Foreign aid workers wait in Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

Diplomats and the United Nations lobbied Wednesday for the release of imprisoned foreign aid workers, whom the ruling Taliban is investigating for allegedly preaching Christianity in this Muslim nation.

According to the Taliban–run Bakhtar News Agency, officials from the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Pakistan, the German and Australian Embassies will arrive in Kabul on Thursday to press for the release of the Shelter Now International staff.

The aid workers, who have been in prison since last Sunday, included two Americans, four Germans and two Australians. Also imprisoned were 16 Afghani staff.

Shelter Now International is part of a Germany–based Christian humanitarian group called Vision for Asia.

The Taliban, who espouse a strict brand of Islamic law, have forbidden proselytizing – a crime punishable by death.

Few people expect the Taliban to put the Westerners to death, however, and aid workers at other organizations in the Afghan capital say it is likely they will be expelled.

It was less clear how the Taliban will rule on the 16 Afghanis, who were being held in a separate, undisclosed location.

The Taliban have shown some of the material confiscated from the Shelter Now International office which included films on Christianity in the local Dari language, copies of the Bible translated into Dari and information about Dari–language Christian radio programs.

On Tuesday, U.N. regional coordinator in Kabul, Elaine Duthoit, met with Taliban officials to push for a quick resolution. She said Taliban officials told her a review of the aid workers' case is expected to be concluded within a few days.

"Assurances were, however, received about their well being," said Duthoit.

The International Red Cross has asked the Taliban to allow them to visit the prison.

Salim Haqqani, an official in the Taliban's ministry for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, said the detained aid workers are well–fed and in good health.

Foreign aid workers in the beleaguered capital say that the Taliban have issued several orders this year, including strict rules against proselytizing.

"We want that humanitarian organizations should work here, but they should work here honestly," Haqqani said. "They should give our religion dignity and not show disrespect by teaching against it."

The Taliban also have arrested 64 boys who received assistance from Shelter Now and who were engaged in aid work. They were being re–educated and would be released, Taliban officials said.

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