coming to him, saying, ‘Help me,’ ‘Connect me.’”
So Jenny, who had always wondered why she’d spent that long season in D.C. before moving overseas for ministry, went back to her white board and excel spreadsheet and phone calls. So far, she and Luke have helped coordinate the escape of at least 40 Afghans to the U.S., 50 to Tajikistan, 80 so far to Brazil, 120 to the UAE, and 200 to Iran.
But there are still hundreds trapped in Afghanistan, including some who have changed their ID to Christian.
They are her highest priority.
Every year, Open Doors, which is a group that keeps an eye on Christian persecution around the globe, puts out a list of the hardest places to be a Christian. For the last 20 years, it has been North Korea. Honestly, I thought it always would be.
But this January, Afghanistan knocked North Korea out of first place—because now, in Afghanistan, Christians are enemies of the state. Not only can they be banned from shopping or medical care, but they can be killed without due process.
To those of us outside the country, it can seem as if God abandoned the country altogether. The Islamic fighters moved in with imprisonments, beatings, and killings. Women were shrouded and sent back home. Today, most girls can only attend school through sixth grade, and only a handful of women have been able to go to work. Women can’t take a long journey without a male relative or appear in public without being covered. Those who protest sometimes disappear.
The economy is also collapsing, after the removal of the foreign aid that was propping it up. The educated continue to flee the country, there are few jobs, and those who work for the government haven’t been paid yet. At the same time, there is a drought, and wheat and flour prices have skyrocketed 50 percent over the last six months. That means that on the heels of the economic crisis is a humanitarian one. Already children are dying of malnutrition. There are stories of families trading children for food.
Afghans who have protested the Taliban—even just suggesting on Facebook that the government should pay teachers or other civil servants—have been beaten, arrested, or killed. And remember that Taliban spokesman who claimed responsibility for the murder of the South African family? He’s now the deputy minister of information and culture.
The little flame of Christianity seems to be nearly extinguished. Luke estimates there were between 8,000 to 10,000 Christians in Afghanistan before August. It’s impossible to know how many are left, or how many will be left after a few years. Certainly fewer, and they’ll certainly have to be quieter than they were.
But don’t think for a minute that God isn’t at work.
Afghan House Church Network 2022
“Honestly, from the very beginning till now I could see his hand, his presence, his miracle with us,” Rahmat said. “I really believe, I really see: before I was born, God meant this day for us to be here. That’s why we are here.”
The Afghan House Church leaders are now scattered across a handful of countries. But they’re still connected, and they’re still busy writing and podcasting good theology, now with much more freedom. Luke built a 9Marks page in Dari. Shamsia did a Simeon Trust workshop in Nashville with Nancy Guthrie. Others are plugging in at local churches—already, Rahmat is teaching a class at his church in Dari for other Afghan refugees.
Some are even eyeing seminary. And suddenly, what seemed impossible a year ago—that any of these Afghan church leaders would ever be able to get more than a few months of training with Josh and John in the UAE—is not only possible, but probable.
These days, Rahmat and his family live in Louisville, where he is part of Immanuel Baptist Church. Ramazan lives around the corner. He goes to Third Avenue Baptist, where his pastor is Greg Gilbert. Ramazan has all of his books.
And there’s more.
God at Work
“Toward January we started seeing a lot of Afghans inside Afghanistan that are interested in the gospel, including many of my family members who call, who contact, who say, ‘How we find out?’” Luke said. “We just send them the link to read the Bible.”
Luke’s social media platforms are lighting up with messages, hundreds of them, from people in Afghanistan with spiritual questions: Where is God? Does God exist? Is he good or not?
“Looking back two or three months from January, I was very discouraged, very disappointed [because it seemed like] the church was gone,” Luke said. “No, it’s not gone. God is there. God’s presence is there. His Spirit is at work there. We don’t know how God will use this story for his kingdom, for his glory. But definitely our work is not done in Afghanistan.”
The work is not done in Louisville, either, or in Brazil, or in the UAE. In one sense, the Afghan church has just sent out hundreds of missionaries, all of whom came to faith in the most unlikely of circumstances, endured tremendous persecution, and watched God perform an amazing rescue.
“It’s a glorious story because these brothers and sisters held to their faith,” Josh said. “They were faithful. They were going to be faithful until the end. They’re willing to pay the highest cost, and the Lord rescued them. And it’s absolutely glorious. The Lord did what he has done many times over for his people and this story—obviously we’ll know the full ramifications of it in eternity, but it’s been such a privilege to see what the Lord’s done.”
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra is senior writer and faith-and-work editor for The Gospel Coalition. She is also the coauthor of Gospelbound: Living with Resolute Hope in an Anxious Age and editor of Social Sanity in an Insta World. Before that, she wrote for Christianity Today, homeschooled her children, freelanced for a local daily paper, and taught at Trinity Christian College. She earned a BA in English and communication from Dordt University and an MSJ from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She lives with her husband and two sons in the suburbs of Chicago, where they are active members of Orland Park Christian Reformed Church. You can reach her at [email protected]