An old hoax about Christian missionaries being sentenced to death in Afghanistan is spreading online again

Copyright AFP 2017-2020. All rights reserved.

A decade-old hoax urging people to pray for 22 Christian missionaries facing a death sentence in Afghanistan has re-emerged online, with numerous posts carrying the claim in Africa. One widely-shared recent post includes a photograph which probably shows an execution by Islamists in Iraq, not Afghanistan.

ATTENTION: This post includes images of graphic violence.

"Breaking News: Please pray for the 22 Christian missionaries who have been sentenced to death tomorrow afternoon by the Islamist in Afghans. Can you please pass on this news as fast as possible so that a lot of people can pray for them," reads one post, which has been shared more than 1,000 times since it was shared in a religious Facebook group on August 4. We’ve archived the post here.

Screenshot taken on August 20, 2019 of a Facebook post sharing the "missionaries" claim

 

This hoax has been in circulation since 2009 and, as reported by fact-checking site Snopes, it has also spread via emails and text messages. We’ve archived a couple more recent examples on Facebook here and here.

As reported by AFP, 23 South Korean missionaries were kidnapped in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2007. The captors killed two of the hostages, Presbyterian pastor Bae Hyung-Kyu and medical-services volunteer Shim Sung-Min, in the initial weeks of the standoff. The rest were released.

What’s the situation in Afghanistan?

Emal Haidary, one of AFP’s reporters in Kabul, confirmed that Christians are not allowed to spread their faith in Afghanistan.

“Christian missionary work is illegal in Afghanistan, because the basis of all the laws here is the Islamic Sharia, and Sharia does not allow Christian missionary work or apostasy (renunciation of the Muslim faith),” Haidary explained.

“But the fact is, there are some Christian missionaries secretly operating in some parts of the country, mostly under the name of charity organisations et cetera. There are also some Afghan missionaries in Kabul too. But they have to be extremely secretive, otherwise they will be in big trouble.”

Haidary told us that “in Taliban-controlled areas, the punishment for apostasy is death. But in government-controlled areas, the courts may show some leniency.”

The Taliban, a hardline Islamist movement, governed Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, handing out extreme punishments including public executions and chopping off the hands of thieves. 

They were ousted from power by a US-led military operation in 2001 and were initially written off as a spent force, but they have re-emerged to lead an insurgency against the new Western-backed government. The rival Islamic State jihadist group has also emerged as a force in Afghanistan since 2015.

There have been cases of the Taliban killing people accused of working as Christian missionaries, including the 2014 attack on a South African family living in Kabul. Friends said the family were strict Christians, but not missionaries. In 2010, the Taliban had claimed responsibility for killing eight medical aid workers, similarly claiming they were Christian missionaries.

There are no recent reports of missionaries being sentenced to death or executed in Afghanistan

The situation in Afghanistan remains deeply insecure, and as Haidary said, missionary work is illegal.

However, there are no recent reports of a mass death sentence being issued against missionaries in Afghanistan, or a mass execution of Christians.

The picture was probably taken in Iraq, not Afghanistan

As for the photo used in one of the widely-shared posts carrying the claim -- showing a blindfolded man about to be executed -- Haidary said that the clothing of another man, seen in white in the background, did not look Afghan.

“Arabs wear long white robes, Afghans don't. ISIS (Islamic State) fighters in Afghanistan are outfitted differently -- they mostly wear shalwar kamiz,” Haidary said, referring to traditional garments worn by men in some parts of South Asia.

“It looks like an old picture from somewhere in the Middle East," he concluded.

Haidary was right about that. A reverse image search allowed us to trace the photograph to news reports about the execution in May 2015 of three men in Iraq by the Islamic State group.

Reverse image searches on Google and Yandex led to this Daily Mail article, which reported that the photograph shows the execution of a man accused of spying for the government in Nineveh province, a northwestern area held at the time by IS.

The same photograph as published by the Iranian news outlet ABNA a day later.

Screenshot taken on August 20, 2019 of the ABNA website

 

We showed the photo to AFP’s fact-checking team in the Middle East, who said that several elements of the image indicated that it showed an IS execution in Iraq:

1. The text at the bottom of the photo locates it in Iraq. It says the photo was taken in “Nineveh State”. Nineveh is a province in northern Iraq.

2. The photo bears the hallmarks of IS propaganda. The yellow logo, seen partially in the bottom right-hand corner of the photo, has appeared in other IS propaganda. “Nineveh State” is also a term used by the IS group -- the Iraqi government does not refer to it as a state. The subtitle also identifies the image as showing an IS execution, reading: “Execution of the sharia judgment -- the Islamic State”.

The logo is circled in red below:

The logo, highlighted in red, is seen in other IS propaganda including execution videos
The logo is seen partially cropped in the misleading Facebook post

 

 

3. IS held this part of Iraq in 2015. When the photo first appeared online four years ago, IS was in control of a vast swathe of Iraqi land, including Nineveh. Iraqi forces took back control of the entire province in August 2017, but they periodically launch operations in the country's west and northwest border areas -- including Nineveh -- targeting IS “sleeper cells”.

4. The clothing matches that worn by other IS executioners. Other IS propaganda material has also featured executioners wearing a long, loose black shirt, black trousers and a head covering. They have also, like in the video screenshot seen above, used a sword for the execution.

All of these signs indicate that the photo shows an IS execution in Iraq, and not the killing of a Christian missionary in Afghanistan.

EDIT: This article was updated on August 22, 2019 to add an archive link in the third paragraph.
Mary Kulundu