Ali Ehsani is 38 years old and a lawyer by profession. After a very long and difficult journey, he arrived in Italy at the age of 13; he was all alone. He had fled Afghanistan after his Christian parents were killed for their faith. His only brother died along the way. In Afghanistan he had lived his faith in absolute secrecy.
As a child, he considered himself “normal” and no different from the rest of his friends, all of whom were growing up in Muslim families. But this was not the case. Even though he was not aware of it, Ali was a Christian. His parents never spoke openly about their religion because they were afraid that he would inadvertently betray them. He remembers how his mother always set a spare place at the table at home in case someone in need came by asking for something to eat.
Raquel Martín of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) interviewed this Christian Afghan, whose life has been shaped by the aspiration to follow Christ and being persecuted for it.
How did you discover that your family was Christian?
When I was 8 years old, I went to school and my classmates asked me why my father did not go to the mosque to pray. I went home and asked my father and he said, “Who said that?” My father impressed upon me that I was to tell no one that we were Christians. My father explained that Christians went to church. However, he left it at that because he was afraid that I would go out and talk about our faith and people would find out about us.
What happened then?
People eventually discovered that we were Christians. One day I came home from school to find that the Taliban had destroyed our home and killed my parents. My brother and I were forced to flee Afghanistan. He was 16 years old and I was 8. The journey took five years. I described our odyssey in my book Tonight we look at the stars. It was a harrowing trip that took us through Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Greece, until we reached Italy. My brother died along the way.
Together with his brother, he took a boat to reach the coast of Greece. His brother Mohammed did not make it. Ali saved himself by grabbing hold of a petrol canister. At that moment, he told ACN, he thought, “If Jesus exists, He will save me from drowning.” He was all alone at the age 11. By the time he arrived in Italy, he knew exactly what he wanted to do: he was going to study law so that he could defend the weak and help those who had suffered as much as he had himself.
He has never forgotten his Afghan roots. He contacted a Christian family who were secretly living their religion in his homeland and supported them in their faith.
How did they live their faith in secret?
I got to know this family through a friend and we often spoke with one another. I sent them videos of Holy Mass or live streamed the services for them on my mobile phone. It was complicated for them because they had never attended Mass. However, when they saw the videos, they were so deeply touched that they wept … even though they did not understand what was being said because of the language barrier.
But they were discovered by the Taliban…
While watching one of the broadcasts of Holy Mass, they had turned up the television so that the entire family would be able to hear it. Through this, a neighbour discovered that they were Christians and betrayed them.
What happened to them?
The father was arrested and that was the last they ever heard of him. The family was forced to flee and hid away in a kind of bunker, paying a guard to protect them. Thanks to the Italian and Vatican authorities, we were able to get them out of the country. They are now living in Italy.
What did the family do during their first days in freedom?
The first time they were able to attend Mass, they were so overcome that they could only cry. It was deeply moving to have the freedom to openly acknowledge their faith. And they said, “After having lived in the dark for so many years as secret Christians, it is like being reborn.”
When the family fled for their lives, they took nothing with them. One of the sons was wearing a shirt tailored in the typical Afghan style that he did not take off for days until he arrived in Italy. This shirt was given to Pope Francis as a gift by a journalist who accompanied him on the flight from Hungary to Slovakia.
There are no traces of pain on Ali’s face and he is smiling. As he did not know whether his parents had baptized him in his native country, he decided to receive the sacrament at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. At the end of the interview, he asked ACN for prayers for world peace.
For more information about the situation of Christians in Afghanistan, see the Religious Freedom Report: https://acninternational.org/religiousfreedomreport/reports/af/