Aid workers arrested by Taliban face death

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The Independent Online

Foreign aid workers arrested by Taliban religious police in Kabul on Sunday face the death penalty for allegedly propagating Christianity.

All 24 detainees were working for the aid agency Shelter Now International. They include Afghans, four Germans, two Australians and two Americans. The Taliban, who control 95 per cent of Afghanistan and espouse a strict form of Islamic law, have accused them of using relief work as a cover for proselytizing.

"Their main goal was to divert Afghans from the noble religion of Islam and turn them to Christianity," said Mohammad Salim Haqqani, the Taliban deputy minister for promoting virtue and preventing vice.

He said the police had caught two American women in an Afghan home, trying to convert the family by showing Christian propaganda material on a laptop computer.

Police have picked up many Afghan children who are suspected of coming under the influence of Christianity. Mr Haqqani said: "We have put 59 Afghan children in a correction house to remove from their hearts and minds the Christian teachings and once that is done, they will be set free."

The fate of the adult detainees is likely to be a different matter. Mr Haqqani said they had confessed to their anti-Islamic deeds and begged forgiveness. "A decision under the framework of Islamic shariah [law] and on the basis of the orders of Amirul Mominin [the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar] will be taken soon," he said.

The Taliban have refused to allow anyone to visit the workers. Mr Haqqani said: "They have no message for their families or their government and are looked after well and have no problem ... We have given them three good meals and they are living in a nice room."

In Afghanistan, it is a capital offence to renounce Islam or to convert anyone else. The Taliban news agency, Bakhtar, said the authorities had found bibles in a house belonging to the organisation's Afghan staff. Police are also believed to have seized two computers, Christian literature translated into the local language, cassettes and musical instruments.

Shelter Now is an openly Christian aid agency with headquarters in Germany. Many of its 13 international staff in Afghanistan arrived in family groups. It is involved in food distribution, supplying clean water and helping street children and has been working in Afghan towns and cities and in refugee camps in Pakistan.

Norman Leatherwood, the executive director of American Shelter Now International, said: "We are very concerned about those who have been detained and are following the situation." He added that his organisation did not proselytize in countries where it provides assistance.

The agency, whose website claims its staff are "instruments of God's love", has previously been threatened in Afghanistan for allegedly proselytizing in refugee camps in Pakistan.

The Australian, American and German governments said they were investigating the reports that their nationals had been arrested.