The claim: 'Afghan Islamists' have sentenced 229 Christian missionaries to death
A decade-old old hoax about the death of Christian missionaries is spreading on social media platforms and messaging apps in the wake of the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan.
"Please pray for the 229 Christian missionaries, who have been sentenced to death tomorrow afternoon by the Afghan Islamists," reads text in a screenshot of a Facebook message, shared in an Aug. 17 post from a page called In God We Trust.
The message claims the missionaries were sentenced to death after "the radical Islamic group" took over Qaraqosh, a city "where there are hundreds of Christian men, women and children who are being beheaded."
"Pass the message to whoever you can," the post says.
More than 1,600 Facebook users shared the post in less than a day. Similar posts have accumulated tens of thousands of interactions, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool.
Since the Taliban's arrival in Kabul and the collapse of the Afghan government, the Islamic fundamentalist group has tried to portray itself as more moderate than when it ruled the country in the 1990s. Still, many fear the new Taliban-controlled government will again infringe upon human rights, particularly the rights of women and religious minorities.
However, there is no evidence to support the claim in the Facebook post.
The rumor is a chain message that has circulated online for more than a decade, according to independent fact-checking organizations. Although proselytizing is illegal in Afghanistan, there have been no recent reports of Taliban fighters executing Christian missionaries. And the city mentioned in the message is in Iraq, not Afghanistan.
The poster offered no specific evidence in response to a USA TODAY query.
"I don't think it (is) possible for anyone to provide evidence as to what really is happening in Afghanistan, minute by minute," In God We Trust told USA TODAY in a Facebook message. "At this point, everything is 'word of mouth.'"
Message stems from years-old, debunked rumor
The chain message shared in the Facebook post is a persistent online rumor dating back to at least 2009.
That's when Snopes first debunked a claim that 22 Christian missionaries were set to be executed in Afghanistan. As Snopes reported at the time, the chain message appeared to misconstrue the 2007 kidnapping of 23 South Korean missionaries in Afghanistan. The Taliban killed two of them and released the rest.
Since then, the rumor has spread around the world.
In 2017, ACI Prensa, a Catholic news source in Peru, debunked a similar version of the chain message circulating in Spanish on WhatsApp, a private messaging platform. The message mentioned 229 missionaries being sentenced to death.
There is no evidence to support the primary claim in the chain message.
USA TODAY could find no recent reports of Christian missionaries being sentenced to death in Afghanistan. Qaraqosh, the city mentioned in the Facebook posts, is located in northern Iraq, not Afghanistan. The Islamic State captured the city in 2014.
There is a small Christian minority in Afghanistan that practices its faith in secret, according to an April report from Norway's Country of Origin Information Centre. Converting others to Christianity was illegal prior to the Taliban's takeover.
"Conversion is punishable by death unless the convert expresses remorse," the report reads. "There is little evidence from case law; only one case has been brought before Afghan courts after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001."
The new Taliban regime could be more aggressive in its persecution of Christians.
When the Taliban last came to power in the mid-1990s, Supreme Leader Mullah Omar ordered churches razed and Christians killed or imprisoned. After the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban claimed responsibility for a slew of killings targeting Christians and missionaries.
"The Hindu, Christian, Shia and Sikh populations of Afghanistan will suffer immensely," Khaled Beydoun, an associate law professor at Wayne State University who specializes in national security and the war on terror, said in an Aug. 15 tweet.
Our rating: False
Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that "Afghan Islamists" have sentenced 229 Christian missionaries to death. The rumor stems from a decade-old chain message that independent fact-checking organizations have repeatedly debunked. There is no evidence the Taliban has sentenced 229 Christian missionaries to death, although the group has killed Christians in the past.
Our fact-check sources:
NewsMeter, Aug. 18, Will Christian missionaries be sent to gallows in Afghanistan?
CrowdTangle, accessed Aug. 18
USA TODAY, Aug. 15, Many fear Taliban will again end Afghan human rights, support terrorism
Associated Press, Aug. 17, Taliban invites women to join government, announces 'amnesty.' Afghans are skeptical.
Religion News Service, Aug. 17, Christian family in Afghanistan appeals to pope to help them flee persecution
Snopes, Nov. 17, 2009, ’22 Christian Missionaries Sentenced to Death’ Prayer Request
Agence France-Presse, Aug. 22, 2019, An old hoax about Christian missionaries being sentenced to death in Afghanistan is spreading online again
Agence France-Presse, Sept. 2, 2007, Freed South Korean Hostages Apologize
ACI Prensa, April 8, 2017, Esta es la verdad de la cadena en Whatsapp sobre misioneros condenados a muerte
Google Maps, accessed Aug. 18
Verificador, Jan. 20, 2020, ES FALSO QUE ASESINARON A 229 MISIONEROS CRISTIANOS EN AFGANISTÁN
BBC, Aug. 7, 2014, Iraq Christians flee as Islamic State takes Qaraqosh
Norway's Country of Origin Information Centre, April 7, Afghanistan: The situation of Christian converts
Der Spiegel, March 30, 2006, A Community of Faith and Fear
In God We Trust, Aug. 18, Facebook exchange with USA TODAY
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: No evidence Taliban sentenced 229 Christians to death