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Afghanistan: Arrested Aid Workers Could Face Death Penalty For Proselytizing

  • Bruce Pannier

Twenty-four employees of a foreign aid organization in Afghanistan were arrested over the weekend for allegedly trying to convert Afghan Muslims in Taliban-controlled territory to Christianity. The Taliban has a strict prohibition against such activity and has already said the 24 will be tried under Shari'a, or Islamic, law. While many outside Afghanistan regard the missionary actions of these people to be of little harm, RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that under the Taliban's interpretation of Islam the deeds could merit the death penalty.

Prague, 8 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Officials of Afghanistan's Taliban militia are holding in custody 24 employees of the German-based organization Shelter Now International. The Taliban says the 16 Afghans as well as four Germans, two Americans, and two Australians broke the law by distributing bibles and attempting to teach Christianity to Muslims.

Such activities, under the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islamic law, can be punishable by death.

Abdulwakil is the deputy chief of the Taliban's Bakhtar information agency. He says all foreigners working in the country, including the ones now being held, know the rules, including the strict prohibitions against proselytizing.

"All those foreigners who work in Afghanistan for the Afghan people are registered by the Foreign Ministry and they are told the rules of behavior (in Afghanistan). And only after this are they allowed to start their work."

The Taliban, which rules more than 90 percent of the country's territory, has a long and growing list of prohibitions. This list is circulated widely among foreign organizations and their employees.

One of the most important rules is that no Muslim should convert from Islam and no person should try to convert a Muslim from his or her religion.

The Taliban claims that workers from Shelter Now International were doing just that: preaching the word of the Christian bible and seeking converts among Afghanistan's Muslims.

To support the claim, Mohammad Salim Haqqani, the Taliban's deputy minister for promoting virtue and preventing vice, this week showed journalists bibles printed in English and Dari, Christian videotapes, and schedules of Christian radio broadcasts.

Abdulwakil says the Afghans in detention are already considered to be what he calls "murtad," meaning they have converted and, in doing so, have betrayed their faith.

"Muslims who convert to other religions become 'murtad.' Murtad is punishable by death. Regarding the foreigners, that decision will be made by the country's judiciary organs."

Germany, Australia, and the United States are now assembling a diplomatic mission to go to Afghanistan to win release of their citizens. All 24 are currently being held in a school house.

Abdulwakil said through a translator that the conditions of the detention are good:

"They [the workers] have no difficulties. Food is being distributed to them and all their needs are being seen to and they have no difficulties. Their condition is good."

It's not clear what the immediate future holds for the aid workers.

Abdulwakil says a final decision on their fate will be made soon. But only three countries (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, and previous attempts to exert international pressure have not often succeeded.

(Farangiz Najibullah of the Tajik Service contributed to this report)

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