Aid workers face death for spreading Christianity

Eight foreigners face the death sentence in Afghanistan after being accused of spreading Christianity.

Eight foreigners face the death sentence in Afghanistan after being accused of spreading Christianity.

Taliban rulers said today the offices of a foreign aid organisation will stay sealed and its workers will remain in jail until charges that they were propagating Christianity can by investigated.

The Kabul office of Shelter Now International was sealed yesterday following a raid by enforcement officers of the Taliban’s ministry for promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, witnesses said.

The officers reportedly seized a Bible, two computers, Christian literature translated into the local Dari language, as well as cassettes and musical instruments.

‘‘An investigation is being conducted and it will be decided according to Shariat (Islamic law),’’ said Salim Haqqani, of the Taliban’s ministry for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice.

The punishment for propagating any religion other than Islam or for converting from Islam to any religion is death in the 95% of Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban, who espouse a strict brand of Islamic law.

There was no indication of how long the investigation would take, but the Taliban say they already have confessions from some Afghans that the group was proselytising.

So far the Taliban have refused to allow anyone to visit those being held, including the organisation’s international staff, which include two American women, a German man and an Australian man.

The organisation is run by a German-based Christian relief agency called Vision for Asia.

The organisation previously had been run by a US based group of the same name, but the Germans took it over several years ago, after the Americans were threatened for allegedly proselytising in Afghan refugee camps.

The name of the relief group was never changed in Afghanistan, where it is still known as Shelter Now International.

Norman Leatherwood, executive director of American Shelter Now International said the two groups have maintained contact about the Afghanistan relief programme, but the two groups are not affiliated.

‘‘We’re still very concerned about those who have been detained and are following the situation,’’ Leatherwood said.

The Taliban accused Shelter Now of spreading Christianity, trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

In 1990 the US based Shelter Now International faced similar charges in refugee camps in Pakistan, where riots broke out by orthodox Islamists, who threatened to kill the group’s executive director at the time.

It was then that the organisation stopped its work with Afghan refugees and was taken over by the German-based Vision for Asia, which is a Christian missionary organisation, said Leatherwood.

The American Shelter Now International also is a Christian relief organisation, but Leatherwood said it does not proselytise in countries where it provides assistance.

The Taliban also arrested 64 Afghans whom they said had received instructions in Christianity from Shelter Now workers. The men have been sent to Islamic religious schools.

The men confessed to their ‘‘crimes and anti-Islamic activities,’’ according to Haqqani. The men have been sent to a ‘‘correction house,’’ he said, although it wasn’t clear what that would entail.

‘‘They have asked for forgiveness from the Taliban,’’ said Haqqani.

Shelter Now distributes humanitarian aid as well as builds makeshift shelters for impoverished Afghans.

The Taliban, have previously accused some international aid organisations, including Shelter Now, of trying to spread Christianity among Afghans.

The first Shelter Now employees arrested were two women who were picked up by the Taliban’s so-called religious police on Friday. They were arrested after they visited the home of an Afghan. The Taliban have prohibited foreigners from visiting the homes of Afghans.

In recent months, the United Nations has accused the Taliban of harassing foreign and local aid workers.

The Taliban deny the charge, but say foreigners living in Afghanistan have to abide by their rules.

The Taliban espouse a harsh brand of Islamic law that forbids most forms of light entertainment and requires the faithful to strictly adhere to the Islamic holy book, the Koran. Women are required to wear the all-encompassing burqa.

They are not allowed to mingle with men, work or attend school beyond the age of eight.

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