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Afghanistan: Kabul Cancels Christian Group's Event, Expels Organizers

(file photo) (epa) Members of a South Korean Christian aid group that tried to organize a three-day "peace festival" in Afghanistan have been expelled after Islamic clerics accused them of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. The event, scheduled to start on August 5, was to include a medical conference and two soccer games at Kabul's Olympic Stadium between Korean players and Afghanistan's national team. It was being organized by the Institute of Asian Culture and Development (IACD) -- a Seoul-based Christian humanitarian-aid group that has run medical clinics in Afghanistan since January 2002.

PRAGUE, August 3, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Ali Askar Laly, an adviser for the Afghan Football Federation, told RFE/RL today that complaints from Muslim clerics about proselytizing by the aid group's members turned the "peace festival" into a contentious political issue for the Afghan government.

Charges Of Proselytizing

"According to the information we have received, they wanted to do propaganda for Christianity here," he said.

"If [Christian preaching and attempts at converting Muslims] is going on, for sure, the police of Mazar-e Sharif will arrest them and put them in jail according to the law."

"Members of the South Korean nongovernmental organization that was bringing the [Korean soccer] team here were expelled from Afghanistan today. For that reason, it was not possible for [the Korean players] to come [and play]."

Officials in Kabul say hundreds of South Korean Christians who arrived for the peace festival were warned not to "preach religion." But the officials say some group members ignored the warnings and were seen trying to convert Muslims -- a serious crime in the Islamic republic.

Kang Sung Han is Central Asia director for the Institute of Asian Culture and Development. He tells RFE/RL that the allegations about evangelistic activities by his group are untrue.

"No," he said. "Not at all. That is wrong information. We have no programs on religious activity nor any Christian rally. No. Not at all. All programs are for medical education and sports. No religious activities. Not at all. That is all wrong rumors. The IACD is shocked by these rumors. So we are very sad. And we regret these rumors."

Kang says the Institute of Asian Culture is aware of Afghanistan's religious sensitivities and Islamic traditions because the group has been running a medical clinic in the northern Afghan town of Sherbergan since January 2002.

A Peaceful Festival?

He told RFE/RL that the idea for the festival was to give ordinary Koreans and Afghans a chance to interact with each other peacefully.

"We have been working in Afghanistan for the past five years," he said. "The IACD has known well about Afghanis and Islamic culture. We [just wanted to] make a sports project, a medical project, and a medical conference. We were to have our own meeting in a gymnasium on contributions to a brighter future for Afghanistan -- because we were bringing a list of 400 men from the United States and from Korea. They want to be involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan."

Afghan officials say some 1,500 group members have entered Afghanistan on tourist visas in recent weeks. They arrived despite warnings from South Korea's Foreign Ministry and Seoul's embassy in Kabul that their presence could be seen as a provocation by conservative Islamists.

Scores of group members who have arrived at Kabul Airport since August 2 have been refused entry visas and turned back by customs officials. Afghan authorities say all group members will be expelled from Afghanistan "as soon as possible" because their safety cannot be guaranteed.

The Afghan Foreign Ministry has confirmed that it gave tourist visas to several hundred South Koreans who said they wanted to spread peace and help with reconstruction.

Foreign Ministry adviser Daud Muradian says group leaders had promised not to preach religion or try to convert anyone.

Clerics Complain

But on August 2, Muslim clerics in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif demonstrated in the streets to call for the expulsions. Among them was cleric Said Hashemi. He explains to RFE/RL the allegations against the Seoul-based group.

"Some Korean students who are Christians came as tourists to Afghanistan," he said. "Some came to Mazar-e Sharif -- and in addition to their tourist activities, they've been spreading Christian propaganda both secretly and overtly.

Some time ago, in the presence of the religious adviser of the Afghan president, there were discussions in which provincial officials presented evidence about Christians spreading propaganda through documents and compact discs. They were seen doing this in one of the districts [of Balkh Province]."

But Sher Jan Durani, a spokesman for the chief of the Afghan National Police in Balkh Province, tells RFE/RL that authorities in the northern province have no evidence that IACD members have tried to convert Muslims to Christianity.

"There has been nothing in Mazar-e Sharif like [what the clerics] have described," he said. "If [Christian preaching and attempts at converting Muslims] is going on, for sure, the police of Mazar-e Sharif will arrest them and put them in jail according to the law."

Religion is a sensitive matter in Afghanistan's strictly Islamic society. In February, thousands of Afghan demonstrators took to the streets to demand the death penalty for an Afghan man who had converted to Christianity. The man, Abdur Rahman, was released from prison and sent to Italy under international pressure.

Recent protests about the desecration of the Koran and Western newspaper cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad also have turned violent on the streets of Afghanistan.

(Freshta Jalalazai of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to the this story.)