Relatives of Jailed Afghans Appeal for Help

International aid workers arrested by Taliban

AP, August 7, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - International aid workers kept a low profile Tuesday, as the hardline Islamic Taliban investigated charges that eight jailed foreigners propagated Christianity, a crime punishable by death in Afghanistan.

In the war-ruined capital, Kabul, aid workers said they fear their jobs, often difficult and dangerous as it is, could become even more so if the workers with the Christian-based Shelter Now International are found guilty of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

The organization's office was sealed and 24 of its workers - including two U.S. citizens, four Germans and two Australians - were arrested last weekend for allegedly showing films on Christianity and distributing religious cassettes to Afghans in an attempt to convert them from Islam.

The Taliban, who espouse a harsh brand of Islam and control about 95 per cent of the country, say two of the foreign aid workers confessed to showing films about their Christian beliefs to Afghan Muslims.

The Taliban also say they confiscated religious material, including cassettes and books, from the office of Shelter Now International, which is run by the German-based Vision for Asia.

The U.S., German and Australian Embassies in neighbouring Pakistan said they were trying to negotiate the release of their nationals. The U.S. Embassy was expected to send a representative to Kabul to talk directly with the Taliban authorities.

"There is very limited information about the reported arrest of the two Americans," said John Kincannon of the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan.

No one has been allowed to see the arrested workers.

A Taliban official had earlier said that the two U.S. citizens being held were Dana Curry and Nicole Barnardhollon. Their home towns were not immediately available.

In Kabul, other foreign aid workers say they fear all international groups, with the exception of Islamic relief organizations, will be branded proselytizers by Afghans.

"I was very concerned when I got the news," said Thierry Bonnion, head of mission for Medecins sans Frontieres. "I was worried that people would think that all expatriates are proselytizing and engaging in those activities."

The French health organization operates clinics and health-related aid programs throughout the country.

"I think all international aid organizations are concerned," added Tim Mindling, an American and health co-ordinator of International Assistance Mission in Kabul. "It has put us all in the spotlight."

The organization runs eye hospitals in several Afghan cities and employs more than 50 international staff.

In a country ravaged by two decades of war and four years of drought, foreign aid is widely seen as keeping tens of thousands of Afghans alive.

In Kabul, nearly two-thirds of the one million people living here are dependent on international assistance for their survival. The United Nations calls Afghanistan one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

The Taliban say their orders against proselytizing are clear.

In early July, the Taliban sent every international aid organization a letter laying down the dos and don'ts of operating in Afghanistan.

All organizations were told to sign. The letter forbade obscenity, drinking, loud music, proselytizing, eating of pork and distribution of material defaming the Taliban government. It also ordered foreign women not to drive vehicles.

The Taliban's ministry for the protection of virtue and prevention of vice was unrepentant Tuesday for the arrests.

"Other countries are upset about the arrest, but what about us and our religion?" said Salim Haqqani, of the Taliban's ministry for the protection of virtue and prevention of vice. "They (Shelter Now International workers) have shown disrespect for our religion."

Relatives of Jailed Afghans Appeal for Help

AP, August 7, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - While Western diplomats appeal daily on behalf of eight foreign aid workers arrested for preaching Christianity, the families of Afghans of the same group hear nothing of their jailed relatives and fear the worst.

Armed members of the radical Islamic Taliban militia, meanwhile, closed the offices of two more Christian aid organizations Friday, making no arrests but ordering some 50 mostly American expatriate employees to leave Afghanistan within 72 hours.

The Taliban have allowed International Red Cross officials and Western diplomats to meet the eight foreigners - two American, four German and two Australians - arrested in early August when their German-based Christian organization, Shelter Now International, was shut down.

But access to the imprisoned Afghan workers, who could face death if found guilty of proselytizing or converting to Christianity in this deeply Muslim nation, has been denied.

Twelve-year-old Amjad says he has seen his father only once since the Taliban arrested him outside of the Shelter Now office in Kabul. Amjad says he is too afraid to give his father's name for fear of angering the ruling militia.

"We are so afraid. We don't know what will happen to him. We don't even know if he is OK. My mother cries all the time,'' said Amjad, who works 12 hours a day as an apprentice mechanic in Kabul. ``We want the world to ask about our families."

The Taliban, who control about 95 percent of Afghanistan, initially said 16 Afghan workers with Shelter Now were arrested. Since then other laborers for the organization - such as gardeners, cooks and carpenters - also have been jailed.

"Everyone is talking about the foreigners, but no one is talking about the Afghans, about my brother," said Mohammed Hakim, whose brother worked as a gardener for the organization. "What about us? We are afraid."

The Taliban announced Wednesday that the eight foreign aid workers would be put on trial for preaching Christianity. For foreigners, conviction carries a penalty of jail and expulsion. A senior Taliban official told The Associated Press they will likely be released.

But for the Afghan employees of Shelter Now International the prospects for leniency are grim. The same official said they will get either life in prison or the death penalty. There is a fear among the foreign community here that the jailed Afghans may be made an example of for other Afghans.

The Taliban authorities believe some of the Afghan staff of Shelter Now International converted to Christianity and if not, taught Christian stories to Afghan students attending the organization's schools.

In raids of Shelter Now International offices in Kabul this month the Taliban say they found compact discs promoting Christianity in the local languages, as well as boxes of Bibles and other Christian material translated into Afghanistan's local languages.

The two American women, Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, were arrested on Aug.3 at the home of an Afghan family, strictly forbidden under Taliban law. The Taliban say the women were teaching the family about the second coming of Jesus Christ.

"Maybe we had suspicions before about Shelter Now that they were preaching Christianity, but now we have proof," Mullah Mohammed Khaqzar, deputy interior minister, told The Associated Press.

The closures of two more Christian aid organizations - U.S.-based International Assistance Mission and SERVE - on Friday came as little surprise.

Earlier, the Taliban warned that their investigation into alleged proselytizing by Shelter Now had been expanded to include at least three other foreign aid groups. It's not known what evidence the Taliban against the two other organizations.

Armed Taliban members on Friday took over the offices of IAM, which employs about 50 mostly American expatriate workers and runs two eye hospitals and several clinics.

The group came to Afghanistan in 1965 and according to other aid workers has assistance programs throughout the country, including food and home reconstruction projects.

The Taliban also closed SERVE, an international Christian aid organization that provides solar-heated appliances, like ovens. It also runs projects related to shelter and health and employs only one foreign worker in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan more than 20,000 Afghans work for international aid organizations, many in the countryside. In poor Afghanistan, where the average monthly income is barely $4, employment with an international organization is a coveted position.

Privately, international aid workers fear the expulsions, arrests and closure of Western humanitarian aid groups may be an attempt to push international aid groups out of the country or at least reduce their numbers.

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